A Food-Lover’s Guide to India

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Curioso / Susanna Hopler)

For many people, Indian food begins and ends at curry. But, in fact, there is actually no single dish called curry. It’s British, in both origin and usage. In India, each gravy has a specific name, depending on ingredients or the type of cooking — like “paneer butter masala” or “chicken korma,” for example.

Furthermore, while Indian cuisine does have a dazzling variety of vegetarian and meat gravies, the food goes way beyond that. Every state, every region within the country has its own flavors, spices, and dishes, many of which are not even found in restaurants.

Here is a quick guide to a food pilgrimage in India.

Get an Introduction to Indian Food in Mumbai

Why go: If it is your first time to India, Mumbai is an ideal starting place. A thali (Hindi for platter) is an ideal way to sample a large number of dishes. A Thali is a common meal, typically eaten at lunch, that involves an array of snacks, breads, rice, and cooked dishes, all served at once, each in a little dish on a big round platter. In my opinion, there is none better than a thali in the mild, vegetarian style of the neighboring state of Gujarat.

Where to eat: Your best bets are Chetana, Rajdhani, and Golden Star Thali, all of which also serve the utterly delicious aamras (fresh and thick mango juice) in season, between April and July.

What to see: The Gateway of India on the waterfront, a ceremonial entry for British Governors and Viceroys built in 1924, is the best place for people-watching.

Find Street Food Nirvana in Delhi

Why go: While most travelers tend to equate Delhi with New Delhi, it is in the crowded lanes of Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi — once the heart of Mughal India — that foodies in search of sublime street food are likely to attain nirvana. Just remember that most of Delhi’s street food is of the fried and sinful, but oh-so-good variety.

Must-eat dishes: Samosa and kachori (fried snacks with savory potato or lentil filling) are the kings of street food in India, and are de rigueur at any street stall. The more unusual aloo ke kulle (boiled potatoes scooped out and filled with a dry chickpea mixture) and fruit chaat (assorted fruit tossed together with a homegrown masala) are available at the Bishan Swaroop stall.

Sweet spot: Your sweet tooth will never be the same again after you have had a treacly jalebi — deep-fried spirals of lentil dough, soaked in sugar syrup — at the Old Famous Jalebi Wala.

What to see: The mid-17th-century Red Fort built by Mughal Emperor Shahjahan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of Delhi’s top attractions.

Eat, Pray, Love in Amritsar

Why go: In the northwestern Indian state of Punjab, Amritsar is known for the Golden Temple, the most significant place of worship for people from the Sikh faith, but welcoming of everyone. It is also one of the finest places to tuck into an array of vegetable, lentil, and meat gravies eaten with a variety of breads. Here, people eat, pray, and love with equal intensity and honesty.

Must-eat dishes: Have the Aloo kulcha (stuffed potato bread) with chhole (chickpea gravy) at the informal Bharawan Da Dhaba, then wash it down with a tall glass of Amritsar’s most famous lassi at Ahuja Lassi Shop. Carnivores should head to Beera Chicken Corner for a plate of chicken tikka or Sunder Meat Shop for melt-in-the-mouth mutton kababs.

Insider tip: When visiting the Golden Temple, be sure to have a langar at the community kitchen, serving free meals to over 50,000 people every day.

Eat the Freshest Catch in Kochi

Why go: While Goa, that blessed land of beaches, is popular among tourists, Kochi down south has fresher catch, subtler spicing (with black pepper and green chili), and the unmatched flavors of coconut in its dishes.

Must-eat dishes: There are several dishes unique to the coastal state of Kerala, including Meen Molagitta Curry (smoked fish cooked in coconut milk), Meen Moily (a coconut-y fish stew), and Chemmeen Pollichathu (marinated prawns steamed inside a green banana leaf). While you generally can’t go wrong anywhere in Kochi, locals recommend Fusion Bay and Trigoli.

What to see: The Fort Kochi area is a proverbial melting pot of cultures, with its mishmash of Dutch, Portuguese, and British legacies, still visible in its churches and other monuments.

Eat the Best Biryani in Lucknow

Why go: Biryani, a fragrant and mildly spiced dish of rice layered with meat, is not just food but an entire culture in many parts of India. Where the best biryani comes from is often the subject of heated debates among foodies, with Hyderbad in the south and Lucknow in the north competing for the top spot. Lucknow’s edge comes from centuries of rule under gourmand kings who encouraged cooks in the royal kitchen to constantly experiment and refine their skills.

Must-eat dishes: Tuck into aromatic dum biryani (cooked slowly in its own steam) and melt-in-the-mouth galawat and kakori kababs (both mutton) at the Taj hotels’ specialist restaurant Oudhyana.

What to see: Don’t miss the Bara Imambara, a magnificent meeting hall that contains the Bhool Bhulaiya labyrinth.

(Image credit: Charukesi Ramadurai)

Snack All Day in Chennai

Why go: Tiffin is a word redolent of the days of the Raj (from the word “tiffing,” a sly reference to drinking), meaning a snack or a light meal usually eaten in the late afternoon. In the south of India, where rice and not wheat is the staple, tiffin is anything that is not lunch or dinner. And there is no better tiffin town than Chennai, erstwhile Madras, along the Bay of Bengal.

Must-eat dishes: Start your day with a crisp masala dosa (rice and lentil crepes with a potato filling) or pongal (savory rice and lentil pudding) at Saravana Bhavan, followed by a cup of frothy and strong filter coffee. In the evenings, tuck into soft idlis (steamed rice cakes) served with three types of chutney at Murugan Idli Shop.

What to see: The Kapaleeswarar Temple in Mylapore — a neighborhood that has found mention in scholarly texts from 90 CE — is a stunning spiritual experience.

Planning a trip to India? Here’s more helpful reading.