Indian culture definitely revolves around food, and there are plenty of restaurants serving international cuisine, fast food, and regional specialties, especially in big cities. There are numerous cafés and food stalls, especially in market areas—these are especially popular with locals looking for a small snack in between meals. If you choose to try out street food, be wary of hygiene issues—look for stalls popular with families and avoid shaved ice or anything containing cold water. India is also a haven for vegetarians, with plenty of pure-veg restaurants that don’t serve any meat, fish, poultry, or eggs. Even "non-veg" places usually have delicious meatless options.
Almost all restaurants in India are family-friendly, even many of the fancier ones in top hotels. If your child doesn’t like Indian food, it's almost always possible to order things like sandwiches and pizzas.
American fast food is widely available in larger cities, most of which have branches of McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and Domino's Pizza. Nirula's is a well-known fast-food chain in Delhi and other points in the north, and they serve Indian fast food, burgers, and ice cream. In villages and smaller towns across the subcontinent such eateries are nonexistent. In that case, an order of plain bread such as naan and lentils may be just the ticket.
Meals and Mealtimes
A regular Indian meal consists of some rice or bread, served with spiced vegetables, meat, and lentils. Accompaniments to the meal can include chaas (spiced buttermilk), lassi (a sweet or salty yogurt drink), pickle, papad (a deep-fried or dry roasted savory wafer made from lentil or rice), chutney, and raita (spiced yogurt). A sweet, usually very sugary and milk-based, is the last course. At the end of the meal, paan (a stimulating concoction of sugar and various spices wrapped in the leaves of the betel pepper plant), supari (plain betel nut), rock sugar, or aniseed may be served as a breath-freshener/digestive.
Although lots of Indians eat cornflakes or toast to start the day, traditional Indian breakfasts are often much heavier. They can consist of any of the following South Indian foods: idlis (steamed rice and lentil cakes) with chutney; rasam wada (deep-fried lentil fritters served with a hot, spicy watery lentil curry); dosas (a crisp pancake, made with a fermented ground-rice-and-lentil batter); upma (light semolina, also known as farina, with vegetables); or aloo poha (spicy potatoes mixed with rice flakes).
A good portion of the Indian population is vegetarian for religious reasons, and while milk is part of the typical vegetarian diet in India, eggs are not. Many people who eat meat don’t do so every day (and certainly not at every meal). Most Hindus consider the cow sacred and do not eat beef. Muslims (and many Hindus) do not touch pork. Some Hindus eat only chicken and seafood and stay away from red meat. Many Jains are not only vegetarian but also don’t eat any vegetable grown under the ground—one reason may be that plucking up the root destroys life in the soil. As you travel through India, expect to encounter folks who don't eat meat on Tuesday (in honor of Hanuman, the monkey-god servant of Rama); much of India's religious and ethical life, indeed, revolves around food.
Although South Indian restaurants often start serving lunch early, in North India people tend to eat lunch later in the afternoon than in the United States, sometimes around 2 or 3 pm. Restaurants in cities normally stay open until 11 pm or midnight, as Indians are known for starting dinner quite late (past 10 pm). In other areas, expect an earlier dinner in restaurants (finished by 9 pm) unless you're staying in a luxury hotel. Coffee shops in urban luxury hotels are often open 24 hours.
Snacking is also popular, and common treats include samosas, white-bread sandwiches, jalebis (deep-fried bright yellow flour fritters soaked in sugar syrup), and the fudgelike milk sweets. Masala chai (spiced milk tea) and ginger tea are extremely popular and are often consumed four to five times a day. But as you go south, coffee becomes increasingly important and is served boiling hot, creamy, and foamy (sort of like a sugary latte).
Reservations and Dress
Most restaurants don’t require reservations, except for upscale establishments in big cities. We only mention reservations when they are essential or when they are not accepted. For popular, high-end restaurants, book as far ahead as you can (often 30 days), and reconfirm as soon as you arrive in India. (Large parties should always call ahead to check the reservations policy.)
Very few restaurants require formal attire. By and large India is very casual about dress codes. However, certain clubs do not allow anyone—even in daylight hours—to wear shorts or men to wear sandals.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
India produces many kinds of liquor, and exorbitant duties make imported spirits unaffordable to all but the wealthiest of its citizens. Its locally produced versions of international brands of rum, vodka, and gin are adequate but generally unmemorable. The sweet local red rum, Old Monk, is worth a try. Kingfisher beer is ubiquitous, refreshing, and bland. With every year more and more Indian wine is produced, and much of it is good, although not overly complex. Scotch whisky is by far the most popular kind of hard liquor in India: Director's Special is a mild and reliable brand.
Alcohol at luxury hotels is vastly marked up. Consider buying your own liquor and having it in your room—you can always call room service for glasses and mixers. If you're a woman traveling alone, drinking in your room is probably a better option in any case.
Indian customs may appear prudish toward drinking—but open a bottle and you may make some instant friends. According to proper Indian etiquette, alcohol is excluded from many occasions. When you visit someone's house you may not be offered a drink even in the evening, and the strongest beverage you may get is tea. At some Hindu and virtually all Muslim weddings and at festival time, alcohol may not be served. Women are infrequent drinkers, at least in public. Don't be surprised if you encounter quite a few male teetotalers.
Dry days—when alcohol isn't available anywhere in the country—are observed on January 26, August 15, October 2, and on certain festival dates. Some states observe additional dry days, which are usually on or around election days; others prohibit everything but beer.