Like so many aspects of India, its food is an elusive thing to define. Its dishes are garnered from regionally diverse influences and together they create a sumptuous banquet expressed in colours, smells, flavours and personalities: the ancient vegetarian fare of the south, the meaty traditions of the Mughals, the glowing tandoor (clay oven) of Punjab and the Euro-Indian fusions of former colonies.

The Basics

In terms of food, India has it all: from sizzling street-food stands where crowds wait impatiently for the next batch of taste-sensation snacks to fantastical fine-dining restaurants where dessert is brought out on a bed of dry ice. In between there's a mass of eateries churning out their honed-for-generations specialities. Reservations are only necessary at top-end restaurants.

  • Street food Snacks and meals sold from a cart or a hole-in-the-wall counter.
  • Dhabas Cheap roadside restaurants.
  • Restaurants Range from simple local places to dining rooms at five-star hotels.

Taxes & Service Charges

Apart from in some cheaper restaurants, where taxes are sometimes included in the prices, your bill will be higher than the prices stated on the menu by 22% (in non-AC restaurants), 28% (in AC restaurants and restaurants that serve alcohol) or 38% (in luxury hotels and top-end restaurants). These extras comprise a 10% service charge and either a 12%, 18% or 28% GST (goods-and-services tax).

Delicious India

India's culinary terrain is deliciously diverse. From contemporary fusion dishes to traditional snacks, it's the sheer variety that makes eating your way through this country so rewarding. India has a particularly impressive array of vegetarian food, but carnivores won’t be disappointed either, with plenty on offer – from hearty Mughal-inspired curries to succulent tandoori platters. Adding flair to the national smorgasbord are regional variations that make the most of locally sourced ingredients, be they native spices or fresh herbs.

A Culinary Carnival

India’s culinary story is an ancient one, and the food you'll find here today reflects millennia of regional and global influences.

Land of Spices

Christopher Columbus was actually searching for the black pepper of Kerala’s Malabar Coast when he stumbled upon America. The region still grows the finest quality of the world’s favourite spice, and it’s integral to most savoury Indian dishes.

Turmeric lends colour and flavour to the majority of Indian curries, but coriander seeds are the most widely used spice and add body to just about every dish. Indian ‘wet’ dishes – commonly known as curries in the West – usually begin with the crackle of cumin seeds in hot oil. Tamarind is sometimes known as the ‘Indian date’ and is a popular souring agent in the south. The green cardamom of Kerala’s Western Ghats is commonly regarded as the world’s best, and you’ll find it in curries, desserts and warming chai (tea); the black variety stems from the northern hills. Saffron, the dried stigmas of crocus flowers grown in Kashmir, is so light it takes more than 1500 hand-plucked flowers to yield just one gram.

Rice Paradise

Rice is a staple, especially in South India. Long-grain white rice varieties are the most popular, served hot with just about any ‘wet’ cooked dish. From Assam’s sticky rice in the far northeast to Kerala’s red grains in the extreme south, you’ll find countless regional varieties that locals will claim to be India's best, though this honour is usually conceded to basmati, a fragrant long-grain variety that is widely exported around the world. Rice is usually served after you have finished with the rotis (breads), often accompanied by curd to enrich the mix.

Flippin’ Fantastic Bread

While rice is paramount in the south, wheat is the mainstay in the north. Roti, the generic term for Indian-style bread, is a name used interchangeably with chapati to describe the most common variety, an irresistible unleavened round bread made with whole-wheat flour and cooked on a tawa (hotplate). It may be smothered with ghee (clarified butter) or oil. In some places, rotis are bigger and thicker than chapatis and sometimes cooked in a tandoor oven. Paratha is a layered pan-fried flatbread, which may also be stuffed, and makes for a hearty and popular breakfast. Puri – puffy fried-bread pillows – are another popular sauce soaker-upper. Naan is a larger, thicker bread, baked in a tandoor and usually eaten with meaty sauces or kebabs. In Punjab, look out for naan-like kulcha, flavoured with herbs and spices.

