Are you one of those people who prides themselves on being able to stomach atomic hot foods? Do you think Tabasco is for beginners? Well, get your taste buds ready—and bring some tissues to the table when eating in India.
The spices of South India will clear out your sinuses and yank a few tears from the mixes of red chilis, cumin, masala, turmeric, and more in every dish. As New Orleans native where hot and spicy is the only thing on the menu, some foods in India did humble my hot meter.
The eating experience in India is more than just about the actual ingredients. There’s a colorful pattern to the plate. There’s a need for knack with your right hand. And in South India, vegetarians are the majority for a change.
The Patterned Plate
Just like the brightly decorated fabrics, Indian meals are a palette of colors—and flavors—from the very hot and spicy to the very sweet. With such intense tastes, it’s no wonder the main staple is white rice. Your mouth needs something to help temper the bites!
Almost every meal starts with rice. Breakfast often comes with little spongy white cakes called idli made out of rice flour. Lunch often includes dosa, crepe-like pancakes but thinner, also made with rice. And dinner? You guessed it…usually begins with cupfuls of white Basmati rice, maybe dosa and sometimes Biryani, a rice dish with spices, veggies and, occasionally meat, mixed in.
On special occasions (like a wedding) or just in fancy restaurants, it’s customary to eat meals on cut banana leaves. The main dish goes on the lower half of the leaf and all the accompaniments get placed in little scoops across the top. There’s always a few vegetarian side dishes, a sweet or two, a chutney (sweet, spicy or tangy garnish) and—always—seconds. The meal traditionally ends with yogurt or curd served over another scoop of fresh white rice. (This helps temper the spiciness and aids in digestion.) When you’re done eating, you fold the top on the banana leaf down to show your servers or hosts that you’re full.
Right to Your Mouth
As in right hand, that is. Indians almost always eat with their hands—and only the right one. Never use your left hand to eat or pass food as it’s reserved for bathroom functions and other “unclean” actions like taking your shoes on and off and even cleaning your feet. Eating with your one right hand isn’t as plainly done as it sounds, especially considering that the food is usually saucy and that rice is a tiny grain. What’s the trick? Mix in bits of the side dishes into your rice a little at a time—adding a lot or a little to whatever consistency and flavor you like. Use your thumb and fingers to build spoon-size mountains of food and push the bites into your fingers with your thumb. Take small portions at a time. It’s okay to slurp food from your fingers (because some dishes are actually soupy) but not acceptable to eat out of your palm.
There’s no shortage of vegetarian options in South India. Unlike in the US, where vegetarian restaurants are here and there in pockets, most restaurants I saw in Coimbatore in South India clearly display signs that specify Veg/ Non-veg menus. It’s customary for Hindus to eat meat once a week on Sundays, and it’s usually chicken or mutton (sheep or goat meat) and sometimes fish. Cows are considered sacred by Hindus so you’ll rarely see beef at the table—except amongst the small Christian population.
The options for vegetarian food are plenty though. Most common is dahl, a lentil based dish the consistency of stew or sambar, another type of lentil stew but soupier and tangy because it’s made with tamarind. Some of my other favorites were curried cauliflower (called Gobi), chili paneer (fresh cheese cubes fried with chili powder and other spices) and an assortment of desserts made with coconut. The fruits in India are abundant, too. You’ll find fresh guava, pomegranates, melons, at least 40 different kinds of bananas and sapota (a sticky, sweet, brown-skinned fruit).
Wash your meals down with water as that’s the most common drink at the local South Indian’s table. (But make sure it’s filtered and/or bottled.) You’ll notice when visiting homes and some casual restaurants, it’s common to have a single cup and a carafe of water to refill it. Take a drink by holding the cup above—but not touching—your lips and refill the cup for the next person. If you’re a coffee drinker, you’re in for an interesting experience. It’s usually served with sugar (and more than I, for one, am used to) with warm milk. But it’s often served with two dishes—a wide round base and a taller cup inside. The idea is to cool and froth the coffee, and also mix the sugar, by pouring the liquid back and forth from one to the other. Tea is also widely served with milk and sugar and usually already mixed in a main pot for all. If you’re not up for a sugary hot drink, ask for it unsweetened and add your own.
Be open to trying everything at least once as that’s part of your travel adventure. Servers will usually keep scooping food onto your plate unless you signal you’ve had enough by holding a flat palm over it. The most unusual food I had? Curried goat’s brain. Looks a bit like yellow cottage cheese and didn’t taste half bad. (Had I not known what it was, I might have actually liked it!) But don’t worry, most foods are recognizable, just buried in a heavy mix of the most intense spices you may have ever eaten.
You may have read my post earlier this week on packing for India, and if not, now is a good time to get caught up! If this blog post has got you feeling ready to experience the culinary charms of India for yourself, check out our discounted flight prices for students and what to do when you get there!