Unmissable food and beverages to sample while you travel India.
Indian food is famous the world over, especially among those with a taste for spicy, richly seasoned curries, aromatic rice dishes, and hearty flatbreads, not to mention sumptuous sweets flavored with everything from mangos to rosewater. From warming chai to sweet tooth-appeasing gulab jamun, here are but a few of India’s best beverages, snacks, dishes, and desserts.
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India’s most popular drink, masala chai (literally translatable as spiced tea), can be found everywhere from rural roadside stalls to upscale urban cafes. It’s usually made by boiling ample amounts of tea leaves and sugar along with milk, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ginger, and sometimes a touch of black pepper. This sweet, spicy concoction is often served in tiny glasses and sometimes accompanied with cookies or biscotti-like biscuit.
The Russians have their vodka, the Irish have their whiskey, and the Indians have their Old Monk. This ubiquitous brand of saccharine red rum is served throughout the country, often with Coca-Cola and a few ice cubes, though its strong vanilla aroma and overall sweetness may make it a little intense for overseas palates.
If you’ve been to an Indian restaurant in North America or Europe, you’ve probably seen “mango lassi,” a sort of frothy mango and yogurt smoothie on the menu. In India, lassis take on all sorts of flavors, and while the mango variety certainly is popular when the fruit is in season, you’re more likely to see lassis flavored with perennial fruits, notably bananas. Sweet lassis made with sugar, yogurt, and water are also popular, while some drink them salted, often with a dash of cumin. Note that in some holy towns, notably Pushkar in Rajasthan, you may be offered a “special lassi” or “bhang lassi.” Buyer beware, these drinks are made with bhang, a powerful blend of herbs, including marijuana, that can have near-psychedelic effects!
India’s spin on lemonade, nimbu pani (literally “lemon water”) is a refreshing summer drink served in homes and restaurants across India. It can be made sweet (with sugar), salty (with salt), or mixed (with both), and is sometimes spiced up with a little cumin. The mixed variety is a great alternative to sports drinks if you’re feeling dehydrated.
The staple source of protein across India, particularly in the North and Eastern parts of the country, dal (lentils) is a broad term referring to all sorts of lentil stews, usually served on rice or with flatbread. Popular varieties include dal tadka (usually one or more types of yellow lentils tempered with cumin-infused oil) and dal makhani (black lentils cooked with lots of butter and cream).
Also known as gol gappe and, sometimes, gup chup, this popular street food consists of hollow, crisp, bite-sized balls made from flour and deep fried. They are then partially stuffed with mashed potatoes, onions, coriander, and a variety of chickpeas and dipped in a sweet and spicy water and eaten immediately. Just don’t try to nibble on them or you’ll get splashed with water; the idea is to stuff a whole pani puri into your mouth, like you might a piece of sushi.
Served at breakfast tables across North India, particularly in the Punjab region, paranthas are a type of unleavened flatbread that are oftentimes stuffed with spiced potatoes, cauliflower, radishes, paneer (tofu-like Indian cheese), and even fenugreek leaves. They are then lightly fried and served hot with pickled vegetables and plain yogurt. The unstuffed variety are often served as an accompaniment to curries, and the flakey, layered, tandoor oven-baked laccha parantha is particularly popular.
As the home of the Tibetan Government in Exile and the Dalai Lama, India has an enormous Tibetan community, and Tibetan food can be found widely in cities such as Delhi and Dehradun. Momos (dumplings) are particularly popular, and consist of vegetables (usually cabbage) or meat wrapped in a flour dough and steamed or deep fried. While virtually all Tibetan and Indo-Chinese restaurants serve momos, they’re most commonly found served as street food, from market stalls.
India’s national fruit, the mighty mango is beloved across the country in all sorts of varieties. In India, you can find mango-flavored everything, from hard candies to fruit juice, and mangos are often used to make sour-and-spicy pickles and sweeter chutneys, served as condiments to complement curry dishes. While there are hundreds of varieties of this juicy stone fruit, the most lauded (and priciest) is the Alphonso mango, which grows primarily in the state of Maharashtra, near Mumbai (Bombay).
Another popular breakfast item in North India (although also commonly eaten as a snack food), chole bhature consists of spicy cooked garbanzo beans (chole) paired with gargantuan, deep fried puff pastries that are similar to elephant ears, but without the sugar and cinnamon. Fresh red onions are often served as an accompaniment to add a little zest.
Biriyani is a spiced rice dish originating in India’s Muslim communities that generally consists of fine basmati rice slow cooked with aromatic spices along with meat or vegetables and, in some cases, raisins or even cashews, and sometimes served with gravy and/or yogurt. The dish is associated with the South Indian city of Hyderabad, which has its own popular variety, generally cooked with goat (though vegetarian versions are always available).
Found at hotel breakfast buffets across India and in homes throughout the southern regions of the country, idli sambar is a dish consisting of idlis (fluffy, sponge-like cakes made of a fermented rice-and-lentil flour and steamed) and sambar (a lentil and vegetable stew cooked with tamarind). It’s often served with coconut chutneys.
A South Indian breakfast dish that’s popular throughout India, masala dosas are crepes made of fermented black lentil and rice batter (or semolina flour, in the case of “rava masala dosas”) and stuffed with spiced cooked potatoes. Dosas are generally served with sambar (lentil and veggie stew) and coconut chutney; for a spicier variety, try the Mysore masala dosa, which comes lined with a chili and garlic chutney.