Dhal-icious!

The whole of India is united in its love for dhal (curried lentils or pulses). You may encounter up to 60 different pulses: the most common are channa (chickpeas); tiny yellow or green ovals called moong (mung beans); salmon-coloured masoor (red lentils); the ochre-coloured southern favourite, tuvar (yellow lentils; also known as arhar); rajma (kidney beans); urad (black gram or lentils); and lobhia (black-eyed peas).

Meaty Matters

Although India could well have more vegetarians than the rest of the world combined, it still has an extensive repertoire of excellent carnivorous fare. Chicken, lamb and mutton (sometimes actually goat) are the mainstays; religious taboos make beef forbidden to devout Hindus and pork to Muslims.

In northern India, you’ll come across meat-dominated Mughlai cuisine, which includes rich curries, kebabs, koftas (meatballs) and biryanis (steamed rice with meat or vegetables). This spicy cuisine traces its history back to the (Islamic) Mughal empire that once reigned supreme. In the south, you'll find the meaty Chettinad cuisine of Tamil Nadu, which is beautifully spiced.

Tandoori meat dishes are another North Indian favourite, particularly in Punjab. The name is derived from the clay oven, or tandoor, in which the marinated meat is cooked. Also look out for the rich kebabs and biryanis of Awadhi (Lucknow) and Hyderabadi cuisine.

Deep-Sea Delights

India has around 7500km of coastline, so it’s no surprise that seafood is an important ingredient, especially on the west coast, from Mumbai down to Kerala. Kerala is the biggest fishing state, while Goa boasts particularly succulent prawns and fiery fish curries, and the fishing communities of the Konkan Coast – sandwiched between Goa and Mumbai – are renowned for their seafood recipes. Few main meals in Odisha (Orissa) exclude fish, and in West Bengal, puddled with ponds and lakes, fish is king. The far-flung Andaman Islands also won’t disappoint seafood lovers, with the day's catch featuring on many menus.

The Fruits (& Vegetables) of Mother Nature

Vegetables are usually served at each main meal across India, and sabzi (vegetables) is a word recognised in every Indian vernacular. They’re generally cooked sukhi (dry) or tari (in a sauce), and within these two categories they can be fried, roasted, curried, stuffed, baked, mashed and combined (made into koftas) or dipped in chickpea-flour batter to make a deep-fried pakora (fritter).

Potatoes are ubiquitous and popularly cooked with various masalas (spice mixes), with other vegetables, or mashed and fried for the street snack aloo tikki (mashed-potato patties). Onions are fried with other vegetables, ground into a paste for cooking with meats, and served raw as relishes, but are avoided by Jains. Heads of cauliflower are usually cooked dry on their own, with potatoes to make aloo gobi (potato-and-cauliflower curry), or with other vegetables such as carrots and beans. Fresh green peas turn up stir-fried with other vegetables in pilaus and biryanis and in one of North India’s signature dishes, the magnificent mattar paneer (unfermented cheese and pea curry). Baigan (eggplant/aubergine) can be curried or sliced and deep-fried. Also popular is saag (a generic term for leafy greens), which can include mustard, spinach and fenugreek. Something a little more unusual is the bumpy-skinned karela (bitter gourd), which, like the delectable bhindi (okra), is commonly prepared dry with spices.

India’s fruit basket is also bountiful. Along the southern coast are super-luscious tropical fruits such as pineapples and papayas. Mangoes abound during summer (especially April and May), with India offering more than 500 varieties – the pick of the juicy bunch is the sweet Alphonso. Citrus fruit, such as oranges (often yellow-green in India), tangerines, pink and white grapefruits, kumquats and sweet limes, are widely grown. Himachal Pradesh produces crisp apples in autumn, while plump strawberries are especially good in Kashmir during summer. You’ll find fruit inventively fashioned into a chatni (chutney) or pickle, and flavouring lassi, kulfi (flavoured firm-textured ice cream) and other sweet treats.

