Indian cooking is one of the great cuisines of the world. Like the country itself, however, it varies greatly from region to region, and you'll discover a great deal more to savor than the ubiquitous kormas and tikka masalas (known to the naive simply as "curry") with which most Westerners are familiar. Not only does each Indian community and ethnic and regional group have a distinct cuisine, but there is a great deal of fusion within the country -- subtle variations and combinations you're only likely to pick up once you are familiar with the basics. A good way to sample a variety of dishes in a particular region is to order a thali (multicourse meal), in which an assortment of items is served. Basic staples that tend to be served with every meal throughout the subcontinent are rice, dal (lentils), and/or some form of roti (bread). The following is a brief summary of regional variations and general dining tips.
Southern States -- Food from the coastal areas of India almost always contains a generous quantity of coconut -- besides using it in cooking, most Maharashtrian homes offer grated coconut as a garnish to every dish. Rice also dominates the food of southern India, as do their "breads," which are more like pancakes and made of a rice (and/or dal) batter -- these appams, idiapams, and dosas are found throughout the south. Dosas are in fact a South Indian "breakfast" favorite (consumed anytime), as are idlis and vadas, all of which have become part of mainstream cooking in many parts of India. Idli is a steamed rice and lentil dumpling, dosa a pancake (similar batter), and vada a deep-fried doughnut-shaped snack. All should be eaten fresh and hot with a coconut chutney and sambar, which is a specially seasoned dal (lentils), also eaten with steamed rice. In Tamil Nadu a large number of people are vegetarian, but in Kerala, Goa, and Mumbai, you must sample the fresh fish! Delicious kebabs and slow-cooked meals are what you'll find in Hyderabadi cuisine; inspired by the courts of the nawabs (nobles), it's similar to Mughlai cooking, but stronger in flavor.
Northern States -- India's great meat-eating tradition comes from the Mughals and Kashmiris, whose rogan josh and creamy korma dishes, along with kebabs and biryanis, have become the backbone of Indian restaurants overseas. The most popular tradition -- tandoor (clay oven) cooking -- is part of India's Mughal gastronomic heritage. Tandoor dishes are effectively "barbecued" vegetables, paneer (Indian cheese), or meat that has been marinated and tenderized in spiced yogurt, cooked over coals, and then served either "dry" as a kebab or in a rich spiced gravy like the korma. Recently revived is the tradition of dum pukht, enjoyed by the erstwhile nawabs of Awadh in Lucknow and the surrounding area. All the ingredients are sealed and slow-cooked in a pot, around which coals are placed. Nothing escapes the sealed pot, preserving the flavors.
Northwest (Punjab) Specials -- Besides trying the various tandoor dishes, you should order parathas: A Punjabi specialty, this thick version of the traditional chapati is stuffed with potatoes, cabbage, radish, or a variety of other fillings. Be aware that many North Indians love their ghee (clarified butter); sensitive stomachs (or those watching their weight) should simply specify that they would prefer their paratha without ghee. A general note of caution when dining in North India: If the menu specifies a choice between oil and ghee as a cooking method, you should probably specify the former. And keep in mind that if you exclusively eat oily, highly pungent, so-called Punjabi fare, you are bound to feel ill, so make sure you vary your meals by dining at South Indian restaurants, which combine a healthy balance of carbohydrate and protein (rice and dal); in northern states you will find rotis (breads) combined with rajma (kidney beans), puris (bread) with chole (chickpeas), and so on.
Eastern States -- Freshwater fish (such as hilsa, bekti, and rohu) take pride of place at the Bengali table, which incidentally considers itself to be the apotheosis of Indian cooking. In Bengal, mustard oil (which has its own powerful flavor) is the preferred cooking oil. Sweets are another Bengali gift to the world; these are made from milk that has been converted to paneer (Indian cheese) and that has names like rosogolla (or rasgulla) and sandesh.
Spices -- Literally hundreds of spices (masalas) and spice combinations form the culinary backdrop to India, but a few are used so often that they are considered indispensable. Turmeric (haldi) -- in its common form a yellow powder with a slightly bitter flavor -- is the foremost, not least for its antiseptic properties. Mustard seeds are also very important, particularly in the south. Cumin seeds and coriander seeds and their powders are widely used in different forms -- whether you powder, roast, or fry a spice, and how you do so, makes a big difference in determining the flavors of a dish. Chili powder is another common ingredient, available in umpteen different varieties and potencies. Then there are the vital "sweet" spices--cardamom (elaichi), clove (lavang), cinnamon (dalchini) -- which, along with black pepper (kali miri), make up the key ingredients of the spice combination known as garam masala. Though tolerance to spicy food is extremely subjective, let your preference be known by asking whether the item is spicy-hot (tikha hai?) and indicating no-chili, medium-spicy, and so on. "Curry powder" as it is merchandised in the West is rarely found or used in India. "Curry" more or less defines the complex and very diverse combination of spices freshly ground together, often to create a spicy saucelike liquid that comes in varying degrees of pungency and varies in texture and consistency, from thin and smooth to thick and grainy, ideally accompanied by rice or breads.
Staples & Accompaniments -- All over the country, Indian food is served with either the staple of rice or bread, or both -- the most popular being unleavened (pan-roasted) breads (called rotis); tandoor-baked breads; deep-fried breads (puris and bhaturas) or pancake-style ones. Chapatis, thin whole-wheat breads roasted in a flat iron pan (tava), are the most common bread eaten in Indian homes, though these are not as widely available as restaurant breads. The thicker version of chapatis are called parathas, which can be stuffed with an assortment of vegetables or even ground meat. Tandoor-roasted breads are made with a more refined flour and include naans, tandoori rotis, and the super-thin roomali (handkerchief) rotis. Tandoor breads turn a little leathery when cold and are best eaten fresh.
