Cooking & Food Vacations in India

I asked my teenage son - if he could have a vacation to Africa or India, which one he would choose. Without hesitation he said India. why, I asked? Because of the food, of course!
There can be few things more frustrating than when a tourist goes into a restaurant in India and complains that there is no korma on the menu. The chefs must want to take out a giant map of the country, label the regions and their culinary influences and then point out that korma is in fact from a Mughal tradition, emanating from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Northern India. The map of Indian food is as varied as its landscapes, cultures and historical influences. One thing that is common throughout all of India, however, is the cultural importance of food. How it has been influenced by colonists, religion, spice traders and of course, the climate. And most importantly, the culture of eating together as a family or with friends is what makes the culinary experience in India most delicious of all.
the Indian store cupboard

The Indian store cupboard

Who can resist walking around a food market in India and taking in the wide array of spices, fruits and vegetables that make up the Indian store cupboard? In fact, cuisine is predominantly vegetarian in India, although this is changing, particularly in the main cities. The market stalls vary according the regions of course. Kerala has long been the spice coast, so black pepper, cardamom, clove, ginger, and cinnamon are omnipresent, along with turmeric, tamarind and so many more. Not forgetting coconuts, which grow everywhere here.
In Rajasthan, the desert state, the tradition is based on food that can withstand the heat, that can grow in the heat, and which ideally does not have to be cooked too much, in the heat! The Rajput tradition is vegetarian, and so market regulars have long been beans and dried lentils as well as corn, barley and millet which are grounded into flour to make bread.
Head to Goa for a very different, coastal cuisine, with fish stalls two a penny. This is also where the Portuguese introduced potatoes, tomatoes, pineapples and, most importantly the chilli pepper. You will see more meat on sale here, with Portuguese heritage being more of a carnivorous one.
Where to eat
India is falling down with incredible restaurants, especially in main cities or heritage hotels. However, our vacations also go a bit more grassroots and seek out casual cafes which cater for local people. A dhaba is a traditional roadside café. They were originally created to cater for truck drivers and, as many of them are Punjabi, they often serve Punjabi food. There are plenty of familiar names: biryani, kebab, rogan josh, tandoori and paratha flatbreads. They also use more meat than other regions, particularly lamb, with a fair smattering of butter and paneer.
A bhojanalaya is based on the northern Rajasthani tradition and the name for a standard yet often sublime eatery that is usually vegetarian., with delicious curries and dhals. Often found in stations or in city centers, you will eat your goodies out of thali – stainless steel platters.
In Southern India you will also come across frugal foodie spots known as udupi and they tend to serve the cuisine typical of the coastal state of Karnataka. You will be spoiled for choice between the likes of dosas, a type of pancake, and sambar which is a lentil and vegetable stew cooked with tamarind and usually served on a plantain leaf. With idli on the side which are steamed rice cakes, and the best comfort food you could hope to find. Until you discover the vada, which is deep fried deliciousness a bit like a doughnut, but savoury.

Regional specialties

If you want to ingratiate yourself with an Indian person, just start talking to him or her about their regional food specialities. You could spend all morning talking about lassis, an afternoon on spices and an evening on local beers. Ideally sipping one.
Rajasthani regulars

Rajasthani regulars

Rajasthan is particularly popular for culinary tours and food vacations because of their long history of royal Rajput cuisine. A main staple is dal baati chura, lentil dal served with ground wheat and unleavened bread, or baati. Kadhi is another favourite, emanating from the Bishnoi tribal tradition, and consists of vegetable pakoras, or fritters, served with thick gravy made with chickpea flour and eaten with rice.
The most famous meat dish emanates from the times when Rajput princes went hunting and game was on the menu: Laal maans translates as ‘red meat’, and was originally contained wild boar or deer, but today it contains mutton. It is a fiery curry made with red chillies, garlic and onions. Another must try is ker sangria, a staple during famine times in the desert, the ker being a wild berry and sangria a bean that grows in desert regions, both of which are mixed with a lot of spices making sort of pickled mix, often eaten with paratha.
The Rajasthani tooth is also a sweet one – check out the mawa kachorinutty pastries in Jodhpur, rasogullas or syrupy dumplings from Bikaner or feni noodles with more syrup found just about everywhere.