Vegetarians & Vegans

India excels when it comes to vegetarian fare. There’s little understanding of veganism (the term ‘pure vegetarian’ means without eggs), and animal products such as milk, butter, ghee and curd are included in most Indian dishes. If you are vegan, your first problem is likely to be getting the cook to understand your requirements, though big hotels and larger cities are getting better at catering for vegans.

Pickles, Chutneys & Relishes

Pickles, chutneys and relishes are accompaniments that add extra zing to meals. A relish can be anything from a tiny pickled onion to a delicately crafted fusion of fruit, nuts and spices. One of the most popular side dishes is yoghurt-based raita, which makes a tongue-cooling counter to spicy food. Chatnis come in any number of varieties (sweet or savoury) and can be made from many different vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices.

Sweet at Heart

India has a wildly colourful kaleidoscope of often-sticky and squishy mithai (Indian sweets), most of them super sugary. The main categories are barfi (a fudge-like milk-based sweet), soft halwa (made with vegetables, cereals, lentils, nuts or fruit), ladoos (sweet balls made with gram flour and semolina), and those made from chhana (unpressed paneer), such as rasgullas. There are also simpler – but equally scrumptious – offerings such as crunchy jalebis (coils of deep-fried batter dunked in sugar syrup; served hot) that you’ll see all over the country.

Kheer (called payasam in the south) is one of the most popular after-meal desserts. It’s a creamy rice pudding with a light, delicate flavour, enhanced with cardamom, saffron, pistachios, flaked almonds, chopped cashews or slivered dried fruit. Other favourites include hot gulab jamuns (deep-fried dough soaked in a rose flavoured syrup) and refreshing kulfi.

Each year, an estimated 15 tonnes of pure silver is converted into the edible foil that decorates many Indian sweets, especially during the Diwali festival.

Where to Fill Up?

You can eat well in India everywhere from ramshackle street dhabas (eateries) and bhojnalayas (canteens serving vegetarian dishes and sweets) to plush five-star hotels and restaurants. Most midrange restaurants serve a few basic genres: South Indian (which usually means the vegetarian food of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka), North Indian (which largely comprises Punjabi/Mughlai fare) and possibly Indian interpretations of Chinese dishes. You’ll also find the cuisines of neighbouring regions and states. Indians frequently migrate in search of work and these restaurants cater to the large communities seeking the familiar tastes of home.

Not to be confused with burger joints and pizzerias, restaurants in the south advertising ‘fast food’ are some of India’s best. They serve the whole gamut of tiffin (snack) items and often have separate sweet counters. Many upmarket hotels have outstanding restaurants, usually with pan-Indian menus so you can explore various regional cuisines. Meanwhile, the independent restaurant dining scene keeps mushrooming in India’s larger cities, with every kind of cuisine available, from Mexican and Mediterranean to Japanese and Korean.

Dhabas are oases to millions of truck drivers, bus passengers and sundry travellers going anywhere by road. The original dhabas dot the North Indian landscape, but you’ll find versions of them throughout the country. The rough-and-ready but satisfying food served in these happy-go-lucky shacks has become a genre of its own, known as ‘dhaba food’.

Street Food

Whatever the time of day, street food vendors are frying, boiling, roasting, peeling, simmering, mixing, juicing or baking different types of food and drink to lure peckish passers-by. Small operations usually have one special that they serve all day, while other vendors have different dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The fare varies as you venture between neighbourhoods, towns and regions; it can be as simple as puffed rice or peanuts roasted in hot sand, or as complex as the riot of different flavours known as chaat (savoury snack). Fabulous cavalcades of taste include chole bhature (puffed bread served with spicy chickpeas and dipped in fragrant sauce) in North India; aloo tikki (spicy fried potato patties), which are renowned in Lucknow; gol gappa/Panipuri/gup chup (puffed spheres of bread with a spicy filling), all over India; and idli sambar (rice patties served with delectable sauce and chutney) in Chennai and the south.

