The Anglicised dishes we have come to identify as Indian cuisine don’t even begin to cover the regional variations on offer in India. North India is famous for its rich, thick curry sauces and tends to use meat more often than in the south. Tandoori chicken, kebabs koftas and biryanis all derive from here and the spicy influences come courtesy of the Mughal empire. North Indian food is normally served with breads such as naan, roti or chapatti. There’s plenty of pure Hindu vegetarian to be had in Uttar Pradesh and places of pilgrimage such as Varanasi. The food of South India tends to be based around fish and uses different spices such as coconut, tamarind and curry leaves. Rice generally replaces breads down here as the main accompaniment. Lentil based dhal has universal appeal and is eaten right across India, with regional differences. Be sure to only eat freshly cooked food and look for busy restaurants.
To avoid the dreaded ‘Delhi Belly’ it is advisable to eat in good, clean restaurants – avoid street vendors. Eat cooked food and stay away from salads.
Chai (tea) is widely drunk throughout India but coffee is becoming more popular down south. Soft drinks (both homegrown and big name brands) are also popular in India but for a truly authenthic cold drink you can’t really go past a lassi – a chilled blend of yoghurt, spices and fruit.
Beer — both foreign and local brands — is widely available with Kingfisher being the backpackers’ choice. The local wine industry hasn’t fully taken flight yet but foreign wine is available in most upmarket bars and restaurants. Spirits generally come under the banner of “Indian Made Foreign Liquor” (IMFL) which basically refers to western liquors like rum, vodka, etc, which are made in India. There’s also plenty of regional hooch such as arak – a cheap and nasty liquor from the south which is probably best avoided and raksi, a grain alcohol available in the Himalyas. Worth checking out is Kerala’s toddy, made from the sap of palm trees.
Whatever you do avoid drinking local tap water or drinks with ice or fresh juice, which may have been diluted with water, unless you want to catch a nasty parasite such as giardia. Stick to bottled water (make sure the seal hasn’t been broken) or take steps to purify water by using a filter, adding iodine, or boiling.