Masalas, Naan, Thalis, and Lassi : Eating In and Around Northern India

A quartet of spicy dishes being served tableside, canteen-style, at a Hydrabad restaurant

A quartet of spicy dishes being served table-side, canteen-style, at a Hydrabad restaurant in Delhi

Much like the country itself, eating in India is an adventure in strong, forceful flavors, of pungent smells that aren’t necessarily always appetizing, of stepping out on a ledge and sampling the whirlpool of unknown ingredients, and of the blending of any influence that is readily at hand.  Additionally, given this is the region of the world where the majority of spices are grown — a fact that helped drive the discovery and colonization of many far away lands in prior centuries — it isn’t surprising to learn that the Indians are more than adept at utilizing the bounty that their land and climate provides with a staggering array of subtly nuanced spice blends known as Masalas (or Curries to us Westerners), each of which may contain dozens and dozens of different spices each in its own strict proportions.

There are a few common misconception when it comes to eating in India, however, such as the frequently uttered phrases, “Isn’t Indian food all curries and vegetables?”, “I can’t eat Indian, as I don’t like spicy food”, and finally, “It just flat-out isn’t safe to eat in India!”  To address the first point, there are a few dietary constraints that affect many residents of this vast country (i.e. – Hindus are largely vegetarian and always shun beef and Muslims are forbidden to eat Pork or certain kinds of Shellfish), but of course, like any country that has played host to an untold number of travelers and influences from lands afar throughout its history, you can find just about whatever you’re looking for in any of the major cities (at the very least).  Secondly, Indian food does utilize many “spices” in their various dishes, but only a small portion of those utilize “chilies,” meaning they are spicy in the traditional sense — although the spice tolerance of the typical Indian far surpassed that of most Westerners, which is likely the origin of the whole myth in the first place.  And finally, eating in India can be as safe as any other country in the world, but following a few simple safety precautions is always a good idea.

When it gets down to choosing what you’re going to eat, if you’re the type of person who is either very indecisive when faced with a smorgasbord of culinary options, or — like me — simply want to try as many different flavors as possible, a great option is ordering a given restaurant’s Thali plate (most will have one), which is simply a way of saying a sampler of a handful of different dishes that the chef has made that day.  It is usually served with a side of bread (of one sort or another) and jasmine rice, both of which are used to sop up every last morsel of tasty goodness.  Before diving into the individual dishes, here is a quick snapshot of a few of the Thali Plate options that I came across:

My first meal upon arriving in India

My first meal upon arriving in India

A vegetarian version of the Thali meal

A vegetarian version of the Thali meal

A Thali featuring Malai Kofta and Shahi Paneer

A Thali featuring Malai Kofta and Shahi Paneer

Delhi Food Tour 46 - Thali at Hydrabad Canteen

The resulting platter of varying tastes from my opening picture

The most characteristic dishes of India are that of Masalas (or, again, Curries to us Westerners).  Masala essentially means “spice blend” and can refer to a mix of dry, ground spices (common options include cardamom, pepper, tumeric, cumin, and even the luxurious flavor of saffron) or a paste of spices and other wet ingredients such as garlic, chilies, and onions, that are then combined with ghee (a nuttier version of clarified butter) and used in the cooking process to lend their distinctive flavors to whatever is being cooked.  There are a few distinctive masalas that have garnered a measure of fame for themselves — sush as Garam Masala — but in reality, there is an infinite number of spice blends available, with each chef adding a little more of this or a dash of that to form their own unique creations.  In addition to the actually curry or masala dishes themselves — which are usually wet or oily dishes with a liquid texture — bread (again, usually slathered in butter) or rice is always served alongside, as the diner can then rip of small chunks of the bread to sop up the dish itself or mix the rice into the dish to create small globs that can then be picked up by hand (typical Indian utensils include nothing more than one’s fingers).  Additionally, I also chose to avoid the common dishes that have managed to migrate to other countries, such as Chicken Tikka Masala and Butter Chicken, in favor of a few of the more exotic or authentic dishes that were available:

A basket of Naan bread, a leavened flat bread cooked in an oven and often served in a tear-drop shape.  Diners then tear off small pieces of the bread and use them to pick up (or scoop up) the various curries or masalas

A basket of Naan bread (and one crispy papadom on top, but that is beside the point), a leavened flat bread cooked in an oven and often served in a tear-drop shape. Diners then tear off small pieces of the bread and use them to pick up (or scoop up) the various curries or masalas

Palak Paneer, cubes of a fresh cheese cooked in pureed spinach, and dal, a thick stew-like dish of cooked lentils (sometimes known as pulses)