Railway Snack Attack

One of the thrills of travelling by rail in India is the culinary circus that greets you at almost every station. Roving vendors accost arriving trains, yelling and scampering up and down the carriages; fruit, namkin (savoury nibbles), omelettes, nuts and sweets are offered through the grills on the windows; and platform cooks try to lure you from the train with the sizzle of spicy goodies such as samosas. Frequent rail travellers know which station is famous for which food item: Lonavla station in Maharashtra is known for chikki (rock-hard toffee-like confectionery), Agra for peitha (square sweet made from pumpkin and glucose, usually flavoured with rose water, coconut or saffron) and Dhaund near Delhi for biryani.

Daily Dining Habits

Three main meals a day is the norm in India. Breakfast is usually fairly light, traditionally idlis (South Indian spongy fermented rice cake) and sambar (soupy lentil dish) in the south, and parathas in the north. Lunch can be substantial (perhaps an all-you-can-eat thali) or light, especially for time-strapped office workers. Dinner is usually the main meal of the day. It’s generally comprised of a few different preparations – several curried vegetables (maybe also meat) dishes and dhal, accompanied by rice and/or chapatis. Dishes are served all at once rather than as courses. Desserts are optional and most prevalent during festivals or other special occasions. Fruit may wrap up a meal. In many Indian homes, dinner can be a rather late affair (post-9pm) depending on personal preference and the season (eg late dinners during the warmer months). Restaurants usually spring to life after 9pm in the cities, but in smaller towns they're busy earlier.

Spiritual Sustenance

For many in India, food is considered just as critical for fine-tuning the spirit as it is for sustaining the body. Broadly speaking, Hindus traditionally avoid foods that are thought to inhibit physical and spiritual development, although there are few hard-and-fast rules. The taboo on eating beef (the cow is holy to Hindus) is the most rigid restriction.

Jains avoid foods such as garlic and onions, which, apart from harming insects in the ground when extracted, are thought to heat the blood and arouse sexual desire. You may come across vegetarian restaurants that make a point of advertising the absence of onion and garlic in their dishes for this reason. Devout Hindus may also avoid garlic and onions and these items may be banned from ashrams too.

Some foods, such as dairy products, are considered innately pure and are eaten to cleanse the body, mind and spirit. Ayurveda, the ancient science of life, health and longevity, also influences food customs.

Pork is taboo for Muslims and stimulants such as alcohol are avoided by the most devout. Halal is the term for all permitted foods, and haram for those prohibited. Fasting is considered an opportunity to earn the approval of Allah, to wipe the sin-slate clean and to understand the suffering of the poor.

Buddhists subscribe to the philosophy of ahimsa (nonviolence) and are mostly vegetarian. Jainism’s central tenet is strict vegetarianism, and rigid restrictions are in place to avoid injury to any living creature. Vegetables that grow underground are considered ananthkay – one body containing many lives – and most Jains will avoid eating them because of the potential harm caused to insects during cultivation and harvesting.

India’s Sikh, Christian and Parsi communities have few restrictions on what they can eat. At most Indian temples, blessed food known as prasad – often small sweets – is offered to devotees, but it isn't always hygienic to partake.

Cooking Courses

You might find yourself so inspired by Indian food that you'll want to take home a little Indian kitchen know-how, via a cooking course. Courses are most prevalent in tourist areas such as Goa, Rajasthan and Kerala. Some courses are professionally run, others are informal. Most require at least a few days’ advance notice.

Drinks, Anyone?

