Jan 13, 2013


People, relationships...talking shop and family with friends over a cold one is the best part of tasting a new culture.

seconds before Mayur and I put the hurt on some platters

Without a doubt, next best is the food.

North Indian vegetarian, served thali style

After returning from India, people mostly asked, "dude, what's the food like?"  And these Q's:

    Is the real stuff similar to Indian restaurants in America? (yes)
    Is Chinese food there like Chinese food back home? (hotter there with a crazy cook)
    Did you drink the water? (a little)
    Did you poop your pants? (sharted)
    How spicy was it, you cried, didn't you? (less than expected, level 8, no tears)
    Veg', meat or both? (mostly vegetarian, didn't miss the meat)
    What was your favorite? (butter daal and garlic naan North Indian at a hole in the wall)
    How much did it cost? (60 cents to $20)
    What was home-cooked Indian food like? (righteous, like manna)
    McDonald's? (who cares)

Describing Indi-cuisine is as difficult as summarizing American bites.  Food in the U.S. depends on if you're talkin' Subway cold-cut combo or mom's meatloaf, smoked pulled pork on the back deck or bistro Cajun seafood.  Price, region, home-cooked or restaurant meld into a complicated response.

In order to get a grip on this one, I sought out different price points, economic neighborhoods and ethnicities of goodies on my trip.  Here are the categories of what went down my pie hole:

Simple Bites:
    A plate of 60 cent street food in a poor neighborhood
    A $2 meal at a family owned restaurant    
    A $4 meal at a family owned restaurant
    A $6 meal at a chain restaurant
    Chinese food

    A $20 meal at a white linen restaurant
    Italian pie with a tiramisu finish

More Chow:
    Home cooked yums
    Street vendor snacks
    Grocery stores
    Bakeries and candy shops

iFood 101

North Indian states in yellow, South are orange
There's an edible split between North and South Indian palates.  North tends to be both vegetarian and meat, chicken, lamb, fish and goat.  It's on the hot spicy side, with plenty of butter, onions, garlic and flavor in the sauce. Basmati rice, rich curries and flour flatbread are served at most meals. 

South Indian food's usually vegetarian only, no onions or garlic (considered unclean), milder flavors and watery curries.

I've heard bits of southern states being more conservative and generally don't drink alcohol.  Although Kingfisher beer hosts a loud Octoberfest party down south in Bangalore, so there must be some brew going on in parts.

The southern dishes were blander compared to the rich buttery heaps of the north.

90% of my meals were vegetarian, much of the population doesn't eat meat in India.  There was so much taste and exotic blends of spice that I never missed the meat. 

People are sometimes confused by curry.  It's actually three different things.

Curry leaves grow on curry trees in India, which are used to flavor dishes:

Curry may also refer to the dried mix of spices that are added to curry dishes.  A curry mix contains a diverse variety of spices, sometimes 20 or more.  Curry blends may house curry leaves, tamarind, coriander, ginger, garlic, chili, poppy seeds, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, cumin, fennel, anise and turmeric.  Feels like there could be some nicotine in there too, it's addictive.

Finally, curry most commonly refers to the gravy-like dishes served at most meals.  So curry leaves go into curry spice powders, which make up curry dishes.  You got it kids?  A quiz may follow.

Basmati rice is grown in the foothills of the Himalayans, smells like popcorn and you need to taste it.

Eat with your fingers (haha mom), veg' curry with basmati rice and naan flatbread is what I did daily.  It looks like this, a middle-class lunch for 90 rupees ($1.80):

India Star's where Pigtails and I eat in town most Saturdays.  Baba serves it North Indian style.  He's been sustaining me for 15 years, so I was well oiled on what was waiting on the trip.  Baba's food is close to the real thing, milder and less variety, but otherwise right there. 

Simple Bites

A plate of 60 cent street food...

I waited until my second week of adjusting before diving into a sketchy mountain of curry.  Risky, it was a poor neighborhood with maybe a 50/50 chance of the Hershey squirts.  I went for it.

Told a friend before the trip I'd rather truly taste the country and blow gas with surprises than play it safe and feel great.  Why bother if afraid to get some?  Food is the easiest, most accessible and least expensive way to dive into culture. 

When in Germany, you do beer, schnitzel, kraut.

A frank at Frankfurt

Vietnam, you slurp pho rare beef soup.

In India you peck at street curry, rice and bread.  Washed with a Darjeeling black tea or maybe hot sweet chai.

They spoke a different language, but recognized a parched and hungry skinny guy eager to shovel.

The veg' curry looked to contain daal (beans), carrots, onions, tomatoes, cream and a stiff kick.  Lower on the price scale means spicier heat.  It was up there at level 8.  The steamin' naan bread was doughy perfection, flash-cooked in a clay tandoor oven at 1,000 degrees.

