Chai – Indian tea is an institution in this country. On virtually every street corner, you will find chai-wallahs hawking their wares. Like the food, chai varies with the region.
Coffee – Don’t expect fresh-brewed coffee in India. It is usually instant Nescafe. Sometimes, in the larger centres, and in the international airports, you can find some decent filter coffee. Be warned: espresso is often no more than a frothed-up instant Nescafe. In Pondicherry, a former French colony, you will find the “real” thing.
Water – The water that Indian people drink will cause foreigners to become ill. Therefore, most travellers drink bottled or mineral water. Many Indians have also taken to drinking mineral water as a status symbol. However, drinking bottled water is causing an environmental nightmare, as the country is becoming awash with empty plastic bottles. There are some feeble attempts in larger centres to recycle these, but most become unsightly trash. Mineral water is not always safe, since there are few if any standards for the product. Some unscrupulous merchants just bottle tap water. When travelling in India, I filtered my own water with a UV wand, or used aqueous iodine. Often, you will find water in jugs on your table in a restaurant. DO NOT drink it, unless it has been boiled previously. Some hotels will provide boiled tap water, which is OK.
Lassi – A lassi (pronounced like the dog’s name Lassie) is a yogurt drink. It can be sweet or spiced. Lassis come in many flavours, with fruits or ice cream. It is delicious, and can become an indispensable part of one’s diet.
Alcohol – There are some dry states in India, and it is prohibited by some religions. However, alcohol is freely available in resorts and wherever Westerners go. There are some particularly lethal brews in the rural areas. In some remote regions, consuming vast quantities of the local brew is a ritual at meals, and declining can be interpreted as an insult.
Lime Soda – Perhaps the most refreshing non-alcoholic drink on earth is the lime soda. I have consumed tanker-trucks worth over the years.
Fresh-Squeezed Fruit Juice – Although very refreshing, be careful where you buy fresh-squeezed juice. I caught a dose of giardia from a stall that looked clean, except where they washed the cups. When I finally discovered the bucket of slops which served as a dishwasher, I knew I had made a major gastric error. Buy a couple cheap, light-weight metal tumblers to carry and use as your personal drinking vessels.
Bottled Mango Juice – Two words describe this beverage: absolute nectar!
I won’t attempt to describe the Indian cuisine. Be bold and experiment. Every region has its own specialties, and it’s a veritable smorgasbord as you travel across the country. Many restaurants carry western fare, in particular meat dishes. Indians are divided into vegetarians and non-vegetarians. South Indian cuisine is a vegetarian’s delight. They are quite strict in what they eat, based often on religious beliefs of the impurity of meat. When you see meat hanging in markets swarming with clouds of flies, it’s enough to turn a rampant carnivore to a grass-loving ruminant. I simply avoid all meat when in India. There is ample variety in the remaining fare to satisfy every gastronomic taste. The only exception I make to avoiding meat is on the Kerala coast, where I eat very fresh fish until my eyes glaze over with the look of sated bliss.
Thali Plate – The thali plate is the best deal in India. Food is served on a metal plate with a number of divisions that are filled with rice, dahl, curd, various vegetable dishes, and a sweet. You can find various versions of it wherever you go. Best of all, it is an "all-you-can eat" deal. In every restaurant that offers a thali plate, waiters hover nearby ladened with buckets of goodies, eager to top you up until you are about to explode.
Dosa – Many travelers will go into raptures of ecstasy when you mention dosas. They will look ardently to the skies and mutter something about the food of the gods. Dosas are often available only at certain times of the day. The most popular variant is the Masala Dosa, similar in look to a thin pancake or crepe, but rolled around a yummy filling of potatoes and wonderful spicy sauce.
Where to Eat In India
Chose restaurants that look clean. Tables piled with old food on platters are breeding grounds for nasty germs that will make you very ill and wish you were dead. If a restaurant is busy, not only has it not poisoned anybody recently, but the food is more likely to be freshly cooked. Sometimes, a restaurant that is full of tourists is a good thing. Backpackers have a particular knack of hunting out the best deals. Still, the best meals that I have had were served in local people’s homes.
Street Stalls – Most streets have a plethora of gastronomic delights provided by numerous small stalls. One of the most memorable feasts for me was cooked in a flaming cauldron right on a street in Kolkata. The plate was piled high with a variant of chow mein, all for a paltry 10 rupees (20 cents). Many guide books suggest you avoid eating at stalls, and for good reason, as they are often squalid and filthy. Acclimatize yourself to Indian cuisine first, then keep an eye out for clean and busy stalls. I often just graze through the day from one stall to the next. They are cheap and contain the very essence of Indian cuisine.