Gujarat, Bihar, Nagaland and Lakshadweep are India’s only dry states, though Kerala and other states have toyed with prohibition. There are drinking laws in place all over the country and each state may have regular dry days, when the sale of alcohol from liquor shops is banned. On Gandhi's birthday (2 October) alcohol restrictions widely apply. In Goa, alcohol taxes are lower and the drinking culture less restricted.

You’ll find excellent watering holes in most big cities, especially Mumbai, Bengaluru (the craft-beer capital of India), Kolkata and Delhi, which are usually at their liveliest on weekends. The more upmarket bars serve an impressive selection of domestic and imported drinks, as well as draught beer. Many bars turn into music-thumping nightclubs anytime after 8pm, although there are quiet lounge-bars to be found in most large cities. In smaller towns, the bar scene can be a seedy, male-dominated affair – not the kind of place female travellers should venture into alone.

Wine drinking is steadily on the rise, despite the domestic wine-producing industry still being relatively new. The favourable climate and soil conditions in certain areas – such as parts of Maharashtra and Karnataka – have spawned some decent Indian wineries, such as those of the Grover and Sula Vineyards.

Stringent licensing laws and religious restrictions mean some restaurants won't serve alcohol. Places that depend on the tourist rupee may covertly serve you beer in teapots and disguised glasses – however, don’t assume anything, at the risk of causing offence.

Very few vegetarian restaurants serve alcohol.

Nonalcoholic Beverages

Chai (tea), the much-loved drink of the masses, is known for its generous use of milk and sugar. A glass of steaming, frothy chai is the perfect antidote to the vicissitudes of life on the Indian road; the disembodied voice droning ‘garam chai, garam chai’ (hot tea, hot tea) is likely to become one of the most familiar and welcome sounds of your trip. Masala chai adds cardamom, ginger and other spices.

While chai is the traditional choice of most of the nation, South Indians have long shared their loyalty with coffee. In recent years, the number of coffee-drinking North Indians has skyrocketed, with ever-multiplying branches of coffee chains and boutique cafes.

Masala soda is the quintessential Indian soft drink. It’s a freshly opened bottle of fizzy soda, pepped up with lime, spices, salt and sugar. You can also opt for a plainer lime soda, which is soda with fresh lime, served sweet (with sugar) or salted as you prefer. Also refreshing is jal jeera, made of lime juice, cumin, mint and rock salt. Sweet and savoury lassi, a yoghurt-based drink, is especially popular nationwide and is another wonderfully cooling beverage.

Falooda is a rose-flavoured drink made with milk, cream, nuts and strands of vermicelli, while badam milk (served hot or cold) is flavoured with almonds and saffron.

The Booze Files

An estimated three quarters of India’s drinking population quaffs ‘country liquor’, such as the notorious arak (liquor distilled from coconut-palm sap, potatoes or rice) of the south. This is widely known as the poor-man’s drink and millions are addicted to the stuff. Each year, many people are blinded or even killed by the methyl alcohol in illegal arak.

An interesting local drink is a clear spirit with a heady pungent flavour called mahuwa, distilled from the flower of the mahuwa tree. It’s brewed in makeshift village stalls all over central India during March and April, when the trees bloom. Mahuwa is safe to drink as long as it comes from a trustworthy source. There have been cases of people being blinded after drinking mahuwa adulterated with methyl alcohol.

Rice beer is brewed all over east and northeast India, while in the Himalaya you’ll find tongba, a warm beer prepared from millet, and a strong grain alcohol called raksi, which has a mild charcoal flavour and tastes vaguely like Scotch whisky.

Toddy, the sap from the palm tree, is drunk in coastal areas, especially Kerala, while feni is the primo Indian spirit, and the preserve of laid-back Goa. Coconut feni is light and rather unexceptional, but the more popular cashew feni – made from the fruit of the cashew tree – is worth a try.

Meanwhile, if you fancy sipping booze of the blue-blood ilk, traditional royal liqueurs of Rajasthan (once reserved for private consumption among nobility) are sold at some city liquor shops, especially in Delhi and Jaipur. Ingredients range from aniseed, cardamom and saffron to rose, dates and mint.