Palak Paneer, cubes of a fresh cheese cooked in pureed spinach, and dal, a thick stew-like dish of cooked lentils (sometimes known as pulses), served with a few hunks on naan bread

Badam Pasanda from Delhi's famous food stop, Karim's.  It is essentially a spicy mutton masala cooked with yoghurt and almonds

Badam Pasanda from Delhi’s famous food stop, Karim’s. It is essentially a spicy mutton masala cooked with yoghurt and almonds

Mutton Rogan Josh, a lamb dish of Persiian origin that migrated into India with the Mughal empire

Mutton Rogan Josh, a lamb dish of Persian origin that migrated into India with the Mughal empire

Being the spicy food fan that I am, I asked around for what the spiciest dish in the area was.  The most common response was that of Lal Maas, a fiery goat dish native to the state of Rajasthan.  Although it didn't quite top the tongue searing qualities of my visit to the Sichuan Province in China, it still delivered the fiery intensity that all spice addicts crave

Being the spicy food fan that I am, I asked around about what was the spiciest dish in the area, with the most common response being that of Lal Maas, a fiery goat dish native to the state of Rajasthan. Although it didn’t quite top the tongue searing qualities of my visit to the Sichuan Province in China, it still delivered the fiery intensity that all spice addicts crave

The reputation for India being the “Land of Curries” isn’t exactly incorrect, but it is a moniker that ignores the myriad of other tasty dishes and delights that aren’t focused around an oily, spiced-laden base.  Here are a few other dishes that you’ll find simply by venturing around the country (a few of these do deviate from the “Northern Indian” region, but that is why I added the “In and Around” preface, ha ha!):

Dosa, a thin, pancake/crepe-like creation made from a batter of rice flower and lentils that can be stuffed with a variety of fillings.  To eat these behemoths (and this isn't even the biggest one available), simply crack off a few shards of the crispy exterior and use them to scoop up the stuffing

Dosa, a thin, pancake/crepe-like creation made from a batter of rice flour and lentils that can be stuffed with a variety of fillings and is common to Southern India. To eat these behemoths (and this isn’t even the biggest one available), simply crack off a few shards of the crispy exterior and use them to scoop up the stuffing

Tandoori Ghobi - hunks of cauliflower with a dry spice rub that are then cooked in a specialized vertical oven called a Tandor

Tandoori Ghobi – hunks of cauliflower with a dry spice rub that are then cooked in a specialized vertical oven called a Tandor

Puri Sabji Pak - hollow balls of puffed dough then you then crack open and fill with a variety of fillings

Puri Sabji Pak – hollow balls of puffed dough then you then crack open and fill with a variety of fillings

Lentil Doughnuts known as Vada served with a spicy sambar soup and a coconut chutney

Lentil Doughnuts known as Vada served with a spicy sambar soup and a coconut chutney

Now this dish falls square into my comfort zone: Chili-Fried Goatk spicy, earthy goodness

Now this dish falls square into my comfort zone: Chili-Fried Goat, spicy, earthy goodness

A paratha vendor cooking away.  Paratha is another common bread served in India that is similar to the above-mentioned Naan, but unlike Naan, it isn't leavened, lending it a thicker, denser texture

A paratha vendor cooking away. Paratha is another common bread served in India that is similar to the above-mentioned Naan, but unlike Naan, it isn’t leavened, lending it a thicker, denser texture

Every country has its own late-night drunk food, and India is no exception.  In this case, the nosh of choice is a Khadi (or Kati) Roll, where a variety of meats are served rolled in a greasy paratha with a side of the ever-present green coriander sauce

Every country has its own late-night drunk food, and India is no exception. In this case, the nosh of choice is a Khadi (or Kati) Roll, where a variety of meats are served rolled in a greasy paratha with a side of the ever-present green coriander sauce

If you hadn’t already figured it out by the variety of lamb, chicken, and goat photos that I showed above, finding meat dishes in India isn’t quite as difficult as some may at first think.  As stated above, there are many living in the country whose religious beliefs require them to abstain from certain animals or fish — or require them to live an entirely vegetarian lifestyle altogether — but that doesn’t mean that everyone walking down the street is a staunch vegetarian.  Red meat is particularly popular in the North, a characteristic brought into the country with the Mughal Empire (who originated further North in what is now known as the Middle East) that held sway over much of the country in prior centuries, and the extensive coastlines and ocean access of Southern India has led to some seafood-heavy fare in the South.  I haven’t quite made it to Southern India yet, so I haven’t had a chance to sample much of the seafood, but I definitely took part in the eating of meat up North.  Have a look:

