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Asia travel

How to get to know India through its food: an insider’s guide to some must-try experiences

Get to know the rich and varied tastes of the subcontinent with a structured tour, a culinary home-stay or a food-centred trip – and the options are as vast as the cuisine

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 May, 2016, 7:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 May, 2016, 7:00am

One of the best ways to enjoy a new city or country is through its local food. And nowhere is this truer than in India. It is a land with a mind-boggling variety of regional cuisine, going way beyond the chicken tikka masala that has come to represent Indian food globally.

However, eating in a new place also brings with it concerns about health and hygiene, and again, nowhere is this truer than in India, especially when getting adventurous with street food. But you can forget Delhi Belly and get to know India through its food with this insider’s guide to enjoying interesting, authentic and safe experiences across the country.

1. Food Tours

Go forth and conquer the streets with India Food Tour (indiafoodtour.com) in popular cities such as Delhi, Jaipur, Agra and Mumbai. It also offers culinary journeys across India accompanied with a chef. In these tours, you get to understand and explore the various communities that make the city, and their unique cuisines.

In India, some of the best street food is to be found in Mumbai, from pav bhaji (toasted bun with spicy vegetable curry) to pan (a betel leaf digestive). You can discover them all with Mumbai Moments (mumbaimoments.com) or Urban Adventures (urbanadventures.com). Chase this down with a cool, sweet thandai (a milk-based drink), generously laced with spices and bhang (a local cannabis preparation) which you’ll find on a gastronomic walking tour with Walks of Varanasi (walksofvaranasi.in).

In the east, Kolkata is the original melting pot, with food influences ranging from “Chindian” adapted from the immigrant Chinese community to Mumbai chaat (street snacks) customised to local tastes. On a walk with Calcutta Walks (calcuttawalks.com), begin with the fish fry that Kolkata is known for, and end with speciality milk-based desserts.

2. Market trails

On the Spice Trail with Story Trails (storytrails.in), get a whiff of the herbs and spices that make Indian cuisine distinctive – coriander and curry leaves, cardamom and pepper, cumin and turmeric powder – during your market visit. See and buy the freshest of these, and then go on to learn how to use them in everyday Indian cooking.

In Mumbai, the Lalbaug area was once home to the thriving cotton mills that made the city prosperous. Now, nothing remains of those, but the neighbourhood retains a strong multicultural identity. Explore the stories behind the various ethnic communities by browsing Lalbaug’s markets – separate lanes for spices, fresh vegetables, fish and even one for fried snacks – with Mumbai Magic (mumbaimagic.com).

3. A morning with the dabbawalas

Mumbai’s 5,000-odd dabbawalas (literally box carriers) are a tourist attraction in themselves. Their fans include Prince Charles and Richard Branson. These men in the white caps known as Gandhi topis ferry lunches cooked by loving wives for husbands at work in their offices, getting it right every single time using a simple colour-coding system.

Make sure to keep your cameras ready as you follow their path through the bustling lanes, suburban trains (called locals) and train stations of Mumbai. Go on a dabbawala tour in Mumbai with Viator (viator.com) or local operators such as Active Holidays (activeholidays.in) and All India Travel Info (allindiatravelinfo.com).

4. Home flavours

If you believe that there is more to Indian food than chicken tikka masala, then sign up with Traveling Spoon (travelingspoon.com). Started by two graduates of the UC Berkeley School of Business, Traveling Spoon offers you a chance to taste authentic regional cuisine at locals’ homes across 12 Indian cities, from Delhi and Udaipur in the north to Hyderabad and Mysore in the south.

Go shopping for fresh fish with Iti in Kolkata to try your hand at bhetki paturi (fish coated with a mustard paste and steamed in banana leaves) or cook with grated coconut at Durga’s home, for a taste of south Indian food that is not found in restaurants. Or at Micky’s home in Mumbai, get a taste of Parsi cuisine, unique to a community originally from Iran and settled in the city for several generations.

After you’ve eaten, sign up for cooking lessons with your Traveling Spoon hosts. Or head to The Pimenta (thepimenta.in), set in a spice garden near Kochi in Kerala. There you can enjoy the subtle flavours of vegetarian Kerala cuisine, as you learn to cook with fresh coconut and black pepper. Up west in Goa, Siolim House and Cooking School is all about local seafood and spices (cookingclassesgoa.com). In Delhi, sign up with Gourmet Desire (gourmetdesire.com), where Jyoti transfers her passion for food into easy and engaging cooking classes.

5. From farm to fork

For an experience straight from the bread basket of the country, make your way to Citrus County (citruscountyfarmstays.com) in Hoshiarpur. Citrus County, with nine tents and three rooms, is set in a 90-acre citrus plantation in rural Punjab. The hosts Harkirat Ahluwalia and his wife Jasveen take an active interest in preserving and presenting traditional family recipes; Harkirat’s father Bhagwant Singh and his famous mutton curry were featured in Rick Stein’s show a few years ago. A stay here is also a great opportunity to watch farming activities and pick your own fruit for fresh-pressed juice.

At Acres Wild (acres-wild.com), you get to make your own cheeses and eat them too. This 22-acre farm-stay in located in Coonoor in the Nilgiris (Blue Mountains) range in south India, and aims to create a self-sustaining and eco-friendly place. Here, they teach the art of gourmet cheese-making through an easy two-day course, including theory lessons on the process and techniques.

Wake up to stunning views of the Himalayas at Tathagata Farm (tathagatafarm.com) located in the middle of an organic farming village near the hill station of Darjeeling. Try your hand at picking tea in the plantation or walk through the village to talk to local farmers. Or take hikes in the nearby hills, with a guide to show the way. Accommodation here is either in basic but well-equipped huts or tents.