Food - Dispelling the myths

Firstly, 'Delhi belly' is not a requisite part of a trip to India but can happen - just as it does when we eat unwisely at home!

The main problem is water, which you need to keep hydrated and which will be offered to you anywhere you have a meal. It is wisest to stick to the bottled variety, though many hotels and restaurants now have safe filtered water. And the biggest challenge is remembering to use the bottled water to clean your teeth! Also remember that ice is made from water!

If you do succumb there are local remedies like hing (asafoetida) or you can just stick to plain food for a day or two - rice and curd, bananas, coconut water, dry biscuits are good options. A glass of water with lemon juice added is also effective.

It is quite safe to eat in the main hotels and restaurants,but it is also safe – and often much more interesting - to eat on the street or at roadside ‘dhabas’ provided you follow the simple rule of seeing the food cooked in front of you, or ensuring that the place is really busy so that turnover is fast.

Secondly, Indian food is not just 'curry' but is wide ranging in variety and taste with each region having its own style and specific specialities. “Curry” in India simply means “sauce”. “Curry” as a dish is a British concept. It is thought to have stemmed from one of two sources: “kari podi” – a South Indian word meaning mixed spices and/or “karhi” – a word given to yogurt based sauces.

What you can expect

Wheat is a staple in the north, though the various breads (roti, naan, paratha, etc.) with which to mop up your curry can also be made from corn, millet, barley. In the south rice is more prevalent being served in the usual ways as well as being used to make various ‘breads’ – dosas (rice pancakes), idli (steamed rice cakes), wada (like unsweetened doughnuts).

The range of fruit and vegetables is amazing. In winter you can look out for my favourite – chikoos, round and brown (my husband asked why there were potatoes in the fruit bowl!) and with a taste that is hard to describe but has been - as ‘brown sugar’ or a mix of date and pear.

With pork being forbidden to the Muslims and beef to the Hindus, meat will generally be goat, lamb or chicken – but you may be so taken with all the wonderful vegetable dishes that you could consider becoming vegetarian!

Indians have a very sweet tooth. Chai – the ubiquitous tea sold at every corner – is made with milk, sugar and tea boiled together. It can also have spices added to it – usually ginger and/or cardamom. If you like your tea black and sugarless you have to think of chai as a different drink – but you can get your version if you ask! Similarly with coffee.

There is also a huge array of Indian sweetmeats (mostly very sweet!) ranging from the golden curlicues of jelabis (deep fried batter in sugar syrup) to the round balls of ladoos (semolina or other flour mixed with sugar and various spices and fruits) to the fudge-like burfis. Dessert as we know it is rare, though there are wonderful Indian icecreams (kulfi) and rice/vermicelli puddings.

There are plenty of soft drinks available – one of the most refreshing is a fresh lime soda (soda water with lime juice added and which can also have either salt or sugar added to taste). Fresh coconuts are often available on the roadside with someone to chop the top off so you can drink the water. India produces excellent beer – many brands being called after birds, like the much-exported Kingfisher. Winemaking is fairly new in India and some good wines can be found though the majority are pretty raw. Most local spirits are best avoided, with the exception of feni in Goa and toddy in palm growing areas. Gujarat State is dry in deference to Gandhi but you can get a permit if you’re desperate and some hotels now have licences!

Eating

Food in India – except in modern establishments – is eaten with the fingers, and it certainly tastes better that way. Only the right hand is used and the amount of the hand that you can get covered in food increases from north to south!

You could get really lucky and be invited to eat at a wedding - or you could attend a cooking class!

And you are quite likely to find a squirrel happy to share something from your plate! Or a monkey waiting to snatch that banana from your hand!