Glossary

acharpickle
aloopotato; also alu
aloo tikkimashed-potato patty
appamSouth Indian rice pancake
arakliquor distilled from coconut milk, potatoes or rice
baiganeggplant/aubergine; also known as brinjal
barfifudge-like sweet made from milk
bebincaGoan 16-layer cake
besanchickpea flour
betelnut of the betel tree; also called areca nut
bhajiavegetable fritters
bhang lassiblend of lassi and bhang (a derivative of marijuana)
bhelpurithin fried rounds of dough with rice, lentils, lemon juice, onion, herbs and chutney
bhindiokra
biryanifragrant spiced steamed rice with meat or vegetables
bondamashed-potato patty
chaatsavoury snack, may be seasoned with chaat masala
chachbuttermilk beverage
chaitea
channaspiced chickpeas
chapatiround unleavened Indian-style bread; also known as roti
chawalrice
cheikusmall, sweet brown fruit
dahicurd/yoghurt
dhalspiced lentil dish
dhal makhaniblack lentils and red kidney beans with cream and butter
dhansakParsi dish; meat, usually chicken or lamb, with curried lentils, pumpkin or gourd, and rice
dosalarge South Indian savoury crêpe
faloodarose-flavoured drink made with milk, cream, nuts and vermicelli
faludalong chickpea-flour noodles
feniGoan liquor distilled from coconut milk or cashews
gheeclarified butter
gobicauliflower
gulab jamundeep-fried balls of dough soaked in rose-flavoured syrup
halwasoft sweet made with vegetables, lentils, nuts or fruit
idliSouth Indian spongy, round, fermented rice cake
imlitamarind
jaggeryhard, brown, sugar-like sweetener made from palm sap
jalebiorange-coloured coils of deep-fried batter dunked in sugar syrup; served hot
karelabitter gourd
keemaspiced minced meat
kheercreamy rice pudding
khichdiblend of lightly spiced rice and lentils; also khichri
koftaminced vegetables or meat; often ball-shaped
kormacurry-like braised dish
kulchasoft leavened Indian-style bread
kulfiflavoured (often with pistachio) firm-textured ice cream
ladoosweet ball made with gram flour and semolina; also ladu
lassiyoghurt-and-iced-water drink
malai koftapaneer cooked in a creamy sauce of cashews and tomato
masala dosalarge South Indian savoury crêpe (dosa) stuffed with spiced potatoes
mattar paneerunfermented cheese and pea curry
methifenugreek
mishti doiBengali sweet; curd sweetened with jaggery
mithaiIndian sweets
momosavoury Tibetan dumpling
naantandoor-cooked flat bread
namaksalt
namkinsavoury nibbles
noon chaisalt tea (Kashmir)
pakorabite-sized vegetable pieces in batter
palak paneerunfermented cheese chunks in a puréed spinach gravy
paneersoft, unfermented cheese made from milk curd
paniwater
pappadamthin, crispy lentil or chickpea-flour circle-shaped wafer; also pappad
paratha/paranthaflaky flatbread (thicker than chapati); often stuffed
phulkaa chapati that puffs up on an open flame
pilaurice cooked in spiced stock; also pulau, pilao or pilaf
pudinamint
puriflat savoury dough that puffs up when deep-fried; also poori
raitamildly spiced yoghurt, often containing shredded cucumber or diced pineapple
rasamdhal-based broth flavoured with tamarind
rasgullacream-cheese balls flavoured with rose water
rogan joshrich, spicy lamb curry
saagleafy greens
sabzivegetables
sambarSouth Indian soupy lentil dish with cubed vegetables
samosadeep-fried pastry triangles filled with spiced vegetables (sometimes meat)
sonfaniseed; used as a digestive and mouth-freshener; also saunf
tandoorclay oven
tawaflat hotplate/iron griddle
thaliall-you-can-eat meal; stainless steel (sometimes silver) compartmentalised plate
thukpaTibetan noodle soup
tiffinsnack; also refers to meal container often made of stainless steel
tikkaspiced, often marinated, chunks of chicken, paneer etc
toddyalcoholic drink, tapped from palm trees
tsampaTibetan staple of roast-barley flour
upmarava (semolina) cooked with onions, spices, chilli peppers and coconut
uttapamthick savoury South Indian rice pancake with finely chopped onions, green chillies, coriander and coconut
vadaSouth Indian doughnut-shaped deep-fried lentil savoury
vindalooGoan dish; fiery curry in a marinade of vinegar and garlic
wazwantraditional Kashmiri banquet

