The intense spices and flavors of much Indian food - fired with ginger, garlic, chili, coriander, cinnamon, turmeric, cardamom, and cloves - have conquered the world. And some of the country’s cuisine, particularly in the south, is all the proof a meat-lover could ever need that vegetarian food can be just as explosively delicious as any flesh-based dish. But of course the real wonder of Indian cooking only becomes apparent when you travel the country itself, and discover just how diverse its dishes really are. Any notion you may have of a broad Indian cuisine will be blown off the wall, and replaced with a mosaic of varied cooking methods, base ingredients, and core flavors. Eating out in the five cities selected here provides a short and simple introduction to this vast country’s many cuisines.
Delhi has what many top gourmet destinations in the west have - a selection of world-class restaurants showcasing local and regional cuisines - but also something Paris and London have less of: excellent street food. On the more upmarket front, Wasabi, by the much-lauded chef Masaharu Morimoto, is a trendy Japanese venture offering contemporary twists on traditional dishes in a hyper-stylish venue. If you want a broader selection of south and east Asian cuisine, then Set’z offers it all in one place, with seven separate kitchens hosting superb chefs cooking northern and coastal Indian cuisines as well as Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and even European. But perhaps the best way to get a direct taste of the flavors and textures of northern and eastern India is to drop into Bengali Market, stroll the restaurants and street stalls, and select what takes your fancy - just be sure to try some chaat, a tapas-style rice- or potato-based dish that could incorporate a range of ingredients, but is guaranteed to be suffused with spices.
Like Delhi, the massive metropolis of Mumbai has its share of world-class restaurants, but few travelers could eat in those alone and claim to have truly experienced the city’s cuisine. There are some entertainingly stylish new venues that are well worth a visit, such as Skky Restrolounge and Bar, which is about as over-the-top as it sounds - a glowing rooftop restaurant with the tables separated by flowing water and plants and an eclectic menu that dances between Pan-Asian, Italian and Arabic dishes. For a more local fine dining experience, head to the Konkan Cafe Restaurant, which showcases the richly delicious seafood-and-coconut-heavy cuisine of the Konkan Region. But to really eat like the locals, you’ll have to brave the erratic street food stalls, which sell a range of regional specialities, such as vada pav, an intensely flavoursome deep-fried combination of potato, chili and ginger. Just try to keep your wits - and some tropical medicine - about you as you select where to eat.
Kolkata's long-established dining scene is a mixed and chaotic bag, but with some research or a little luck you can find precisely what you want - or at least what you would have wanted, had you known what a diversity of dishes was available to you. The Bengal area is famous for a variety of specialities, in particular its fish and seafood, as well as its sweet desserts. All this can be experienced at its best at the trendy-but-still-excellent Oh! Calcutta!, which serves traditional Bengali cuisine to an exceptional standard. Its menu usually lists some version of the famous regional fish curry, macher jhol, which is also available from just about every street food stand in town for a tenth of the price, although the untrained eye will find the quality at these establishments utterly unpredictable. So a safer and more conservative approach, which will guarantee at least some satisfaction, is to try out a couple of the much-lauded restaurants that have been on the Kolkata scene for some time: Flurys, a fabled European-style tearoom in one of the grandest districts in town; or Saffron, a fiercely modern restaurant playing with a range of contemporary Indian cuisines.
Chennai is the capital city of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, a region famed for its passion for food, and for its superb vegetarian cooking in particular. Rice, lentils and vegetables form the core of the state’s cuisine, usually flavored with cheese and the familiar range of intense spices, although meaty protein can be found in the form of chicken and fish. In terms of sampling the region’s vegetarian specialties, Chennai has a handful of budget restaurant chains serving dishes as authentic and flavorful as anywhere further up the price chain, including Sanjeevanam, Vasantha Bhavan and Sangeetha - look out for them as you stroll the city’s hot streets, and don’t be afraid for your wallet if you decide to dodge in. For a more upmarket experience of Tamil’s carnivore-satisfying cuisine, try Amaravathi, which is particularly suited to lovers of spicy seafood. The region is also well-known for its sweets, which can be sampled at such elegant tourist fixtures as The Grand Sweets and Snacks and Cake Park.
Bangalore, capital of the state of Karnataka, is located at the heart of another South Indian culinary culture renowned for its vegetarian food. Local specialities thought to originate in the city include the masala dosa, a rice pancake stuffed with potato curry and spiced with an intense red chili chutney, and pongal, a sticky rice dish that can be served both sweet and savoury. A long-established restaurant which has maintained its passion for the regional dishes it prepares is Udupi Krishna Bhavan, which has a number of venues sprinkled throughout the city and remains one of the best places to try local specialities. A riskier but potentially supremely gratifying gourmet experience can be had on Shettara Beedi, an entire street lined with food stalls dishing out dosas, rotis, pongals and much more - simply strolling its length is a feast for all the senses. And finally, if you want a straight-forward, reliable place to relax and enjoy a beer accompanied by some westernised food, then try Toit Brewpub, which serves a range of craft beers along with pizza and fondue.