Our top trip

Golden Triangle with Ranthambore tour, India

Golden Triangle with Ranthambore tour, India

Brilliant experiences including Tigers and Temples

From £1199 to £1299 11 days ex flights
Tailor made:
This trip can be tailor made throughout the year to suit your requirements
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about India culture or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.
Kerala cuisine

Kerala cuisine

Kerala offers cookery tours and homestays where you can learn from some of the state’s best chefs: wives and mothers. As well as having a coastal and spice influence from its centuries of trading, there are plantations in the Ghat Mountains and tropical influences unique to this region. There are two words to learn before going to Kerala, which you will use again and again: nandi (pronounced: nan-ní) meaning thank you, and ruchikaram, meaning delicious.
A classic Kerala dish is sadya: rice, vegetables, coconut and lentils, served on a banana leaf. Fresh seafood from the backwaters is always a treat, as is pollichathu which is usually tilapia, pearl spot or pomfret, steamed in banana leaves with lots of local spices. Another speciality is moli, or fish stew, often eaten with appam bread, which is more like a pancake made with rice batter and coconut milk. Coconut is often added to traditional sambar too, which is a dal-based vegetarian curry that is very common in Kerala.
Goan cuisine

Goan cuisine

Goan cuisine is unique, not only because of its coastal influences but also because of its Portuguese ones, who ruled here during the 1500s-1800s. With them they brought not only Christianity, but also heavenly produce such as chilli peppers, potatoes, pineapples, guavas, cashews from Brazil and, of course, wine. They also introduced meat and fish into the local diet, leading to an eclectic epicurean selection. Such as ambot-tik, a fish curry that definitely makes Goans tick. And sweat, as the ‘tik’ bit means spicy, with plenty of chillies, spices and dried mango. For meat, check out chicken xacuti, with some serious hot spices, and sanna steamed bread, a local specialty made with rice flour and coconut. And just two words to finish: Tandoori lobster.
Mughlai cuisine

Mughlai cuisine

The best place to find real Mughlai cuisine, and it is worth paying for quality, is in Old Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Hyderabad. It is influenced by Turkish and Persian tastes and flavours that were introduced during the Mughal Empire, and uses complex recipes, slow cooking, lots of ingredients, and very subtle spices compared with other regions. For a top meat and rice biriyani, Hyderabad is the place to go, although this Mughlai dish has different versions in Delhi, Kolkata and Kerala, with a vegetarian option called tehari. Mughlai paratha bread is stuffed with minced meat, onions and chillies, and you can thank the Mughals for tantalising treats such as lamb rogan josh and pasanda.
Liv Bohn, from our India food vacations expert, Intrepid Travel:

“Because of India’s enormous size it’s home to a wealth of different regional delicacies. Therefore, a food adventure vacation is a great way to get to grips with Indian history and traditions, from discovering the origins of famous Mughal dishes to trying to eat the Indian way by scooping up food using your fingers. It’s a brilliant chance to interact with locals, whether you’re ordering an onion bhaji from a street food stall in Delhi or enjoying a classic Rajasthani cooking class. It’s these sorts of experiences that really help you to get under the skin of a country.”

Eating etiquette

For many visitors to India, the hardest thing to get used to is eating with your hands. However, once you get used to it you won’t want to go back to cutlery. Food is about all the senses, not just taste and smell, and when you hear a good few belches at the end of the meal, you will realise that it is about the sense of hearing, too! In urban areas cutlery is becoming the norm these days; however, if you do eat with your hand, use your right hand only, including for the breaking of bread.
Watch how others eat with their hands. In general, they don’t use the whole hand to mix rice and say dal, but just a few fingers, and gently rather than grabbing. If your meal comes on a leaf, when you have finished, fold it over towards you to show you have finished and that you enjoyed it.
As food is often put out in portions to be shared, in stainless steel thali dishes, be careful not to put a serving spoon that has gone in a meat dish into a non meat dish. Spiritual choices with regards to food are highly respected in India, so although you might be eating meat, your table companion may not be.
Cleanliness is very important at meal times, with hands being washed before and after. And be careful not to spread your germs by eating bits of food that others might eat, such as bread or letting your lips touch a bottle of water that someone else might drink out of.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Joe mon bkk] [Top box: Y'amal] [Kerala spices: Y'amal] [Rajasthan market: VD] [Goa fish seller: Dennis Yang] [Dhaba: shankar s.] [Dosa: farhad pocha] [Indian beer: Poi Photography] [Rajasthan regulars: irumge] [Mutton curry: Satwik Cuttack ] [Indian sweets: Creative commons] [Cooking in Kerala: Colin Mutchler] [Kerala cuisine - fish curry: Prasad Pillai] [Goan cuisine: Y'amal] [Mughlai cuisine: gahdjun] [Eating with hands: John Ramspott] [Eating etiquette: miramurphy]