Feature: Paan

Meals are often rounded off with paan, a fragrant mixture of betel nut (also called areca nut), lime paste, spices and condiments wrapped in an edible, silky paan leaf. Peddled by paan-wallahs, who are usually strategically positioned outside busy restaurants, paan is eaten as a digestive and mouth-freshener. The betel nut is mildly narcotic and some aficionados eat paan the same way heavy smokers consume cigarettes – over the years these people’s teeth can become rotted red and black. Usually the gloopy red juice is spat out.

There are two basic types of paan: mitha (sweet) and saadha (with tobacco, which has similar health risks to other forms of tobacco use). A parcel of mitha paan is a splendid way to finish a meal. Pop the whole parcel in your mouth and chew slowly, allowing the juices to oooooooze.

Feature: Feasting Indian-Style

Traditionally, most people in India eat with their right hand. In the south, they use as much of the hand as is necessary, while elsewhere they use the tips of the fingers. The left hand is reserved for unsanitary actions such as removing shoes. You can use your left hand for holding drinks and serving yourself from a communal bowl, but it shouldn’t be used for bringing food to your mouth. Before and after a meal, it’s good manners to wash your hands.

Once your meal is served, mix the food with your fingers. If you are having dhal and sabzi (vegetables), only mix the dhal into your rice and have the sabzi in small scoops with each mouthful. If you are having fish or meat curry, mix the gravy into your rice. Scoop up lumps of the mix and, with your knuckles facing the dish, use your thumb to shovel the food into your mouth.

Feature: Dear Dairy

Milk and milk products make a huge contribution to Indian cuisine: dahi (curd/yoghurt) is commonly served with meals and is great for subduing heat; paneer is a godsend for the vegetarian majority; lassi is one in a host of nourishing sweet and savoury beverages; ghee is the traditional and pure cooking medium; and some of the finest mithai (Indian sweets) are made with milk.

Feature: Southern Belles

Savoury dosas (also spelt dosai), a family of large, crispy, papery rice-flour crêpes, usually served with a bowl of hot sambar (soupy lentil dish) and another bowl of cooling coconut chatni (chutney), are a South Indian breakfast speciality that can be eaten at any time of day. The most popular is the masala dosa (stuffed with spiced potatoes), but there are also other fantastic dosa varieties – the rava dosa (batter made with semolina), the Mysuru dosa (like masala dosa but with more vegetables and chilli in the filling), and the pessarettu dosa (batter made with mung-bean dhal) from Andhra Pradesh. Nowadays, dosas are readily found in almost every corner of India, from Tamil Nadu to the Himalaya.

