Let’s start with the good stuff. We were NOT disappointed in the Indian food we had in India! Sampling many dishes at various Indian restaurants in the Bay Area gave us a baseline, but the food here in India is better. We enjoyed better versions of dishes we knew and learned about new ones.
Breakfast often included Chhole (a tasty, cooked chickpea dish in a thick and spicy sauce) and we were introduced dishes like Dosa (a thin, hard-fried crepe rolled around a filling, typically pan-fried potatoes), Uttapam (a pancake with grilled diced onions and/or tomatoes on top) and Parantha (a pancake stuffed with spiced farmer’s cheese or potatoes). All of these savories made breakfast interesting, at least for me. But I will say that Diana too, developed quite a taste for Chhole on Chapati for breakfast.
The familiar Indian dishes like Butter or Tandoori Chicken, Biriyani, and Naan were all present and pretty similar to what we had in the States. Chicken Tikka Masala is where the taste difference really began to shine. The sauce had a spicing and richness we hadn’t really found at home, and it was addictive. There is such a variety of delicious vegetarian dishes it is not hard to see how many of the folks are happy, not touching meat.
Thali, a large dish with rice, naan and several bowls filled with stews of various kinds to try out. Similar to a sampler entrée, was fun too. A new favorite dessert for Diana is Gulab Jamun, hot fried dough balls in a hot honey sauce. Hard to beat.
Surprise, Surprise, Surprise
One surprise was many of the Indian dishes I know came from Persia (Iran). Several hundred years ago, the Muslim Persians (Mughals) conquered much of India and brought their religion and food with them. These dishes include Biriyani, Masala, and Kebabs. We actually went on an extensive food tour in Lucknow centered in the Muslim district, where we were able to really explore the Muslim influence on Indian food.
Cows are sacred to the Hindis, so imagine my surprise to learn I could get beef in some places. Well, not exactly beef. It is water buffalo, which are not cows, and therefore fair game. Having said that, no one should come here for “beef”. There just isn’t enough around nor enough experience with it to make seeking it out worthwhile. Similarly, it is not hard to get bacon here, either, despite a large chunk of the population being Muslim. I found it to be a nice accompaniment with my morning Cholla. Still, don’t expect an Indian pitmaster at the next World Rib Championships.
Finally, all the “mutton” I found on the menus is goat, not mature sheep, as we would call it in the States. Actually, I like goat meat better. I find it to be a little milder than the mutton I’m familiar with.
As you all know by now, I like to go to the food markets wherever we travel. In part to see all of the interesting food that is available and also to check out the prices. The markets in India are a little hard to find but once you do find them, they are all well stocked with all of the ingredients we have seen in the food we are served daily. Including some things that surprised us like Okra, called Lady Fingers in India.
Since we were on a tour, our guides always steered us to what they felt were restaurants that would be acceptable to us. Many were “mixed cuisine”, typically having Indian, Western and Chinese dishes. Even so, the Indian food was usually very good and we could indulge in some French Fries if needed. The wait staff was usually very attentive without being annoying, although the language difference was a challenge periodically. Often, we just had to order based on the picture or description and hope for the best. Our go-to meal was one chicken Masala dish and one veg dish with lots of butter naan, which was usually too much food anyway. But it tasted so good.
Sadly, I rarely felt confident enough to venture out for food on my own. So many of the restaurants were of questionable cleanliness and I lacked the confidence to try them out. Another annoyance was being asked to pay to use the restroom at a restaurant where I was dining. I typically just brushed them off and moved on. I find the practice akin to extortion.
Fast and *Very* Casual Options (Not for Us)
Unfortunately, cows and all the other animals defecate everywhere outside. Food is sold from nearby carts or even off the same ground, albeit covered with a blanket. There are many fruit/vegetable vendors. Not so many milk stalls and very few butchers of mutton or chicken. All kinds of bread and soup/stew are cooked on the carts. Some vendors even sit barefoot and cross-legged on the cart from which they are cooking and serving food. Needless to say, we didn’t eat at any of these places except on a food tour, where after seeing the questionable food practices, Diana took a small taste and I ate most everything I was given.
Most popular forms of alcohol are available here: beer, wine, rum, vodka, whiskey, gin, even decent tequila. Beers are generally lagers sold in 650ml (23oz) bottles, with ABV from 4.5% to 8%. A “pint” is a 12oz bottle, which led to some consternation when I ordered a pint expecting to get 16 ounces. 🙁 Still, we found beer very refreshing on many of the hot and humid days we experienced. When we wanted a cocktail, we found they could manage a respectable Tom Collins, if not we got a shot of Gin and a lemon soda and made our own.
Many locals prefer whiskey and the wine selections are quite poor. So, I was confused when I started seeing a number of “English Wine” shops, a phrase I consider to be an oxymoron. As it happens, English Wine shops are what we call liquor stores, chock full of hard liquor and a smattering of wine and beer from various places, including domestic. Honestly, we didn’t drink much wine because it is relatively expensive and the food flavors tend to overpower the taste of the wine.
The Golden Arches
On our last day in India, we went to a McDonalds to see what it was all about. It turned out, as expected, to be your choice of chicken burgers or veg burgers. The chicken burger was very authentic but I didn’t try the spicy one and the fries tasted just like they should. I got a Maharaja Mac that had onions, jalapeños, American cheese, special sauce, and basic chicken patties. I thought it was good and followed the same flavor profile as the original, only spicier, for Indian pallets.
We are thinking about future trips to India, just for the food. What do you think?