What food should we try in India?
December 5, 2018 6:59 AM   Subscribe

We'll be traveling to India soon and want to try food that doesn't usually show up in Indian restaurants in the US. What should be on the lookout for in Delhi, Rajasthan, and Kerala?

We'll be in Delhi, Rajasthan, and Kerala for a few weeks and would love to try food that's hard to get in Indian restaurants in America. Meals, desserts, chaat, fruit and veggies that don't get exported, etc....we're interested in it all. We've got a few great Indian restaurants where we live, but there's got to be a ton of stuff that doesn't get brought over to the US. We'd love to try some dishes that are new to us, and we're adventurous eaters with no dietary restrictions.
posted by msbrauer to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The Barfi (sometimes spelled Burfi or Burfee) available in North India is much better than what you can get in the US. My understanding is that in India it is made from Buffalo milk, whereas in the US it is made from sweetened condensed milk. The Indian Barfi is flaky and delicate, whereas the stuff I've gotten in the US is more like a thick fudge.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 7:14 AM on December 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Most food is a lot lighter than restaurant food. Food in cafe-like places and street food is varied and great. Dairy products are typically much fresher than you'd get in Western countries. Mangos are different and most would say better. Dosas are everywhere and not just for breakfast. Chicken in particular is slower "grown" and denser, but you could do really well even if a pretty dedicated meat eater going (lacto) vegetarian for the duration. Indeed, finding a cheapish place and ordering the veg thali is a great way to go.
posted by hawthorne at 7:22 AM on December 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

In Delhi I would really strongly recommend the the restaurant inside the craft museum (Google to make sure its still good) I was there 18 months ago and it was a really nice menu of regional items from around India, none of them familiar to me, having lived in the US and UK.

But simply put, Indian food in the west comes in mostly two forms, Northern/Punjabi, and Udipi (dosas, etc). Anything other than that will be pretty interesting.

Keralan food is pretty delicious.
posted by JPD at 7:33 AM on December 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

In Rajasthan and Kerala all the food will be different from what you get in the US. In Deli, find a gujurati thali place to have an awesome different experience!
posted by Waiting for Pierce Inverarity at 7:35 AM on December 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh also in Delhi, its kind of a cliche, and its definitely the type of food you are probably used to seeing, but Bukhara in the ITC Hotel is a cliche for a reason. Maybe the best flatbread of any kind I've ever eaten, and the meat is pretty stellar too.
posted by JPD at 7:35 AM on December 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

For context, I'm an American who went on a trip around Northern India (and a couple other places) a few years ago. I absolutely love Indian food, especially Northern Indian food, and getting to eat so well for weeks on end was a huge highlight of the trip! I'm sure your bellies will be similarly happy :)

Everyone is going to think I'm ridiculous for this recommendation, but I really loved the Chinese food in Northern India. It's a sort of Chinese/Indian fusion -- I mean, it's not marketed that way, but it's Chinese food made for Indian palates. It's almost uniformly fabulous, especially if you want some "comfort food."

I also recommend eating paranthas from a street cafe for breakfast. They're hot and greasy and delicious (and served with delicious pickle), and you can't get quite the same thing even from very good home cooking.

The chai from the chaiwallas is very good and (as far as I know) different from anything that you'd be able to get while out and about outside of India.
posted by rue72 at 7:56 AM on December 5, 2018 [6 favorites]

Oh, I should say that I've traveled in Mumbai and Gujurat before, but that was 14 years ago and I don't remember much. I did try Chinese food there but must have found a bad restaurant because it wasn't great (and I've lived in China, so perhaps my standards are off). I also love the chai and the salty lemonade-ish drink on the streets.
posted by msbrauer at 8:00 AM on December 5, 2018

JPD's suggestion of Cafe Lota (inside the craft museum) is spot on - its some really excellent food mixing traditional flavors with some more creative ideas.

Winter (at least in the north) is time for sarson ka saag with makki di roti (stewed greens with corn roti) its not something i think ive ever seen at indian places here in the US. I'd also say channa batura is similar in my mind (for seasonal-ness, not taste wise) though i see it around sometimes its just never up to par. Gajar Ka (Carrot) Halwa isnt really to my taste (i dont love sweets) but a warm serving of it is very typical in the winter.

I dont drink drinks on the street so cant comment or recommend any options there (hot chai excepted but even then ive had a couple sketchy or near-sketchy experiences).