Each time I worked through a third of the rice and gravy on the steel plate, the keeper reloaded more with a tin cup.  After two refills, I made the universal throat motion to shut her down, all filled up.

I liked it, the bread was some of the best I had in 17 days in Asia.  The bright tasting veg' curry burn lingered on my tongue 30 minutes later as I roamed Pune on foot.  Not bad for 30 rupees, half a buck.


If you don't recognize the photo below, click to get the scoop.


A $2 meal at a family owned restaurant...

TripAdvisor works in India too, it led me on a two mile hike from the hotel to a popular joint called Teri Rajput Dairy & Sweets.  No idea what the first part of the name means, they got me at sweets.  A good sized lunch crowd was pooling outside, that's a good sign.

Served Punjabi style (North Indian), the naan was packed with minced white onion and garlic, made there right in front of me.  The vegetable curry was medium spicy, flavorful with bits of carrots and butter that seeped just right on the basmati mound.  A happy camper for under two bucks, hygienic and tasty, this is the typical meal a business prof' eats for lunch.

The place also sold sweet milk treats.  I wanted to take some for a spin, alas, a long line scared me off.

A $4 meal at a family owned restaurant...

Starving from a 4,000 ft. dusky hike, a quart of co-workers swarmed an outdoor sit-down for dinner.  Food selection increases with the price, and meat is offered as a choice when you reach the 200 rupee/$4 mark.

We ordered three vegetarian and one meat entrée.  They arrived piping hot and served family style, perfect for sharing. The server spooned it to plate, we lounged for two hours, it was a calm finish to a fun day.

A Jumbotron projector TV up near the bar played grainy 1970s Indian movies.  I laughed, it was the mustaches.

After dinner, we split a non-tobacco rolled paan.

A $6 meal at a chain restaurant...

Doubled up with a dude on motorbike to ride from work to mall for a chain restaurant called
Rajdhani.  Teammates Rachit and Mayur explained this place serves the calories thali style, Hindi for plate.  Meaning an obese metal platter with scads of mini-cups, each holding a different surprise.   

The servers wore chef hats and thick 'staches, making the rounds every few minutes, emerging from the kitchen five at a time to restock our troughs with various buckets of slop.  This is my plate, roasted okra and all.  Holy smokes.

North Indian vegetarian, served thali style

It was a wonderfully slothy place, like a bottomless buffet that keeps walking to your table by the bucket.  I had to uncinch my belt a notch.

Chinese food...

I went all in, both street and sit-down Chinese.  Street-nese is furious to watch, blue flames eating a wok of sesame oil on fire, chicky, vegs, rice noodles and red spice.  He looked upset with the poultry, hands a blur, spanking it flat with a wood mallet and arcing it into the sizzler.  He liked to throw things, noodles, red peppers, this one was going to hurt the ol' taster.

I scarfed chopped suey on a weekend lunch walk a few days later.  It was sorta unremarkable after the belligerent night street ninja.


$15 - $20 meal at a nice restaurant...

The expensive food was high quality, well prepared and flavorful.  I noticed the more you fork $, the more Westernized it becomes to appease the buds of paying travelers.  It's less authentic Indian, milder spices and more like what I'm used to back home. 

The hotel's kitchen had a tight breakfast, I loaded up on forbidden fruits the travel books warned and shunned.  Raw fresh ones native to the country:  pressed bitter melon juice, honey mangoes, starfruit, green papaya, gooseberry and cashew apples.  Here were all these savory natural treats as foreign to me as moon lava, available since the dawn of man yet brand new to this Iowan. 

A daily spiced potato dosa recouped calories after a morning 9 mph charge on treadmill and dumbbells.  Dosas are Indian fermented crepes, blended of rice batter and black lentils, cooked quickly on iron and folded over various veg' fillings.  A bowl of cold curd or tangy coconut chutney stood on standby, ready for dredging za big bertha dos'.

We did Chinese, Indian and Mediterranean at the hotel.  All delicious, just not necessarily authentic.

The standout on the spendy plates was spicy seafood with co-worker Ketan, paired with a Kingfisher Strong.  Tried a new one, pan seared pomfret fish, hooked from the Indian Ocean.  It was rubbed with an angry curry, a dab of mint sauce balanced the punch.  Add a side of smooth citrus slaw and a nighttime honk-filled motorcycle shuttle back.

Also tried Italian, La Pizzeria was a few blocks from the hotel.  Gave the camera a break that night, no photos of the wood fired pie, coated with fresh made tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil.  The thin crust was filling but not stuffing, leaving enough for a spongy tiramisu finish.

