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Food and Drink

India - Food and Drink

India has distinctly regional habits when it comes to food and drink. Everything from the traditional dishes through to the popularity of meat consumption and presence of alcohol varies according to the state and community you are in.

This piece will introduction you to popular food and drink in India, vegetarianism in the country and the inside scoop on tipping.


Rice is a staple food eaten across India. In the southern states of the country you will find it served with lentil dishes. In all areas, it can accompany spicy vegetables or curries. In the northern states, the addition of spices, meat, eggs or fish turns a bowl of rice into a delicious biryani.


Rice batter and black lentils are used to create this fermented pancake which is popular in the southern states. Filled with vegetables and sauce, it makes a quick and filling meal.


This unleavened flatbread made with whole wheat flour is widely prepared and eaten across the northern states of India.

Puran Poli

Popular in the southern states, this traditional dish is a sweetened flatbread.

Pani Puri

This is a great light meal or snack for a hot day. A crispy puri with a hole on top is stuffed with potatoes, onions, chickpeas and tamarind chutney. Mint favoured water is then poured in.


This unsweetened bread comes from the western states of India. Two slices can quickly become a tasty light meal called vada pav by inserting a fried potato fritter into the middle and topping off with a hot and sweet garlic chutney.


The way dal is served will vary across the country. In Andhra, ingredients such as leafy greens, calabash (also known as bottle gourd) or aubergine are added to the recipes.


Lentils are cooked with beautiful spices to create a delicious curried dish. Served with vegetables and rice, Pal is popular in the eastern states of India.

Tandoori Chicken

The dish so beloved in UK curry houses originates in the northern states of India. Chicken which has been soaked in a spicy marinade is added to a Tandoor oven, made from clay in a cylindrical shape. Yoghurt and spices then complete the dish.

Dahi Vada

Another popular dish from the western states of India, Dahi Vada are lentil balls fried until crispy. They are served with a yoghurt sauce.

Bombil Fry

This dish, which consists of a fried lizardfish, is a popular starter in western states.


You could fill a recipe book with the different ways to prepare the tropical fish dish Ilish. Popular ingredients to add are aubergine or mustard seed paste. It’s enjoyed across the eastern states of India fried, steamed, smoked or baked.

Chhena Gaja

Chhena is an ingredient which is like cottage cheese. When it is mixed with semolina and kneaded, the result is a rich dough. The dough is then fried in hot oil, before being coated in a syrup and served as Chhena Gaja, a popular sweet treat in the eastern states of India.


A number of fruits are native to India and so can be enjoyed fresh at the right times of the year. The hottest times of the year usually sees the best harvests, during May and July.

Mangos come in a variety of sizes and unripe ones are made into chutney. Chikoo, jackfruit, bananas, oranges, guavas, lychees, apples, pineapples, pomegranates, apricots, melons, coconuts, grapes, plums, peaches and berries make wonderful deserts or light snacks.

Milk And Cheese

Milk is a staple item in the Indian diet, although you need to be aware that it is not pasteurised. Remember to boil it before consumption.


Alcohol is widely enjoyed in India but there are some important points to note. The age you can buy and consume alcohol is subject to state laws, and so varies in each location. It may be as low as 18 or as high as 25.

When a festival is being celebrated, alcohol may be banned for hours or days in accordance with local laws.

In Gujarat, alcohol cannot be openly bought at any time, and only travellers can purchase the 30-day alcohol license which allows legal purchases of alcohol in the state-licensed shops. Goa has a liberal attitude to alcohol, whereas Chennai taxes alcohol at a higher rate.

Moreover, India is home to 172 million Muslims, who make up roughly 10% of the country’s population. The majority of these people reject all alcohol consumption. However, they aren’t the only group who rejects alcohol on the grounds of religious belief. Jainism, for example, preaches non-violence and vegetarianism alongside total abstinence. It’s India’s sixth largest religion, with between four and five million followers, many of whom live in the smart districts of Mumbai.

This means that while most of the time you can enjoy an alcoholic drink, there are plenty of circumstances where it would not be polite or even legal to do so.

For those who do drink alcohol in India, Kingfisher lager and Old Monk rum are popular choices. India also has a domestic wine production industry which is improving over time. Avoid the moonshine products of tharra and toddy. Whilst they offer a lot of strong alcohol at laughably low prices, these unofficially produced drinks can seriously harm your health.

