An Insider’s Guide to Eating Out in India

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Liz Clayman)

When planning my most recent trip to India, I focused on where to eat, what to eat, and how to eat as much of it as possible. Just as importantly, though, I wanted to be cognizant of local customs, tips, and tricks. Enter Carishma Mehta — Delhi resident, organic farm owner, and intrepid eater.

Here are her tips on dining out, whether it’s at one of the many incredible stalls in Old Delhi, or at Indian Accent, the very fancy, of-the-moment restaurant which, by the way, just opened an outpost in New York.

Carishma Mehta’s Tips for Eating Out in India

1. It’s a big country with a lot of different regional cuisines.

Many restaurants will serve a mix of northern and southern dishes no matter where you are. For the most local and authentic experience, be aware of which region of India you are in, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. For example, naan, butter chicken, samosas, aloo goobi (potatoes with cauliflower), saag paneer (spinach with fresh cheese), and roti are all northern dishes. Dosa (lentil and rice crêpe), idli (steamed lentil and rice cakes), and jangri (a fried dessert) are southern. And this just touches on the diversity of the country’s cuisine. Don’t forget west and east India, and everywhere in between.

2. There are different breads for different dishes.

In the same line of thought, certain breads traditionally pair with certain dishes, and while you are more than welcome to order any combination you want, don’t be shy to ask your server which are customarily served together. For example, fish curry is eaten with rice appams, while bhature (a fluffy fried bread) is most commonly served with chole (a thick chickpea curry).

3. Always, always ask for bottled water.

In addition, make it a general rule to avoid any foods that might not have been washed in it. As an extra precaution, avoid ice, salads, and fruit you haven’t peeled yourself.

4. Go ahead … touch the beer.

When a server presents you with the bottle of beer or wine you’ve ordered, it isn’t to taste, but rather to touch and make sure it’s cold enough for your taste. Related: It’s common in some places for servers to open the bottle of wine or beer you’ve ordered prior to bringing it to the table. However, if you want to inspect the bottle before opening, you can ask for it to be brought unopened.

5. Two bills are normal.

Alcohol is generally expensive in India, and the taxation is vastly different. As a result, two bills are often brought to account for the disparity. To avoid language confusion, ask for the bill — not the check.

6. Bugs are a reality.

If you’re sitting outside, don’t be afraid to ask for mosquito coils and spray — they’re generally available at most establishments and can make your experience more pleasurable.

7. Follow the crowds.

One of the best barometers for hygiene when you’re eating on the street is to stick to stalls that are busy with customers and packed with locals.

8. Right is right.

Try not to use your left hand when eating with your hands. In Indian etiquette this is usually considered quite offensive.