More Chow

Ate dinner at a co-worker's home, a family of four with two boys under age 7. 

  They use a solar collector for hot showers rather than a water heater.
  Food is cooked on a tabletop hotplate instead of a stove/oven combo.
  The older son is on a school cricket team.
  A room in the house is set aside for Hindu worship.
  The boys got in trouble for bouncing the ball inside and sneaking sweet gulab jamuns before dinner.  
  The wife didn't eat anything, stood beside the entire meal and served us.
  I've got photos and video, but you won't see them.  

Alright, maybe a couple snaps from a different house visit, Nakhil's mom filled us with homemade brown sugar cinnamon puffs before our hike.

An Indian version of American Idol was on the tube, check it:

Street vendor snacks are endless:  sweet or sour, cool or spicy, fried or baked.  It was like bottomless Iowa State Fair food.

Here's a pressed sugarcane drink diluted with local well water.  This one wrecked a small smear of tummy troubles the next day.

While sipping the laxative ass bomb, two little girls speaking Hindi hustled me for spare coins.  I couldn't say no, look at 'em.

A smarter drink choice is naturally hygienic young green coconut.  He macheted one open on the spot after tossing a 25 rupee coin, 50 cents.  I drank two of these refreshers a day.

Citrus smoothies, chaat, stroll a mile and you'll see 30 carts.  I visited nearly all of them, samosas, sweet curd, beef jerky (kidding), pakoras and pistachio chikki.

tomato scallion chaat, a healthy lean mix

Flanking a crowded alley and Muslim mosque was a rusty shanty.  Smiling customers emerged with newspaper-wrapped bundles of fried potatoes.  An iron cauldron of boiling oil browned a batch of thick cut spuds.  The man to the right packed and tied them with twine as swiftly as they emerged from the pot.  Two powder shakes of salty spice and whole green chilies rounded it out.

Ten steps away was another vendor hocking crispy potato chips and fried panipuri cups.

Above and below, panipuri (Hindi for water bread) with all the fixin's.  It's as much for social bonding banter as sustenance.

I was curious to see a modern grocery store, so Google mapped the closest and set forth.  Inside was a selection of packaged staples and bulk beans and rice, Coca-Cola and ripe produce. 

I walked miles in search of bakeries, candy huts, outdoor farmers' markets and butcher shops. 

fresh baked bread and sugary treats

steely resolve, even the vegetable lady makes you barter

rough cut spices


the fish were alive, gasping for water and flopping

I wish you could be there with me to taste it.  Wow.



  1. An excellent read for a drizzly Monday morning. Thanks.

    1. Drizzle? Nine degrees here this morning.

  2. I wish I could have been there to taste it too. It is a dream of mine to go to India - the husband is decidedly less enthusiastic about it. Your photos make my taste buds fire.

    1. The Bahamas will work, too.

  3. Loved this post. I am blessed to have several Indian friends who know I love their food and suprise me frequently with a plate of whatever they've cooked for themselves that day. The occasional thing is too hot for me (I do like spicy and hot things so I am talking HOT!) but mostly they are just delicious. Not so keen on the sweets though - a little too sweet for my palate.

    1. Home cooked Indian is the best. I didn't go into a lot of detail on that house meal I ate in India, but it was enlightening seeing how a typical family lives and the dynamics of the household.

      The sweets are overkill on the sugar.

  4. omg this all looks soooooo good. I love indian food. I had never heard that fruit called a cashew apple before. I knew cashews came from them but in latin america they're called marañón and it's made into juice. It's really popular in central america and where I live in Md, all the 'mexican' restaurants have it on the menu. Most of our mexican restaurants are really salvadoran or honduran.

    1. Cashew apples were new to me too. We prize the cashew tree nuts here back home, many cultures go for the apples instead. The astringent taste probably wouldn't sit well here, Americans like their sweet fruit.

      Mmmm...yum, Salvadoran pupusas.

  5. I'd love to taste all of this deliciousness, even the laxative bombs! I've been to Mexico several times and other than very mild discomfort, never been sick.

    I am an Indian food noob, but I've heard Omaha has some decent places to try things out. Will have to make a hike into the city and find out. :-)

    1. The sugarcane lax' bomb was worth it

      Let me know if ever in Des Moines, will point you to a couple Indian restaurant options.

  6. Great post, Beard! Interesting, informative, nice pics - I could almost smell the food. Makes me want to book a table at Geet...and I sweat at the thought of sweet curry :-0

    1. Thank you, I appreciate that.

  7. hey.... I will look differently on day-today places where i took those for granted, your post is very nice and filled with a lot of energy.. how you embrace food and culture..
    Nice post..
    Hope to meet you again!! :)


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