India’s best-known street food, particularly outside of the country, samosas are triangular puff pastries filled with spiced veggies (potatoes and peas are the most common), deep fried, and served piping hot. They’re often served with tangy tamarind or mint chutney or smashed up in a bowl of chickpeas.
A popular street food in the city of Mumbai pao bhaji consists of thick buns (or pao, similar to dinner rolls) that are buttered, lightly grilled, and served with a spicy curry, usually consisting primarily of potatoes in a tomato base. Pao bhaji is often served with chopped red onions and a wedge of lemon to add extra flavor to the mix.
Just as the U.S. has its own variety of Chinese food that’s a far cry from what you might find in Shanghai or Beijing, India, too, has its own take on the cuisine of their northern neighbors. Indo-Chinese food is reinvented for Indian taste buds and uses local ingredients, with lots of vegetarian options. The most popular dish is gobi Manchurian—cauliflower sautéed with onion, garlic, and green peppers in a soy and chili sauce. Both “gravy” and “dry” variants of the dish exist; the former is more like a curry while the latter consists of pieces of the vegetable fried without any sauce and served as a finger food.
Among the most popular non-vegetarian dishes in Delhi, where it originated, butter chicken consists of chicken cooked in a mildly spiced tomato, cream, and butter gravy. It was created back in the 1950s at the flagship branch of Delhi’s famous Moti Mahal restaurant but today can be found in restaurants across the country and abroad. Vegetarians who want to try the sauce without the meat can opt for a paneer makhani, which uses the same type of gravy but replaces chicken with paneer (soft cheese).
Fans of ultra-spicy food may enjoy testing their limits by ordering vindaloo, a fiery curry that consists of meat (traditionally pork, but chicken is also common) soaked in vinegar overnight and then cooked with potatoes in a rich, spiced gravy. The dish is popular in the tiny state of Goa where it originated.
This popular sweet item is commonly served in North Indian road side sweet shops, particularly in the cooler winter months. It’s made from a flour batter flavored with a sweet syrup that’s squeezed into swirly forms through a pastry bag directly into a vat of hot oil. Jalebis can be eaten cold, but they are best served fresh, when they are still hot and gooey.
Gulab jamuns are sweet, spongey balls made from milk solids, flavored with a bit of saffron and cardamom, and soaked in a sugary rose syrup. This dessert is a popular feature in Indian restaurants worldwide, but in India, it’s often eaten to mark special occasions and religious holidays.
Though it’s not the only kind of beer available in India, Kingfisher is surely the country’s most iconic. While the company makes all sorts of varieties, Kingfisher Premium is the most popular, with a light flavor that pairs well with spicy curries. Beware of the “strong” type, it’s designed to get people drunk and known to wreak havoc on the bellies of even the most experienced of drinkers.
Though most Indian households favor simple, strong teas for making the country’s beloved masala chai, those with a taste for lighter, subtler flavor that can be consumed without milk should make sure to sample India’s most famous tea: Darjeeling. Dubbed the “Champagne of teas,” this tea is grown only in the hilly Darjeeling area of West Bengal, where green, white, and oolong varietals are also beginning to gain popularity.
Fresh Lime Soda
A great alternative to saccharine soft drinks, fresh lime soda consists of club soda or sparkling water (just called “soda” in India) mixed with lemon juice (Indian lemons are tiny and kind of look like limes, perhaps explaining the slight misnomer). It’s usually served “sweet” (with sugar), “salty” (with salt), or “mixed” (with both sugar and salt), though most restaurants and street vendors are happy to sell it without either if you ask for it plain.
Popular across South Asia and the Middle East, sherbet is a sweet beverage usually made by mixing cold water with concentrated sugary syrup, often flavored with some combination of herbs, fruits, or rose petals. The most popular type is Rooh Afza, made from herbs, roots, and rose petals, while rhododendron syrup is a popular souvenir often sold in resort towns in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Popular in hot countries across the world, sugarcane juice is a refreshing beverage created by grinding sugarcane to a pulp to extract its juice, often using gigantic hand-operated machines. Sugarcane juice often mixed with sulfurous-tasting black salt (kala namak), which cuts some of the sweetness and makes for a refreshing alternative to sports beverages. Just be careful where you get it, as drinking sugarcane juice from roadside stalls can be a quick way to end up with a case of Delhi belly.
Sort of like a thin, spiced milkshake, thandai is a cooling beverage made with milk, sugar, and a mix of subtle spices, notably cardamom, saffron, rose petals, and almonds. It’s often flavored with almonds or almond syrup and is particularly popular during the annual Holi festival, when it’s mixed with cannabis paste (known as bhang) and consumed with fervor.
Indian Soft Drinks
India has a whole slew of homegrown soda pops, the most notable of which are Thums Up and Limca. Thums Up is a fizzy, earthy cola that was created in the late 1970s after Coca-Cola stopped distributing their products in India (due to a refusal to share their secret formula with local partners, though ironically Coca-Cola actually owns the product today. Limca was created around the same time and has a lemon-lime flavor, though it’s much more like a French lemonade than Sprite or 7-Up.