Lamb and Goat kebabs being prepped and grilled

Lamb and Goat kebabs being prepped and grilled

Seekh Kebabs with, again, the ever-present coriander sauce and raw onions

Seekh Kebabs with, again, the ever-present coriander sauce and raw onions

More kebabs awaiting their turn on the grill

More kebabs awaiting their turn on the grill

Barbequed and Spiced Lamb Kebabs

Barbecued and Spiced Lamb Kebabs

Okay, I snuck a vegetarian option in here, too, but these barbequed paneer cubes were to die for

Okay, I snuck a vegetarian option in here, too, but these barbecued paneer cubes were to die for and were every bit as filling and hearty as the meat preparations

Of course, India is also another location famous for its street food, which means that I’m a happy camper simply walking the streets and sampling whatever dish it is that I happen to come across.  Here are a few examples of what there is to be found being served for life on the go:

Vada Pau (sometime written Vada Pao) -- joking known as an "Indian Burger," this staple of Bombay street food features a small potato pattie sandwiched in a slider bun.  In this iteration, it is also served with a few fried treats and a generous splash of chile sauce

Vada Pau (sometime written Vada Pao) — joking known as an “Indian Burger,” this staple of Bombay street food features a small potato patty sandwiched in a slider bun. In this iteration, it is also served with a few fried treats and a generous splash of chile sauce

A Mirchi Vada (deep-fried, stuffed green chilies) on the left, and the ever-present Samosa (fried pouch of veggies and spices in a triangular shape) on the right

A Mirchi Vada (deep-fried, stuffed green chilies) on the left, and the ever-present Samosa (fried pouch of veggies and spices in a triangular shape) on the right

Even breakfast is well-represented on the streets.  In this case, I went with the ubiquitous omelette sandwich

Even breakfast is well-represented on the streets. In this case, I went with the ubiquitous omelette sandwich

Chole Bhature (I think) -- a small dish of cracked Bhature (a deep-fried, leavened bread) that is then coated in Chhole (spicy chick peas) and served with a wooden spoon

Chhole Bhature (I think) — a small dish of cracked Bhature (a deep-fried, leavened bread) that is then coated in Chhole (spicy chick peas) and served with a wooden spoon

Gol Gappas, sometimes known as pani puri, which consists of small hollow shells of deep-fried dough into which you then stuff a variety of fillings and top off with a sweet-sour liquid before downing the whole thing in one bite

Gol Gappas, sometimes known as pani puri, which consists of small hollow shells of deep-fried dough into which you then stuff a variety of fillings and top off with a sweet-sour liquid before downing the whole thing in one bite

Me giving the Gol Gappas a try

Me giving one of the Gol Gappas a try

The Indians enjoy mixing together the savory and the sweet, the hot and the cold, to enjoy the contrasts which this implies.  In this case, it was aloo tikki chaat, or savory potatoes covered in sweet yogurt with a dash of the spice from a mint and coriander sauce

The Indians enjoy mixing together the savory and the sweet, the hot and the cold, crunchy and smooth, to enjoy the contrasts which these combinations imply. In this case, it was aloo tikki chaat, or hot, savory potatoes covered in cool, sweet yogurt with a dash of the spice from a mint and coriander sauce

Of course, it would be highly neglectful of me if I didn’t mention the amazing range of beverages — spicy, salty, hot, and cold — that exists in India, too.  Whether you’re looking for a quick way to wake up in the morning, something to quench your thirst in the heat of the sun, or simply something to fill your belly, you’ll have plenty to sample wherever you go.  Here are a few of the option I happened upon:

The king of beverages on the streets of India is clearly that of Chai Tea, a brew made from crushed black tea leaves that is then often flavored with ginger and cardamom and always heavily doctored with piles of sugar and lakes of cream

The king of beverages on the streets of India is clearly that of Chai Tea (or Masala Chai), a brew made from crushed black tea leaves that is then often flavored with ginger and cardamom and always heavily doctored with piles of sugar and lakes of cream

My Chai vendor in New Delhi.  It became a morning ritual for me to stop in for a glass or two -- and at the cost of only 8 rupees, or roughly 15 cents, a pop, it was easy on the wallet, too

My Chai vendor in New Delhi. It became a morning ritual for me to stop in for a glass or two — and at the cost of only 8 rupees a pop, or roughly 15 cents, it was easy on the wallet, too

Another famous concotion is that of the Lassi, or a creamy and refreshing yogurt drink that is often flavored with fruit or spices (this one happens to be a mango lassi)

Another famous concoction is that of the Lassi, a creamy and refreshing yogurt drink that is often flavored with fruit or spices (this one happens to be a mango lassi)

For added authenticity, lassis are often served out of disposable clay jars known as kulhars, that the customer can then toss away as his or her leisure

For added authenticity, lassis are often served out of disposable clay jars known as kulhars, that the customer can then toss away as his or her leisure (they are biodegradable!)

