The flavors of India spread across the subcontinent like curry on a plate. A great variety of food is available here with flavors and ingredients that spill out across international borders. India’s iconic signature delicacies have been savored by presidents and celebrities alike. Now it's your turn. Here are India’s greatest food experiences you simply must not miss.
Try regal Awadhi delicacies in Delhi
The capital city of India, Delhi, is multi-layered and where several eras and epochs coexist. It has monuments and mouthwatering delicacies that date back from the rule of Turko-Afghan Sultans in the medieval period to the establishment of Shahjahanabad (now Old Delhi), a walled city completed for the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1648 (not to forget New Delhi built during the British colonial era).
Today, Bukhara, the deluxe eatery at the ITC Maurya hotel is renowned for its eponymously named bukhara raan and daal (spiced leg of lamb with black bean daal). The same hotel offers the best of delicacies from the Awadhi region – where hedonist nawabs (leaders) ruled before the British defeated and exiled them in 1857 – such as melt-in-mouth kakori kebab (minced lamb kebab) at Dum Pukht.
More rustic fare, reflecting the culinary influence of Turko-Afghan rulers, can be savored at the Karim’s in Old Delhi, where the signature dishes are burra kebab, a chargrilled mutton kebab, and nihari paye, a flavourful and gelatinous curry of shanks and trotters that's slow-cooked overnight.
Next door, the New Jawahar (on Gali Kababyan) serves a seductive chicken ishtu. Inspired by the English “stew”, it's a slow cooked dish that uses twice the amount of onions to meat, allowing it to cook in its own juices. Whole dried red chillis add flavour without making it too pungent.
Savour fabulous Nawabi treats in Lucknow
The capital of Uttar Pradesh is famous for a variety of delicate, light-than-air, galouti kebabs, which have a pate-like texture. Originally created to please a food-loving nawab (leader) who had lost his teeth early in middle-age and couldn't masticate – or so the story goes. It's actually more likely that they were a blessed food prepared for old toothless pilgrims who visited the sufi shrine in Kakori, a sleepy town near Lucknow.
You can try them at Tunday Kababi which has catered to a discerning loyal clientele for three generations from the hole-in-the-wall outlet at the steps of the Akbari Mosque. During winter, street vendors sell an exotic frothy dessert made with beguiling foam of milk called nimish.
Exquisite chaats along picturesque ghats in Varanasi
As the bajra (a large boat with a flat deck) floats gently down the Ganges, it’s time to enjoy a movable feast of myriad savories and sweets. Deena Chat Bhandar has a wonderful range of beautifully spiced snacks, prepared before your eyes and served with sweet-and-sour chutneys to the accompaniment of lilting folk music as the sun goes down on the river.
The following morning, go stall-hopping for breakfast in Lanka, near Banaras Hindu University. At the Pahalwans stall, splurge on bedwi puri (wholewheat bread filled with a thin layer of spicy lentil paste); kachori (a smaller, flaky deep-fried puri, which they stuff with sweet green peas here); and lassi (an Indian milkshake prepared with thick naturally sweet curd clotted cream, reduced milk and sugar). Both the bedwi and kachori are served with a sweet-and-sour chutney or potato/pumpkin curry.
Head to Hyderabad for aromatic biryanis and pathar kebabs in a former palace
A landmark destination for food lovers, Hyderabad is home to the best biryani in the world. Bismillah Hotel along Pathar Gatti, near Mecca Masjid, prepares stunning aromatic dum ki biryani, alternating layers of saffron-flavored rice and meat, slow-cooked on a low heat in clay pots with myriad aromatic spices.
Hotel Shadab, a short walk away, is the best place to sample khubani ka meetha, a dessert prepared with dried apricots, topped with fresh clotted cream. It’s considered special as apricots don't grow in Deccan (a large plateau in southern India) and even the dried ones were once available only to the nobility. The delicate color, texture and subtle sweet-and-sour taste make it unique.
The capital of British India's largest principality, it was said that the city's ruler, the Nizam of Hyderabad, was the world's richest man – a leader of such wealth that he used a large diamond for a paper weight. His former residence, now Taj Falaknuma Palace, serves excellent pathar kebab (a stone kebab) traditionally cooked on a heated stone sourced from rocks formed by lava. These days pathar kebab is heated on an iron platter. Other specialties include aghare ke baigan (small eggplants cooked in a thick tamarind and jaggery gravy, enriched with peanut paste, and tempered with mustard seeds, curry leaves, and shredded whole red chilis) and dalcha ghosht (well-cooked meats with lentils). You’ll find the same at its sister hotels Kohenur and Kakatiya.
