A daily breakfast and evening meal is included at all the hotels. For our other meals,
while we often eat meals together, they will not be pre-arranged which will allow us the
flexibility to eat at local establishments or at more preferred hours. In most towns, there
is usually a non-Indian option if you need to take a break from curries, although it is
usually more expensive, and of much lesser quality, than the native cuisine on offer.
General notes in Indian food
Indian food has a richly deserved reputation throughout the world for being
aromatic and delicious. If you’re a vegetarian, you’ve come to the right place.
Indians are used to people having special dietary requirements: yours will be
respected, and no one will think you strange for having them. Indeed, some of
the very best food India has to offer is vegetarian, and even confirmed meat-eaters
will find themselves tucking into delicious dhals and veg curries with relish.
Most religious Hindus don’t eat meat or fish, while some orthodox Brahmins will not
eat food cooked by anyone outside their household (or onions or garlic, as they inflame
the baser instincts), and Jains are even stricter. Veganism is not common, however;
if you’re vegan, you’ll have to keep your eyes open for eggs and dairy products.
Many eating places state whether they are vegetarian or non-vegetarian either on signs
outside or at the top of the menu. The terms used in India are “veg” and “non-veg”. You’ll
also see “pure veg” which means that no eggs or alcohol are served. As a rule, meat-eaters
should exercise caution in India: even when meat is available, especially in the larger towns,
its quality is not assured except in the best restaurants, and you won’t get much in a dish
anyway – especially in railway canteens where it’s mainly there for flavouring. Hindus, of
course, do not eat beef and Muslims shun pork, so you’ll only find those in a few Christian
enclaves and Tibetan areas. Note that what is called “mutton” on menus is in fact goat.
Broadly speaking, there are four types of eating establishment: dhabas, bhojanalayas and
udipis; restaurants; tourist restaurants; and fast-food joints. Dhabas and bhojanalayas are
cheap Indian diners, where food is basic but often good, consisting of vegetable curry, dhal
(a lentil soup pronounced “da’al”), rice or Indian bread (the latter more standard in the
north) and sometimes meat. Often found along the sides of highways, dhabas traditionally
cater to truck drivers, and one way of telling a good dhaba from a distance is to judge
from the number of trucks parked outside. Bhojanalayas are basic eating places, usually
found in towns (especially around bus stands and train stations) in the north and centre
of the country; they tend to be vegetarian, especially those signed as “Vaishno”. Both
dhabas and bhojanalayas can be grubby – look them over before you commit yourself.
Restaurants as such vary in price and quality, and can be veg or non-veg, offering a
wide choice of dishes, much like Indian restaurants anywhere else in the world. Deluxe
restaurants such as those in five-star hotels can be very expensive by Indian standards,
but they offer a chance to try classic Indian cooking of very high quality: rich, subtle,
mouthwatering, and still a fraction of the price you’d pay for such delights at home
– assuming you could find Indian food that good. Try a meal in one at least once.
The third type of eating place caters specifically for foreign travellers with unadventurous
tastebuds: the tourist restaurant, found in beach resorts, hill stations and travellers’
meccas across India. Here you can get pancakes and fritters, omelettes and toast, chips,
fried prawns, cereal and fruit salad. The downside is that they tend to be pricey, some
miss the mark by a long way, and they are not, of course, authentically Indian.
The fourth type is international fast food including burgers (without
beef ) as well as pizzas, which have taken cosmopolitan India by storm
with familiar household names available in most major cities.
Eating and the right-hand rule
The biggest minefield of potential faux pas has to do with eating. This is usually done
with the fingers and requires practice to get absolutely right. Rule one is: eat with your
right hand only. In India, as right across Asia, the left hand is for wiping your bottom,
cleaning your feet and other unsavoury functions (you also put on and take off your
shoes with your left hand), while the right hand is for eating, shaking hands, and so on.
Quite how rigid individuals are about this tends to vary, with brahmins (who at the top
of the hierarchical ladder are one of the two “right-handed castes”) and southerners likely
to be the strictest. While you can hold a cup or utensil in your left hand, and you can
usually get away with using it to help tear your chapati, you should not eat, pass food or
wipe your mouth with your left hand. Best is to keep it out of sight below the table.
This rule extends beyond food. In general, do not pass anything to anyone with
your left hand, or point at anyone with it either; and Indians won’t be impressed
if you put it in your mouth. In general, you should accept things given to you
with your right hand – though using both hands is a sign of respect.
The other rule to beware of when eating or drinking is that your lips should
not touch other people’s food – jhutha or sullied food is strictly taboo. Don’t,
for example, take a bite out of a chapati and pass it on. When drinking out of
a cup or bottle to be shared with others, don’t let it touch your lips, but rather
pour it directly into your mouth. This custom also protects you from things
like hepatitis. It is customary to wash your hands before and after eating.