Not super surprised you didnt enjoy indian chinese if you lived in china - its got about as much relationship to chinese chinese as the typical american chinese places in the us do. indian tastes definitely run sweet.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 8:07 AM on December 5, 2018

an additional specific suggestion - in old Delhi Paratha Wali Galli has been around for about 500 years and there are a few remaining sellers who trace their stores back a good long ways. The oil they fry in looks to be about as old as the shops, but dont fret. Honestly i was kind of shocked my usually-very-concerned-with-hygene indian mother-in-law agreed to take me but i was very glad she did.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 8:13 AM on December 5, 2018

Seconding Bukhara if you're OK with the rich luxury tourist experience. It really is remarkably good, particularly the dal makhani. What I particularly liked about it was that it was more or less exactly like the stereotypical Indian food we get in the US. Only much, much better. The specific cuisine is Mughlai cuisine, supposedly royal food of the Mughals. Lots of cream and butter. We tend to just call it "North Indian" in the US.

The other expensive tourist place we liked in Delhi was The Spice Route. What was interesting there is the menu is very specifically crafted around a bunch of diverse cuisines all along trade routes. So they had excellent Thai dishes as well, and Sri Lankan, and just a mix of things. I liked the place and the food was very good. Definitely not a local Delhi joint; this restaurant would be equally at home in New York or LA.

I've never been to Kerala but they have a really interesting cuisine and totally different from the North Indian in the US. It's not really the "South Indian" we get, either, although it's certainly closely related. Lots of coconut. Kokum as a souring flavor. Lots of fresh curry leaf. I'm not really expert enough to say more than that, but you may want to read up a bit on traditional Keralese food before you go because it's something interesting.

Kerala isn't too far from where Chettinad food comes from, close enough you might find some restaurants that serve it. Interesting stuff, very intensely spiced, and considered one of the "best" regional Indian cuisines.

Take a cooking class if you can! Indian spices are so complex and fascinating.
posted by Nelson at 8:19 AM on December 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am a regular traveller to India. In Delhi I found the Urban Adventures food tour insanely delicious and interesting. Tried lots of things I hadn't had before - there's something like 20 dishes to try in total (even as a vegetarian)
posted by teststrip at 9:59 AM on December 5, 2018

I've spent over 4 years traveling in India and absolutely love it! The commenter above is speaking of "indian chinese" which is available country-wide, but maybe a little less so in Rajasthan. I love gobi 65 (gobi is cauliflower).

Other foods to try include panni puri - soooo good, but has tamarind water, so avoid it on the street- try it in a nice snack shop like Haldiram's where you can trust the water more. Southern Indiana foods are delicious. The standard dosas and various rice dishes are all over the US, but try some on the street: lemon rice, tomato rice, etc. Vada and idli are lesser served in the US and delicious. My favorite, upma, is kind of like grits. In Rajasthan, try daal bhati, daal with large baked dough balls that are crumbled and eaten with clarified butter and daal. I'm not a vegetarian but all of these dishes and many of my favorites in India are!

Feel free to message me. I was in India until October... Now I'm in Myanmar, but will return to India at the start of January.
posted by maya at 7:01 PM on December 5, 2018

I asked a friend, that recently came back from a business trip to Mumbai and Bangalore, (so not really where you're going) and he raved about the deep fried battered sweet corn. It was individual kernels of corn bettered in a light batter and then fried and dusted with spices.

"So moreish, almost dangerous as you would just keep eating them"
posted by koolkat at 2:35 AM on December 6, 2018

There are dishes from Kerala that I, someone who grew up in a neighboring state, had never experienced until recently. E.g. puttu and kappa biriyani (and other dishes made from tapioca). Kerala also has this meal called Sadhya, which is similar to the thalis (samplers of dishes) that you get all over India, but on a banana leaf, and with way more "samples" than regular thalis.

You should also make sure to have appam with a coconut-milk-based stew.

Solid breakfast food that's just one step down from appam include idiyappam and upma (I'm partial to the vermicelli version).

Banana chips, tapioca chips, and jackfruit chips made fresh in little shops in Kerala are unbeatable.

Drink coconut water straight from the source.

Outside of Kerala:

It will be fun to compare biriyani in each of the three places you're visiting. You get the same kind of regional variation that's there in, say, barbecue in America.

Good kulfi is hard to find in the US.

I haven't seen guavas and chikoos (or sapotas) in grocery stores here. Interestingly, they're both native to the New World, but they're very much beloved in India. They should be in season around now.
posted by redlines at 5:58 PM on December 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

Coming in super late here, but I was just craving some ker sangri and there is NO WAY to get it outside of Rajasthan—I’ve never seen it in other parts of north India, even. But it’s delicious. Please do look for it. Gatte ki sabzi is also another Rajasthani classic well worth trying, and will be easier to find than ker sangri. For dessert, boondi laddoos made from besan are another Rajasthani specialty — so so good.
posted by mylittlepoppet at 1:39 AM on December 8, 2018

Thanks for all the great tips!
posted by msbrauer at 8:32 AM on December 8, 2018

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