Relish the fresh catch of the day along Goa’s coast
Goa, ruled for four centuries by the Portuguese has many temptations, not the least, a large repertoire of lips-smacking seafood served fresh at the region’s many beachside shacks. Some of these shacks have earned legendary repute including Martin’s Corner in Betalbatim, South Goa. Here they specialize in xacuti (a creole chicken dish prepared with white poppy seeds, grated coconut and dried red chilies, brought to India by the Portuguese colonizers in the 16th century); vindaloo (a curry with vinegar and garlic that impart a distinct personality to the pork dish); sorpotel (the Portuguese word sarapatel translates to “confusion”, referring to the melange of ingredients it incorporates, including offals and a hint of blood) which is usually prepared a day in advance to let the flavours seep in; and balchao (a strongly spiced prawn pickle served as an accompaniment or a side dish).
Find vegetarian heaven in Chennai
Southern India is the place for plant-based snacks and mild, coconut milk-based lentil soups and vegetable gravies (curry sauces) often tinged with tamarind. Road-side eateries like Murugan Idli, are hygienic and almost always serve best quality fluffy steamed idlis (savoury rice cakes) and crisp or spongey pancakes, dosai, paired with assorted chutney and sometimes with a filling of spicy potatoes.
Dasa Prakash and Hotel Saravana Bhavan are where one can mix-and-match a wide range of poriyals kozhambus (thin gravies) besides lentil-based sambaar stew and tamarind- or tomato-flavored rassam soup.
Meat and fish dishes in the south are very different from the rest of the country, particularly in the Chettinad region, where black peppercorns, star anise, cloves, cardamoms, and cinnamon are all used as whole spices. Taj – Fisherman’s Cove is the place to try out the best non-vegetarian dishes like nandu roast (roasted mud crab) and kori kempu bezule (Mangalorean chicken morsels).
Revel in the seafood available in Kochi
The melting pot in India’s spice garden, Kochi in Kerala, is a historic port where many diverse gastronomical streams intermingle. The Rice Boat in the Malabar (the old name of coastal Kerala) brilliantly showcases a number of dishes from all over the state like teuthida squid (stir-fried or batter-coated squid deep-fried as an appetizer); aattu konju (exceptionally succulent large river prawns in a subtly spiced sauce); and curry leaves and pepper scallops, which are are irresistible when crusted with dried shrimp and served with raw mango relish.
Casino Hotel in Fort Kochi is a specialty restaurant where we strongly recommend you try mappas (coconut milk-based fish curry redolent with fennel and coriander); moilee (the mildest of all the South Indian curries with a pleasant pungency that's imparted by green chillis and pepper); and nadan crab chilli fry (roasted crab, gently simmered in coconut milk, that perfectly balances the sweet crab meat and piquant spices that coat it). Grand Pavillion's karimeen pollichathu – a popular brunch fix of pan-grilled pearlfish in banana leaves and spiced with ginger, pepper, garlic, chilis, and coconut oil – is irresistible.
Enjoy the bewitching flavors of Bengal Kolkata
Once the largest province in British India, stretching from Assam to Odisha (Orissa) and incorporating Bihar, Bengal has imbibed a bewildering range of diverse influences in its kitchens.
In the heart of Kolkata, 6 Ballygunge Place is a veritable treasure trove of delicious gems like hilsa (a variety of salmon) and machher cutlet. The restaurant operates out of a restored haweli, an aristocratic residence, and there is a surfeit of riches that may require repeated visits to relish. Take for example the bhetki gravy (fillets of one of Bengal’s favorite fishes, this “jhal” rendering is a thick and pungent); begun basanti (eggplant plays a seductive melody with mustard paste enhanced yogurt gravy) and doi murgi – an enchanting improvisation on the traditional doi maach (fish cooked in yogurt), which substitutes chicken for fish and prawns, in a tender coconut shell.
Elsewhere, the Malai lobster marinated in creamy spices and baked in a tandoor at Sonargaon, a restaurant in the Taj Bengal hotel, is an extravagant indulgence well worth the price.
You might also like:
India on a budget: 10 ways to get the best experience for less
India's best train trips are a journey to the soul of the subcontinent
How to get around in India, from Goa’s beaches to the high Himalayas