Eating is an experience in India. Everyone loves food, and sharing it. If you're sitting with three friends, you basically get to taste three other meals besides your own. Despite the enjoyable nature of mealtimes, though, food is a very serious topic. Many food preferences are determined by religious convictions. "Veg or non-veg?" is a very common question that people ask when you first meet, and great care is taken to ensure that vegetarians are not served meat.
I recently visited a food court off the highway. The dining area is segregated into veg and non-veg sections. The veg section contains yellow chairs, and is separated from the non-veg section by a wide aisle. The non-veg section contains red chairs, and all non-veg food is served on a red tray. Signs featuring a cartoon chicken crossed out with a red "X" guard the entryway to the veg section. If you're foolish enough to try to bring meat into the veg section, you will be hunted down and forced to move back into the non-veg section.
The debate over the government's attempt to ban the slaughter of beef is very controversial. Religion, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status all influence a person's diet. Generally, Hindus don't eat meat, particularly beef. And Muslims don't eat pork. However, certain regions and states are more stringent on meat restrictions than other states. For example, I have a friend from the southern state of Kerala who eats everything, including beef and pork. However, one of my other friends is from North India, and his family adheres to strict vegetarianism. Additionally, I've met Hindu students who eat beef, but don't tell their parents. Finally, food choice has social and economic undertones. Due to their social status and access to education, lower caste people are often impacted by poverty. Beef is cheap, and therefore a more affordable food option for members of the lower caste. However, meat eating is sometimes ridiculed, and used to emphasize differences between the castes.
There are an endless number of different types of bread in India. Appam is made from fermented rice batter, and is a common dish in the southern state of Kerala. The flavor of appam is very similar to sour dough bread, but the texture is more like that of a pancake. Parotta is a flaky flatbread made from maida flour, and it is also very popular in Kerala. Chapati is a flatbread made from wheat flour and cooked on a girdle. Papadum is a thin, crispy type of bread that reminds me of saltine crackers. Kulcha is a leavened bread made from maida flour. Naan is an leavened, oven baked flatbread. Roti is similar to naan, but it is generally cooked on an iron girdle. Kulcha, naan, and roti all have roots in North Indian cuisine.
Indian gravies are very different from American gravy. Essentially, gravy = curry. The word "curry" is not often used to describe these dishes.
Paneer is un-aged cheese made from curds.
The word aloo means "potato" in Hindi, and matar means "pea." So, aloo matar is a dish comprised of potatoes, peas, and various spices.
Idli is a common breakfast food in South India. These cakes are made by steaming a batter comprised of rice and fermented black lentils. Idli cakes don't have a very strong flavor on their own. So, idli is typically served with chutney or sambar.
Mangoes, mango juice, and mango shakes are all super tasty.
The term panipuri means "water balls" in Hindi. The crunchy hollow balls are a type of bread, and the water can be flavored with different seasonings. Panipuri can be spicy or sweet or somewhere in between. A spoonful of mashed potatoes mixed with onions is placed inside the crunchy hollow bread balls. Then the ball is dipped into the water, and you eat the whole thing in one bite. Panipuri stalls can be found on almost every street corner.
All chicken dishes are served with the bones. I found that out the hard way when I pulled an entire chicken leg bone out of my noodles one day.
Ginger tea is amazing. So is masala tea and lemon tea and chai tea.
A lot of people try to go easy on you if they think you're a wimpy white kid who can't handle spice. Everyone else takes sadistic joy in watching your face flush as you chow down on a green chili infused dish. When you can convince someone to give you spicy food, it's wonderful. There's no better experience than eating a spicy Indian meal, your tongue tingling and your nose dripping relentlessly. Your meal isn't legit unless you have to sniff your way through. Before coming to India, I had never really eaten Indian food. When I got here, I was initially underwhelmed by the food options. Everything was new, strange, and tasted like nothing I'd ever had before. It took me a while to get used to all the different flavors. But I've gradually developed a very deep fondness for Indian food, the cooks who prepare my meals, and the friends I share it all with.