Who here loves food? Raise your hands. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got both paws raised to the roof right now. If there’s one way to my heart, it is absolutely, without a doubt, through food. Whether it’s a meal home cooked with love, take-out from the local pad thai place or dining in at a nice restaurant for a wholesome meal spiced with good conversation, I’m down.
There’s just something about taking a bite of something that makes your heart and stomach soar to the heavens. One moment you’re sitting in an overcrowded, overpriced and slightly overrated restaurant, the next you’ve been transported by that little bite of tres leches cake. The noise and clutter of the tacky restaurant fade away. Suddenly, angels are singing and you’ve been transported to the pearly gates themselves.
Mildly embarrassing disclosure: Does anyone else have a happy food dance they do whenever they taste really good food? If you’ve never tasted truly delicious food and have no clue what I’m talking about, it’s this simple little swaying back and forth dance mixed with a slight shoulder shuffle. Just imagine a variation of Kevin James’ “make the pizza” move from Hitch. It’s about like that.
Living in India has been a gastronomical adventure, to say the least. I’ve eaten some really amazing things, and I’ve eaten some not so amazing things that I regretted almost immediately. India is a huge country. It’s home to 29 official states and 7 union territories, and each of these have their own distinct style of cuisine that they’re known for. Just as the different regions of France or Italy are known for their specialties, so is India. Within the states and territories, the food styles can even be broken down further into regional specialties. Basically, there are thousands of amazing dishes to try that are unique to each region on this subcontinent.
The infamous fish and deep fried bananas of Kerala were the very first dishes I tried after landing in India. According to local sources, the pork of Chikmagalur is incredible (I can confirm this). Certain regions are known for their incredible, locally grown coffee (Coorg and Chikmagalur), while certain cities are known for their street food. In a country so vast, the local specialties of each region are endless. Most settle with dividing the country into two gastronomical regions, North and South India.
The north and south share a few key differences. These differences are found in the carbs they use (Rice in the south, flour in the north), the oil used (Coconut and soybean oil in the south while the north relies on mustard, soybean and peanut oil), and in the methods of cooking. Generally, the southern states roast or temper a lot of their spices in coconut oil and serve thinner (typically vegetarian) gravies and curries while the North will dry grind their spices prior to cooking and serve thicker, meat-based curries with breads.
South India has a heavy reliance on rice as as staple part of their diet. It’s used as a main carb in meals, for flour in various foods such as dosa, idli and appam, and even tempered in different ways to make curd, tamarind and lemon rice. While North India relies much more on wheat for their cooking needs, they still use rice for many things (just in smaller quantities. That being said, rice dishes such as Biryani are still a crowd favorite.
This is basically a quick survival guide to the differences in cuisine, but it’s absolutely not substantial. The only way to really know the difference is to taste the different dishes yourself and talk to the locals. But I’ve lived in Bengaluru for the past four months. It’s an incredibly westernized, urban city with food influences from all over the globe. Being the ‘pub city’ of India, Bengaluru is home to some incredible beer and even more incredible food.
So, without further ado: I would like to introduce you to some of my favorite Indian dishes.
Holy wow, you haven’t lived until you’ve had this delicious breakfast. To describe it poorly, it’s like a deliciously crunchy, South Indian crepe made out of a fermented rice and lentil batter. If you order just a dosa, you’re going to get a rolled crepe looking thing about the size of your face, served lovingly with sambar and a coconut chutney for dipping. But if you order a masala dosa, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find a scoop of deliciously spiced potatoes in the middle. It’s really just finger licking good, and if it’s cooked right it serves as a super filling, but light, breakfast.
While we’re on the topic of dosa’s, we can’t miss the egg appam’s. Kind of like a dosa (a little bit thinner), this pancake-esque dish is made of fermented rice batter, coconut milk and is topped with an egg. You eat it just as you would a dosa – ripping off a piece with your right hand and eating it either by itself or by dipping it in a curry. I had the opportunity to try this with a deliciously spicy Mangalorean prawn ghee fry and I don’t think my stomach has ever been as happy as it was during this meal.
I could eat dal for days. Dal basically translates to a variety of split pulses that are used for cooking various dishes, and there are tons of types. One of the first I tried (and fell in love with) is a basic dal tadka served in most restaurants. It’s yellow, it’s savory and (at least in the tourist places we stopped at), was just the kind of bland I needed for a stomach that was still trying to adjust to everything spicy.
**According to a few of the girls I’ve been studying with, the dal makhani is the best thing they’ve tasted while living here. It a dal made of black lentils and hails from the north I believe. I haven’t tried it yet, but best believe that I plan to before I leave here in a few days!
Pair any type of dal (be it dal tadka, dal fry or dal makhani) with breads such as parotha or roti and you’re in for a heavenly meal. It’s hearty, it’s delicious, and you bet I’m making it when I go home.
Okay, this isn’t necessarily a dish, but damn it goes well with most any dish you order in Southern India. If you hadn’t guessed by the previous point, I’ve never been a huge fan of spicy foods. For some reason I decided to come to (supposedly) one of the regions with the hottest foods, but that’s another topic for another time. I also hated most onions before coming here. I thought they smelled bad, tasted bad and looked weird. A few short months later and I’m not only eating onion on the regular, I’m using lime soaked onion as a palette cleanser in between bites.
This one is basically like an onion ring, but oh so much better. To make these you coat slices of red onion in flower (the recipe I found recommends gram flour), a bunch of delicious spices and some water. They are then deep fried and come out as gleaming, golden rings of crispy deliciousness. Best eaten with ketchup (which is served with everything here) as a snack during high tea.
Vada pav is a delicious potato sandwich of sorts, and is essentially synonymous with the city of Mumbair. It looks a little like a burger with a potato ‘patty’, a bun of lightly sweet bread, green chilies and a generous helping of chutney. As always, this description doesn’t do it any good, but if you ever find yourself at a street vendor that is offering these, don’t even hesitate. They’re spicy and savory and a little sweet and absolutely scrumptious.
While we’re on the topic of street foods, this little pyramid shaped guy is a delicious snack at any time of day. Typically filled with a spiced potato mixture and deep fried, it’s also a vegan comfort food/snack. It’s also pretty incredible when filled with a lamb and potato mixture. You can find this little guy at most local canteen style restaurants. In Goa, this was my favorite breakfast to eat with my morning chai. It’s pretty heavy, but full of carbs to give you energy for your day.
There’s so many more things I would love to share with you, but this post is already long enough as is. Just as a few parting words though, gulab jamun. It’s the sh*t. So is the street corn. Who knew corn was such a popular dish in India? I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how delicious lime and chili on fresh corn is, and also by how easy it is to find everywhere you go. Oh, and the chai is dank. As is the coffee – Even after working as a barista for a year and a half, I still managed to find the best cup of black coffee at a random restaurant on the side of the highway heading to chikmagalur.
For any unseasoned travelers out there (much like myself), always try the food, no matter how strange it looks. Of course, take sanitation and food safety into account, and maybe try to avoid strictly tourist restaurants, but otherwise go for it. The worst that’ll happen is you have stomach cramps for a few hours (maybe a quick hospital trip in severe cases), and on the other hand, you may actually like it.
A great way to get a taste of Indian food is to participate in the cuisine workshop that USAC offers. You’ll learn how to cook delicious local foods and you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor!
But one last survivors tip? Don’t drink from the water bowl in the middle of the table. That’s there to wash your fingers after you’re finished eating, and you will most definitely spend the weekend in bed with your stomach screaming insults at you.
Briauna Derry studied abroad in Bengaluru, India. You can read more about her time abroad on her blog, from Idaho to India.