Dal, made of lentils (any of a huge variety) and seasoned with mustard, cumin, chilies, and/or other spices, is another Indian staple eaten throughout the country. Khichdi, a mixture of rice, lentils, and spices, is a great meal by itself and considered comfort food. In some parts it's served with kadhi -- a savory sour yogurt-based stew to which chickpea flour dumplings may be added. You'll usually be served accompaniments in the form of onion and lime, chutneys, pickles, relishes, and a variety of yogurt-based salads called raita. Papads (roasted or fried lentil flour discs) are another favorite food accompaniment that arrives with your meal in a variety of shapes, sizes, and flavors.
Meat -- A large number of Indians are vegetarian for religious reasons, with entire towns serving only vegetarian meals, but these are so delicious that meat lovers are unlikely to feel put out. Elsewhere, meat lovers should probably (unless you're dining in a top-end big-city restaurant) opt for the chicken and fish dishes -- not only are these usually very tender and succulent, but the "mutton" or "lamb" promised on the menu is more often than not goat, while "beef" (seldom on the menu -- beef is taboo for most Hindus, and the ban on cow slaughter continues to be a raging national debate) is usually water buffalo. Again, there are regional differences, as in "Portuguese" Goa, where pork is common.
Sweets -- Indians love sweets (called mithais, mishtaan, or "sweet meats"), and they love them very sweet. In fact, Western palates often find Indian sweets too sweet; if this is the case, sample the dry-fruit-based sweets. Any occasion for celebration necessitates a round of sweets as a symbol of spreading sweetness (happiness). Every region of the country has a variety of specialty sweets made from an array of ingredients, but they are largely milk-based. This includes pedas and laddus (soft, circular), barfis (brownielike), halwas (sticky or wet), kheer (rice pudding-like), and so on. Whatever you do, don't miss the Indian kulfi, a creamy, rich ice cream flavored with saffron, nuts, or seasonal fruit.
Fruits -- If the spiciness of the meals unsettles your stomach, try living on fruit for a day. You'll get a whole range of delicious tropical varieties (with any luck, in a basket in your hotel room) ranging from guavas and jackfruit to litchi and the most coveted fruit of them all, the mango. More than 200 varieties of mangoes are grown in India, but the most popular ones (Alphonso or aphoos) come from Maharashtra (Mar-June); try to taste one when you're in Mumbai.
Beverages -- Chai (tea) is India's national drink. Normally served in small quantities, it is hot, made with milk usually flavored with ginger and/or cardamom, and rather sweet unless you request otherwise. Instant coffee is widely available (and may be mixed in your five-star hotel's "filter coffee" pot), but in South India you'll get excellent fresh brews. Another drink worth trying is lassi, liquefied sweetened yogurt. Note: The yogurt is sometimes thinned with water, so you're only safe consuming lassis in places where they can assure you no water was added at all, or where they will make it with bottled water (that you purchase separately). Lassi's close companion is chaas, a savory version that is very thin and served with Gujarati/Rajasthani meals. With southern food, it is served with a flavorful assortment of herbs and spices. In general, you should avoid ice in any beverage unless you are satisfied that it is made from boiled water.
Eating Etiquette -- Eating with your hands: Indians generally eat with their hands, and although many don't do so in five-star Westernized restaurants, the majority will in most other places. Even the simplest restaurant will be able to provide a spoon as cutlery, but if you really want to experience your meal in an authentic manner, follow suit. Note that you should ideally only use your right hand (though in places where tourists go, people are unlikely to be offended if you use your left). In the north, where the food is "drier," you are traditionally not supposed to dirty more than the first two digits of your fingers. In the south, where the food is much "wetter," you may use the whole hand to eat.
Sharing your food: It is typically Indian to share food or drinks, even if you don't really want to. On long train journeys, you're likely to meet Indian families carrying a lot of food, which they will invite you to share -- do sample some, if only to get a taste of home cooking. In return, you can buy them a round of tea or cold drinks when the vendors come by.
Sharing food at a restaurant is another Indian norm; menus are set up to cater to this style of dining. So, for example, if two or more of you go to a Mughlai restaurant, you would order perhaps two kinds of kebabs, two kinds of meat/vegetable entrees, one rice, and several breads (rotis). It's a good way to try a range of items.
The hygiene of jootha: While sharing is good manners, jootha is considered offensive in many parts. This refers to drinking from the same glass, eating with the same spoon, taking a bite out of someone's sandwich, or "double dipping." To share a bread or snack, break off a piece; when sharing a bottle of water, don't put your mouth to it but tilt your head back and pour. Although there are no definite rules about what is permissible or not, just make sure that you use common courtesy when sharing a meal with others.
Salads -- The practice of eating Western-style salads (except raw onion) is not very common, but most restaurants do have them on the menu. Beware that it is only advisable to eat these in top-end restaurants, and make sure that the vegetables have been freshly cut and washed in boiled water.
Street Food -- Even in smaller cities like Indore and Jaipur, street food has a fantastic tradition and following. Samosas, vadas, bhelpuri, sev, bhajias, and a host of deep-fried foods are all delicious, and you should try them on your trip. It's not easy for the first-time visitor to figure out which street foods are safe to eat, however -- best to look for an outlet where loads of people are lined up; this means that neither the food nor the oil have been around long. Alternatively, ask your hotel for suggestions.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.