Indian food is as varied as the country itself, with every region having its own specialities. It therefore, does not always have to be “hot” nor can any one dish be labelled a “curry.” (That said, many Indian cuisines can be pungent to those unaccustomed to it. Even if you have eaten at Indian restaurants outside India, remember that many such establishments tone down the spice quotient for local tastes.)
Most dishes with a gravy are normally called curries but are prepared with a different masala (a combination of spices and seasonings) containing among other things coriander, cumin, garlic, onions ginger, turmeric, chillies, cardamom, nutmeg, black pepper, cloves cinnamon, bayleaves, saffron, mace and nutmeg; all the aromas ad flavours that brought traders to India for centuries.
A traditional meal in large parts of India is usually served in large metal plate called a ‘Thali’ (when you see the word in a menu, usually prefixed with a region name, it means you’re getting a full traditional meal from that region) with a number of small bowls used to hold the gravy dishes. The meal is normally accompanied with unleavened bread, usually wheat-based, in the North, or rice in the South.
The more upmarket hotels also provide a fair selection of international cuisine as well, and in the major cities, you’re also very likely to find Italian, Chinese, Indonesian, Malaysian, Mexican, Thai, Japanese, and Lebanese speciality restaurants. Aside from international fast food franchises, which are making inroads even into smaller towns.
While India is by no means teetotal, in most parts of the countrypeople do not usually drink alcohol with a meal. (More likely is a glass of salty or sweet or spiced buttermilk, a soft drink, or water!) But most large hotels, and restaurants with liquor licenses, will be happy to serve you a drink at your table should you want one. The Indian wine industry is still a young one, but it is improving steadily, and is close to international standards on some counts. Imported wines and liquors are usually reasonably easily available, and tend to be much more expensive than local beverages.
India grows some of the finest, most in-demand tea in the world, and though in many parts of India what you get served is milky, oversweet tea made from powdered leaf that has had its antioxidants boiled out of it, in the better hotels tea is still served as it should be. India also grows good coffee, and the people of the South drink a lot more of it than North Indian tea lovers.
Water from the tap is not purified for drinking in India. To be safe, apart from the flasks of water in your hotel rooms, tea, coffee, mineral water and bottled drinks, you should carry around and use purifying tablets. If you are away from your hotel for an extended period, it may be a good idea to take along a bottle of water or, if you’re buying bottled drinks, to use a straw.
North Indian food has been strongly influenced by Mughal cuisine and is broadly non-vegetarian characterised by the use of yoghurt, fried onions, nuts and saffron. Outstanding dishes worth trying would be biryani, gushtaba, tandoori dishes and kababs. Beef is rarely eaten in the North, since many Hindus consider the cow sacred. Pork, forbidden by Islam, is a rarity in areas with a substantial Muslim population.
Southern India is renowned for its spicy curries, rasam (millagu tannir or literally pepper water, before it was anglicised to mulligatawny), masala dosai or crisp potato pancakes and a variety of rice-based dishes. The hot food has to be tempered with pappadums, yoghurt and buttermilk. Coconut tends to be extensively used. Places well known for their non-vegetarian cuisine are the Chettinad area in Tamil Nadu, and large parts of Kerala. And of course the coastal areas get you some very good fish.
East Indian specialities include freshwater fish cooked in a variety of sauces, sweetmeats made from cream and cheese are also a speciality around West Bengal. The areas further North-East are influenced by Tibetan cuisine, with ‘momos’ (delicious chicken or pork dumplings) being a popular dish.
Western India is a very diverse area in terms of cuisine. Gujarat with its strong Jain traditions is almost entirely vegetarian with a sweetish touch to all its dishes. Goa is famed for its Portuguese-influenced meat and seafood dishes. Maharashtra’s coastal regions also have their traditional seafood cuisine.