On my last exploration, traveling by car through India, I came face-to-face with some pretty spectacular Indian dishes. Not knowing much about the cultural foods of India before my trip, I had a steep (but also delicious) learning curve to conquer. What better way to learn about Indian food than full immersion with breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with gas station snacks for good measure. Every region in India has their own unique flavors and ingredients, so I knew it was impossible to try it all. After spending some time in a variety of regions I got a good taste of the most authentic and traditional cultural foods of India and I can't wait to share them with you!
I've always liked Indian food but to be honest I really didn't know much about India's cultural foods, traditional ingredients, and flavors. I only knew two food facts going into this trip: 1) curry comes in many colors and forms, and 2) the primarily Hindu based country follows a mostly vegetarian diet. While tasting anything and everything, I snapped a few photos of my favorite edible items along the way. We were also lucky enough to have one permanent guide throughout our whole 5 day trip, so I was constantly picking his brain and writing notes about authentic Indian cuisine every chance I could. So, let's dig into my favorite cultural foods of India, recapping all my top edible items!
Cultural Foods of India
As I am sure you can guess, naan is everywhere in India .. and every bite we had was so good! Along with curry, naan is a major cultural food of India and we saw many different varieties. Our favorite naan was topped with chunky pieces of garlic, which was available at every restaurant we tried. Other naan varieties included chili, cheese, kandhari (almond and pistachio), and roghni (made with poppy seeds and onion). Traditional naan is baked in an extremely hot clay oven called a tandoori, which is sometimes built in the floor of a kitchen. The naan dough is thrown against the side of the wall of the clay oven, where the dough sticks and cooks for a few minutes and is then peeled off the oven wall to be served immediately. Another cultural food of India is roti, which is similar to naan and is sometimes served side by side at mealtime. The difference between roti and naan is that roti uses whole wheat flour as opposed to naan's white flour, and roti contains no yeast and does not rise.
After our travels through India, I have a whole new appreciation for curry. I didn't realize that curries have so many different varieties, colors, and textures! With every lunch and dinner came a new and exciting curry; always enjoying the dish with a side of rice and naan. Our guide explained that it is customary in India to eat a meal with your hands because they believe it gives the food more flavor and brings you closer to the ingredients. We happily enjoyed most of our meals with a fresh slice of crusty garlic naan as our utensil, trying to experience curry in its true authentic form. I my favorite curries were a tomato based cottage cheese curry called paneer makhani khas, a creamy yellow lentil curry called sultani dal, and a spinach and mushroom curry called kumbh bhutta methi palak. Many of the curries were made with butter or ghee (clarified butter), which is a common cultural ingredient of India. Ghee brought out so much flavor in each dish, it's no surprise why it is so popular!
We saw so many food vendors throughout India, all serving up different unique bites. One street food vendor was putting together the most beautiful and colorful snack cups out on the crowded waterfront. On his tray he was making a trail mix type snack with roasted peas and lentils, puffed rice, and spice rubbed seeds, all tossed together in a handmade paper cone. So many colors and bold flavors for a tasty street snack!
Candied Anise and Sugar
One dynamite flavor combination that totally took me for surprise was candied anise and rock sugar, with variations of the candied spice and sugar found in nearly every restaurant. Eaten together in small handfuls, the combination of ingredients are used as a palate cleanser, breath freshener, and a digestive aid. Every restaurant either offers the candied spice and sugar with the check or it is already on the table, next to the napkins and table-side condiments. I loved the flavor and have never tasted anything like it!
While driving through rural India we saw miles and miles of flowering yellow mustard seed fields. Mustard plants are overly abundant in India, making mustard seed oil widely available and very affordable. I had no idea that mustard seed oil was one of the most common and popular cultural foods of India! Used in a similar way as canola, it can withstand very high temperatures because of its high smoke point. I might try to find some mustard seed oil at the grocery store to test out some of its cooking properties.
Gas Station Bites: Pani Puri
At the very end of our road trip, we stopped at a rest stop to stretch our legs and grab some snacks. We all shared pani puri, a unique street food dish. This dish was so fun to assemble and was full of powerful flavors. We had so much fun assembling the pani puri, which was a multi step process. Our guide carefully showed us each step, so we could assemble and eat pani puri, just like the locals.
How to Eat Pani Puri:
- Grab one of the hollow and crisp pastries and carefully crack open the top of the shell with your thumb to create a small bowl.
- Add some of the seasoned potatoes through the top shell of the pastry.
- Drizzle some hot sauce and green vinegar on the top of the pastry shell bowl, covering the potato inside.
- Eat all in one bite, enjoying all of the spicy, vinegary, starchy flavors together!
Masala Chai Tea
Masala chai tea was everywhere, although it was served in a different way than I had seen before. In every retail shop and restaurant they served masala chai tea in a tiny espresso sized cup with about a tablespoon of sugar and a splash of cream (a nod to the British I'm sure). One of my favorite tea experiences was when standing outside on a jewelry store balcony overlooking Jaipur's Wind Palace, sipping the sweetest and creamiest masala chai from a little tiny glass. I loved the tea so much I brought back some loose leaf tea, although I think I'll skip the spoonful of sugar when I brew myself a cup. I almost think of the masala chai tea as a dessert, sweetened to perfection sure to brighten up anyones day!
Whenever I travel, I try to immerse myself in the food scene as much as I can, trying bites of anything and everything. I went to India with my mind, stomach, and palate wide open, ready for a new and exciting cuisine. I loved exploring and tasting the cultural foods of India, bringing me a little closer to their traditional flavors and dishes. I learned so much about the complex and rich food of India, I don't think my palate will ever be the same!
With all the cultural foods of India to choose from, which bite (or sip) would be your favorite? My favorite was the candied anise and rock sugar palate cleanser, a flavor I hope will last in my memory for a lifetime.