Indian Tea

Indian people were enjoying their locally produced tea long before the British colonial powers started exporting it to the UK and beyond.

Darjeeling and Assam are high quality tea leaves but plenty of other varieties can be easily found. Massala Chai is popular during monsoon weather. This is a milky drink with sugar, cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, ground cloves, ginger and black tea.

Soft Drinks

If you need a rich, flavoured drink, India is the right place to be.

Lassi is a yoghurt-based drink. It is mixed with water and milk along with a careful selection of spices.

Badam Doodh is slightly lighter, using almond milk as its base. Nuts and cardamom give it a new level of flavour and scent.

If you are looking for a sweet drink, try sharbat. Fruits or flower petals are used, giving each concoction an individual taste.

Coconut water makes for a refreshing drink in the heat and is popular on beaches and in southern states.

Fresh sugarcane drinks and fresh fruit drinks are widely available, as are the host of soft drinks you will be familiar with such as Coke and Sprite. Thums Up is an Indian soft drink with spices and sweeteners added.

Do be careful when purchasing soft drinks. Added water and ice may contain harmful bacteria. If a drinks stand doesn’t look clean, it may have been some time since the equipment was last washed.

Vegetarian States In India

The notion that most Indian people are vegetarian is a myth. A survey conducted by the Office of Registrar General and Census Commissioner in 2014 looked at the diet eaten by people over the age of 15 across the country. They found that overall, 29 percent of the population eats a vegetarian diet.

India does, however, have the largest number of vegetarians in the population of any country in the world. This is partly because its population of 1.25 billion people makes it the second most populous country, so even small percentages involve a lot of people. However, if you consider that only five percent of the US population and seven percent of the UK population identify as vegetarian, you can see that the meat free diet is very much an embedded part of the eating culture in India.

Telangana is a state in southern India, whose capital is the city of Hyderabad. Approximately one percent of the population of Telangana is vegetarian.

Meanwhile the northern state of Rajasthan, sitting against the border with Pakistan, has the highest percentage of vegetarians at almost three quarters of the population.

It’s easy to identify packaged vegetarian foods. In addition to the plentiful supply, by law the packages display a green dot to denote a vegetarian meal, and a red dot for food containing meat products.

Even amongst the meat-eating communities, consumption of beef and pork is not common.

The Percentage Of Vegetarians In India Is Growing

Perhaps surprisingly, the current trend is that more Indian people are becoming vegetarians. This goes against the experience of other countries, in which increased wealth means more people can afford meat. However, India’s traditional communities were dominated by the caste system. The higher the caste, the more likely you were to become vegetarian. Poor people in rural India eat the chickens they rear because they don’t have enough money for other ingredients to satisfy large, hungry families.

This means that as more people obtain a disposable income, many move towards vegetarianism, which is a culturally esteemed diet. The process adopting the diet and rituals of higher castes is often referred to as Sanskritisation. The caste system is largely being overthrown, but the etiquette of the highest castes remains a target to which many aspire as they socially progress.

This is causing problems in places such as Mumbai, where wealthy vegetarians moving into new, expensive developments are causing tension with the meat and fish services which have operated there for generations.

Tipping In India

If you are eating in an upmarket establishment, you will probably find a service charge added to the bill.

Elsewhere, a 10 to 15 percent tip would be appropriate, although street food vendors wouldn’t expect one. For many people, the little extra you give can make a difference to what their family eats that day.

Although Indian people traditionally eat with their right hand, most expats eat in restaurants which provide cutlery.

In the southern states, you’ll pass the sign for a ‘hotel’ which actually means a restaurant serving thali meals. These platters of many little dishes are well worth seeking out.

You will frequently come across menus provided in English where the local Hindi words are used for ingredients. You will quickly pick these up, but a common selection of menu items are as follows:

aloo — potato

chana — chickpeas

gobi — cauliflower (or cabbage)

machli — fish

makhan — butter

mattar — green peas

mirch — chilli pepper

murgh — chicken

palak — spinach

paneer — Indian cottage cheese

subzi — vegetable

Helpful Links

ExpatFocus have published several articles about the food and drink available in India. They are worth reading so you know what to expect and what to seek out to try.

● Moving to India? Here Are Ten Street Foods You Should Try

10 Irresistible Dishes For British Expats In India

Five Things To Avoid Doing When You Move To India, also gives you some useful tips about how to avoid food poisoning when you first arrive.

Read more about this country

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