India is full of culture shocks from the second you step outside the airport, and it pays dividends to prepare yourself before you visit this wonderful country. You may decide to visit a farm to acclimatise yourself to the bovines you’ll no doubt encounter, you may take a trip on London’s Central Line at rush hour to get used to crowds, or you may tuck into an Indian takeaway from your local eatery to sample what culinary delights to look forward to.
However, be warned: the difference your taste buds will experience is remarkable, and on your return you’ll never look at Indian food in the same way ever again.
With your first glance at a menu you’ll notice many omissions compared to those you’re used to back home. If you’re after the ‘British national dish’ of chicken tikka masala you’ll be sorely disappointed, although butter chicken should sooth your craving.
There’s a lack of definition between ‘starters’ and ‘mains’, which may be indicative of the country’s culture; whilst we Brits are used to a relatively regimented structure, Indian life (and therefore mealtime) is a little more… chaotic!
If you regularly take part in the macho-competitiveness of eating Indian food (i.e. ordering the hottest thing on the menu) you may be surprised at the mildness of the various dishes. Not once during my travels around the country have I been found gulping liquids to take away the burning sensation on my tongue. In fact it’s quite the opposite, often asking a waiter to increase the heat. As a general rule, food in the south is hotter than in the north, but by no means on a scary level.
Your typical menu will be full of colourful curries and I’d advise you to try every single one (especially the brinjal bhaji, a tantalising mix of aubergine, yogurt, tomato and spices). One item you’re likely to come across on a daily basis is a thali (meaning ‘plate’).
Providing a hearty balance of dal, curries, salads, breads, rice, chutney, pickles and raithas, this is a favourite of the average Indian worker bee. Usually served in a compartmentalised dish (or a banana leaf for real authenticity), once you’ve tried a thali, you’ll instantly become a member of the converted. The fact that there’s a thali focussed Flickr group proves its cult-like status.
With so much variety in front of you, the most enjoyable aspect is the various combinations you can concoct. Every bite you take provides a variety of unexpected flavours and textures that you’ll find difficult to replicate.
Whilst they may look similar from region to region, the actual food is as diverse as the languages and cultures of the people cooking for you. In fact, wherever you go, you’ll find new food you’re unlikely to have encountered anywhere else.
Just a few of the memorable standouts you’re likely to come across include the hyderabadi biryani, the infamous kathi rolls of Kolkata (a doughy kebab), and a red snapper caught and cooked in a tandoor on a Goan beach whilst you wait, sipping a cold glass of Kingfisher lager.
If all this scares you more than the thought of a Mumbai rush hour, there’s always the option of veg noodles to satisfy you hunger during another day of adventure!