Feature: Street-Food Tips

Tucking into street eats is a highlight of travelling in India. To help stave off tummy troubles, follow these tips:

  • Give yourself a few days to adjust to the local cuisine, especially if you’re unaccustomed to spicy food.
  • If locals are avoiding a particular vendor, you probably should too. Any place popular with families is likely to be your safest bet.
  • You may like to check how and where the vendor is cleaning the utensils, and how and where the food is covered. If the vendor is cooking in oil, take a peek to check it’s clean. If the pots or surfaces are dirty, there are food scraps about or too many buzzing flies, don’t be shy to make a hasty retreat.
  • Don’t be put off when you order some deep-fried snack and the cook throws it back into the wok. It’s common practice to partly cook the snacks first and then finish them off once they’ve been ordered. Frying them hot again kills germs.
  • Unless a place is reputable (and busy), it’s advisable to avoid eating meat from the street.
  • The hygiene standard at juice stalls varies, so exercise caution. Have the vendor press the juice in front of you and steer clear of anything stored in a jug or served in a glass (unless you’re confident about the washing standards).
  • Don’t be tempted by glistening presliced melon and other fruit, which keeps its luscious veneer with regular dousing of often-unfiltered water.

Sidebar: Book About Rice

Spotlighting rice, Finest Rice Recipes by Sabina Sehgal Saikia shows just how versatile this humble grain is, with tempting creations such as rice-crusted crab cakes.

Sidebar: Ghee

Ghee is made by melting butter and removing the water and milk solids – ghee is the clear butter fat that remains. It's better for high-heat cooking than butter and keeps for longer.

Sidebar: Defining Thali

Thali means 'plate' in Hindi, and is the name of a complete meal, comprising a selection of dishes in small (usually metal) bowls served on a larger dish, plus roti, rice, chutneys and dessert. Unlimited thali means you get refills.

Sidebar: Book About Women & Food

The Anger of Aubergines: Stories of Women and Food by Bulbul Sharma is an amusing culinary analysis of social relationships interspersed with enticing recipes.

Sidebar: Food Guide to India

The Penguin Food Guide to India by Charmaine O’Brien evocatively explores multiple regional cuisines, from Goa's Galinha cafreal to Uttarakhand's bhang ka raita.

Sidebar: Definition of Curry

Technically speaking, there’s no such thing as an Indian ‘curry’ – the word, an Anglicised derivative of the Tamil word kari (sauce), was used by the British as a term for any spiced dish.

Sidebar: Street Foods of India Book

Got the munchies? Grab Street Foods of India by Vimla and Deb Kumar Mukerji, which has recipes of much-loved Indian snacks, from samosas and bhelpuri to jalebis and kulfi.

Sidebar: Definition of Prasad

Food that is first offered to deities at temples then shared among devotees is known as prasad. Indian sweets are the most common form of this holy offering.

Sidebar: Indian Wine

The subcontinent’s wine industry is an ever-evolving one – take a cyber-sip of Indian wine at www.indianwines.info. Prime winemaking regions are found in the states of Maharashtra and Karnataka.

Sidebar: Indian Vegan Book

Vegan Richa’s Indian Kitchen: Traditional and Creative Recipes for the Home Cook by Richa Hingle has everything from tongue-tingling tempeh to cool saffron ice lollies.

Sidebar: Restaurant Review Website

For India-wide restaurant reviews and recommendations, one popular option is Zomato (zomato.com/india), covering everywhere from Mumbai and Manali to Delhi and Darjeeling.

Sidebar: Indian Spice Kitchen Book

Containing handy tips, including how to best store spices, Monisha Bharadwaj’s The Indian Spice Kitchen is a terrific cookbook with more than 200 traditional recipes.

Sidebar: Book About Indian Sweets

The Book of Indian Sweets by Satarupa Banerjee contains a jolly jumble of regional sweet treats, from Bengali rasgullas to Goan bebinca.

Sidebar: Indian Recipes Websites

  • Recipes Indian (www.recipesindian.com)
  • India Food Recipes (www.thokalath.com/cuisine)
  • Indian Food Forever (www.indianfoodforever.com)

Sidebar: Indian Cooking Book

Complete Indian Cooking by Mridula Baljekar, Rafi Fernandez, Shehzad Husain and Manisha Kanani has more than 300 recipes, including chicken with green mango and masala mashed potatoes.