When it comes to a lot of Southeast Asian cuisines, the question of “Hot or not?” takes on a whole new spicy level that most foreigners can’t even comprehend. I consider myself a medium-spice-level connoisseur; I can order hot wings hot but I stay far away from anything with the words “diablo,” “mind-melting,” “explosion,” or “death” in the title. A solid guest on Hot Ones, I am not.
So when I booked my trip to India, I was a little hesitant about the food, considering pretty much all of my friends’ reviews of their experiences could be summed up in three sound bites: “Amazingly beautiful country,” “Absolutely bonkers traffic,” and “Spice levels off the charts!” I knew I wanted to eat as much delicious Indian food as I could (give me all the naan), but after two days of ordering dishes that seemed like they might kill my tummy (I’m looking at you, spicy biryani), I needed help. After talking to some locals I was able to pull together a solid list of tasty options that let me experience all the delicious flavors and spices of the cuisine without running to the restroom every 20 minutes.
When it comes to breakfast, most travelers opt to eat at the normally included hotel buffets. It’s a great chance to experience a little bit of each type of dish and decide for yourself what you can handle, but note that in more Westernized establishments they tend to go a little easy on the spice, knowing their clientele. There are three safe options that were fairly standard at every breakfast buffet.
1. Idli is a type of savory steamed rice cake, not unlike a Chinese bao in texture. It’s made out of fermented black lentils and rice and normally served with coconut chutney, with the option to sprinkle a little or a lot of curry spice on top.
2. Dosa is similar to a pancake or crepe in appearance but it’s made with rice and black gram (a type of bean grown on the Indian subcontinent). It’s spread thin on a hot skillet and cooked until crispy. Traditionally, it’s served with sambar, a warm sometimes spicy soup, and chutney, and sometimes stuffed with a mixture of potatoes and paneer.
3. Vada looks like an unglazed donut, but it’s actually a savory snack that’s made with ingredients ranging from legumes to potatoes. They’re generally fairly mild and also substantially dense, so they make a great breakfast to power you through the day. They show up in another delicious dish called dahi vada, which is basically vadas soaked in a thick yogurt sauce — also an excellent option when you’re looking for something calming for your stomach.
Now that you’ve made it past breakfast and you’re out and about exploring, you’ll inevitably end up staring at a menu wondering what on earth you should order for your next meal. Breads and plain rice are always the safest, but you’ll want something to sop up with that freshly baked and buttery garlic naan.
4. Butter chicken or butter paneer are generally pretty safe choices when it comes to cuisine. It’s normally a mildly spicy curry dish, as it includes lots of cream and yogurt in the preparation. Plus, if you order a side dish of yogurt, you can really control the spice level with the sauce and it makes a great dish for dipping all the breads.
5. Tikka chicken is something you might be familiar with if you frequent Indian restaurants. It normally refers to a piece of chicken or meat that’s been marinated in yogurt and spices and then grilled. The spice can sometimes be a little hot, but if you order a side of raita (a condiment made with yogurt and raw or cooked vegetables), to cool the palate, it’s absolutely perfect.
6. Aloo gobi is a wonderful alternative to all the meats, as it’s made with potato and cauliflower spiced with all the delicious Indian spices. Vegetarian dishes are absolutely incredible in India and even if you’re an avid carnivore, make sure you save room to try some of the vegetarian offerings.
7. Saag paneer consists of leafy greens (spinach, mustard greens, or collard greens). It’s normally medium to mild in flavor and served with roti, a kind of flatbread. Especially since you’re traveling in a country where fresh salads aren’t the safest to eat, you’ll want to get your greens fix in for sure, and this is a terrific way to do it.
By and large some of the most appealing dishes in any country come from the streets, and India is no exception. However, whenever eating street foods always be aware of where they’re being made, as cleanliness is an issue. That said, if you come across some of these street food classics, give them a try.
8. Pani puri or dahi puri are a very common street snack and consist of a round, hollow fried crisp called a puri that’s filled with a mixture of water, chutney, chili, chaat masala, potato, onion, or chickpeas. They’re very mild and delicious; the only thing you have to be really careful about is making sure they’re made with bottled mineral water.
9. Samosas are wonderful pockets of deep-fried goodness that are generally stuffed with a variety of potatoes, peas, and onions. Now I’m going to put a big warning on these, as they really do run the gamut from spicy to mild, so be sure to ask for non-spicy ones — or if you have a taste-tester buddy let them take the first bite.
10. Gulab jamus are perhaps one of the most amazing things you’ll ever eat. These sweet and sticky fried dough balls soaked in a sugared syrup are not only the perfect way to end a meal, but they really do kill the spice from any dish.
And if you do accidentally order something that’s out of your tolerance range, be sure to wash it down with a sweet mango lassi!
What are some of your favorite Indian dishes? Let us know @BritandCo!
(Photos via Nicole Iizuka / Brit + Co)