Indian cuisine is superb and takes its place among the great cuisines of the world. There is a good chance that you'd have tasted "Indian food" in your country, especially if you are a traveller from the West, but what India has exported abroad is just one part of its extraordinary range of culinary diversity.
Indian food has a well-deserved reputation for being hot, owing to the Indian penchant for the liberal use of a variety of spices, and potent fresh green chilis or red chilli powder that will bring tears to the eyes of the uninitiated, and found in unexpected places like sweet cornflakes a snack, not breakfast or even candies. The degree of spiciness varies widely throughout the country: Andhra food is famously fiery, while Gujarati cuisine is quite mild in taste.
To enjoy the local food, start slowly. Don't try everything at once. After a few weeks, you can get accustomed to spicy food. If you would like to order your dish not spicy, simply say so. Most visitors are tempted to try at least some of the spicy concoctions, and most discover that the sting is worth the trouble.
Indian restaurants run the gamut from roadside shacks dhabas to classy five-star places where the experience is comparable to places anywhere in the world. Away from the big cities and tourist haunts, mid-level restaurants are scarce, and food choices will be limited to the local cuisine, Punjabi/Mughlai, "Chinese" and occasionally South Indian.
Menus in English... well, almost
Menus in Indian restaurants are usually written in English — but using Hindi names. Here's a quick decoder key that goes a long way for understanding common dishes like aloo gobi and muttar paneer.
aloo or aalu — potato
baigan or baingan — eggplant/aubergine
bhindi — okra
chana — chickpeas
dal — lentils
gobi — cauliflower or other cabbage
machli — fish
makkhan — butter
matar — green peas
mirch — chilli pepper
murgh or murg — chicken
palak or saag — spinach or other greens
paneer — Indian cottage cheese
subzi — vegetable
The credit for popularizing Punjabi cuisine all over the country goes to the dhabas that line India's highways. Their patrons are usually the truckers, who happen to be overwhelmingly Punjabi. The authentic dhaba serves up simple yet tasty seasonal dishes like roti and dhal with onions, and diners sit on cots instead of chairs. Hygiene can be an issue in many dhabas, so if one's not up to your standards try another. In rural areas, dhabas are usually the only option.
In Southern India, "Hotel" means a local restaurant serving south Indian food, usually a thali -- a full plate of food that usually includes a kind of bread and an assortment of meat or vegetarian dishes -- and prepared meals.
Although you may be handed an extensive menu, most dishes are served only during specific hours, if at all.
Tipping is unusual outside of fancier restaurants where 10% is appropriate.
Know your vegetarians
Most Indians who practise vegetarianism do so for religious or cultural reasons — though cultural taboos have their roots in ethical concerns. Indians' dietary restrictions come in all shapes and sizes and the two symbols see right do not capture the full range. Here is a quick guide:
Veganismis practically unknown in many parts of India, because milk and honey are enthusiastically consumed by virtually everyone. But major cities, such as Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, do have budding vegan societies and items such as tofu, soy chunks branded Nutrela, and soy milk are readily available in major cities, as well as some minor ones. Eggs are considered non-vegetarian by many, though you are very likely to find people who are otherwise vegetarian eating eggs. These people are often referred to as eggetarians. That said, there are a number of foods that are vegan by default in India, including standard restaurant dishes such as aloo gobi, channa masala, various types of dal, dosas, and the vast majority of Indo-Chinese dishes. Dishes made with dairy products are usually denoted as such referencing their use of butter or ghee, in particular. Most restaurants will accommodate dietary restrictions and it is advisable to ask if a dish contains milk, butter, cream, yogurt or ghee. Virtually all Indian desserts, however, are non-vegan, with the exception of jalebi, an orange-colored fried dough commonly found in western and northern India.
The strictest vegetarians are some Jains and some Brahmin sects - they not only abjure all kinds of meat and eggs, they also refuse to eat onions, potatoes or anything grown under the soil.
Even meat-eating Hindus often follow special diets during religious days or during fasts. Hindu fasts do not involve giving up all food, just eating a restricted diet — some take only fruits.
A very small group of Indians are, or used to be piscatarians — i.e. they count fish as a vegetable product. Among these are Bengali and Konkani Brahmins. Such people are increasingly rare as most have taken to meat-eating.
Visiting vegetarians will discover a culinary treasure that is found nowhere else in the world. Owing to a large number of strictly vegetarian Hindus and Jains, Indian cuisine has evolved an astonishingly rich menu that uses no meat or eggs. The Jains in particular practice a strict form of vegetarianism based on the principles of non-violence and peaceful co-operative co-existence: Jains usually do not consume root vegetables such as potatoes, garlic, onions, carrots, radishes, cassava, sweet potatoes and turnips., as the plant needed to be killed in the process of accessing these prior to their end of life cycle. At least half the menus of most restaurants are devoted to vegetarian dishes, and by law all packaged food products in India are tagged with a green dot vegetarian or red dot non-veg. Veganism however is not a well-understood concept in India, and vegans may face a tougher time: milk products like cheese paneer, yogurt dahi and clarified butter ghee are used extensively, and honey is also commonly used as a sweetener. Milk in India is generally not pasteurized, and must be boiled before consumption.
Even non-vegetarians will soon note that due to the Hindu taboo, beef is generally not served except in the Muslim and Parsi communities, Goa, Kerala and the North-Eastern states, and pork is also uncommon due to the Muslim population. Chicken and mutton are thus by far the most common meats used, although "buff" water buffalo is occasionally served in backpacker establishments. Seafood is of course ubiquitous in the coastal regions of India, and a few regional cuisines do use duck, venison and other game meats in traditional dishes.
While there are a wide variety of fruits native to India such as the chikoo and the jackfruit, nothing is closer to an Indians' heart than a juicy ripe mango. Hundreds of varieties are found across most of its regions — in fact, India is the largest producer, growing more than half the world's output. Mangoes are in season at the hottest part of the year, usually between May and July, and range from small as big as a fist to some as big as a small cantaloupe. It can be consumed in its ripe, unripe as well a baby form the last 2 predominently in pickles. Other fruits widely available depending on the season are bananas, oranges, guavas, lychees, apples, pineapple, pomegranate, apricot, melons, coconut, grapes, plums, peaches and berries.
In India eating with your hand instead of utensils like forks and spoons is very common. There's one basic rule of etiquette to observe, particularly in non-urban India: Use only your right hand. The left hand is only used for dirty things, like cleaning up in the toilet. Don't stick either hand into communal serving dishes: instead, use the left hand to serve yourself with utensils and then dig in. Needless to say, it's wise to wash your hands well before and after eating.
For breads for all types, the basic technique is to hold down the item with your forefinger and use your middle-finger and thumb to tear off pieces. The pieces can then be dipped in sauce or used to pick up bits before you stuff them in your mouth. Rice is more challenging, but the basic idea is to use four fingers to mix the rice in curry and pack a little ball, before you pop it in your mouth by pushing it with your thumb.
Most of the restaurants do provide cutlery and its pretty safe to use them instead of your hand.
Eating by hand is frowned on in some "classier" places. If you are provided with cutlery and nobody else around you seems to be doing it, then take the hint.