Of course, I had to try a lassi out of a kulhar, too

Of course, I had to try a lassi out of a kulhar, too

Although Chai gets the majority of the attention, India also produces a variety of other teas at various points within its borders

Although Chai gets the majority of the attention, India also produces a variety of other teas at various points within its borders, with Darjeeling being the most famous

A tea vendor ready to sell his wares

A tea vendor ready to sell his wares

It isn't all tea, either, as I found out when I sampled this South Indian filter coffee

It isn’t all tea, either, as I found out when I sampled this South Indian filter coffee

It is first poured back and forth between two vessels (with a bit of a theatrical flare, too, as you can see above) to both cool the tea and create a frothy texture.  It is essentially the same procedure used for tea tarik in Malaysia (if you remember my posts from back then)

It is first poured back and forth between two vessels (with a bit of a theatrical flare, too, as you can see above) to both cool the tea and create a frothy texture. It’s akin to the procedure used for tea tarik in Malaysia (if you remember my posts from way back then)

I opted for the pomegranite juice myself

Freshly squeezed fruit juices are also a common sight.  I opted for the pomegranate juice, myself

A colorful juice vendor showing off his produce

A colorful juice vendor showing off his produce

Although, if you find yourself further South in India, you'll be delighted to discover vendors selling sugar cane juice dotting every sidewalk.  It is a crisp and tart flavor that cools and refreshes better than anything else that I've come across

Although, if you find yourself further South in India, you’ll be delighted to discover vendors selling sugar cane juice dotting every sidewalk. It is a crisp and tart flavor that cools and refreshes better than anything else that I’ve come across

Finally, Hot MIlk served in a clay jar and fancied-up with the addition of saffron, pistachios, and dried dates

Hot MIlk served in a clay jar and fancied-up with the addition of saffron, pistachios, and dried dates

Finally, if you’ve been following along with my adventures for a while, you’ll be well aware of the fact that I am constantly fighting a vicious sweet tooth, I had to stop in and see what sweets were on offer:

Jalebis -- ultra-sweet bits of fried dough that are best hot out of the oil.  Just look for the big bubbling vats near any street corner

Jalebis — ultra-sweet bits of fried dough that are best hot out of the oil. Just look for the big bubbling vats near any street corner

Kulfi - Indian Ice Cream, which is often served in both a melted and frozen form, as seen here

Kulfi – Indian Ice Cream, which is often served in both a melted and frozen form, as seen here

Most frequenters of Indian restaurants in the United States will recognize these small, milky, honey-soaked balls of joy known as gulab jamun

Most frequenters of Indian restaurants in the United States will recognize these small, milky, honey-soaked balls of joy known as gulab jamun, a common end to any meal

It would be tough to name each one of these sweets in this small of space, so just consider it a dessert sampler and go from there

It would be tough to name each one of these sweets in this small of space, so just consider it a dessert sampler and go from there

Gajar Helwa, or the Indian version of carrot cake

Gajar Helwa, or the Indian version of carrot cake

Pista Kulft -- Ice Cream again, this time it is pistachio flavor and is served in cone form near the beach.

Pista Kulfi — Ice Cream again, this time it is pistachio flavor and is served in cone form for easier enjoyment at the nearby beach.

As a final note and a common disclaimer that I throw out whenever attempting to cover the culinary side of any country, what is pictured above isn’t intended to be a comprehensive guide to eating in India, but it only a small fraction of what you’ll find if you have the good fortune to visit yourself.  It is a massive and varied country where the cuisines and ingredients will change with your location, making it all but impossible to fully enjoy the depth and breadth of varied flavors and aromas in a single visit.  So this is all I’ve got for now on the food of Northern India, but I’ll have another post up soon about my time spent in beautiful and modern city of Bombay!  Until then, cheers!

Food 17 - Empty Chai Glass

Delhi Food Tour 56 - Remains of Chili Fried Goat

And of course, don't forget to grab a mouthful of fennel seed and sugar crystals before you go as a breath freshener!

And of course, don’t forget to grab a mouthful of fennel seed and sugar crystals before you go as a breath freshener!

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About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

3 Responses to “Masalas, Naan, Thalis, and Lassi : Eating In and Around Northern India”

  1. You are a mouth watering mouthful ! Keep it up

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  1. Mohinga, Shan Noodles, and a Fermented Tea Leaf Salad | Temporarily Lost - September 11, 2013

    […] the West, India is famous for its incredibly pungent, thick curries utilizing dozens of different spices and […]

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