Travel Tips,  Wandering India

Underwhelmed by Indian Food

Lassis being made at Blue Lassi in Varanasi
Lassis being made at Blue Lassi in Varanasi

I love to eat. I have a board on pinterest called “The Opposite of a Picky Eater,” because that’s what I am. I will try everything once (or twice) and there is almost nothing I dislike because most everything is agreeable to me. My categories are more or less: 1. this is delicious or 2. this is not delicious, but I will still eat it. Of course, that’s one of the reasons I don’t blog about food very much: I don’t have the most discerning palate.

I still manage to be something of a foodie though, because I’m always on the look-out for food experiences that fall into the delicious category. As a result, when I emailed my mother on my second day in India, she messaged me back, “how is the food?” That was her only question about India.

And the answer was… fine.

A perfectly fine thali in Varanasi
A perfectly fine thali

Don’t get me wrong, I had a couple excellent meals, but most of what I ate was “good, but not great.” Before you ask, yes, I do like Indian food. I eat Indian food in the US with some regularity. And before you say it, I know that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve eaten Indian food, it’s means I’ve eaten the U.S. version of Indian food. However, most of the Indian food I ate in India tasted a lot like the Indian food I’ve eaten in the United States (and the UK).

There are plenty of possible reasons for why much of the food I ate was “good, but not great.” Maybe I didn’t know what to order. Maybe I didn’t eat at the “right” places. Maybe I don’t like Indian food as much as I think I do.

I did give in and get french fries one day...
French fries in McLeod Ganj

I’d say the number one reason I was underwhelmed by Indian food, though, has to do with my priorities. Food safety was number one, and that was new for me. Usually my goal is to eat the tastiest food possible but, in India, my first priority had to be staying healthy, relegating flavor to number two. And honestly, worrying if what I ate was going to make me sick made eating less enjoyable.

After getting sick, a couple of people on my tour just stopped eating Indian food, opting for prepackaged snacks (chips, candy) and whatever non-Indian cuisine was on the menu. In Northwestern India, many restaurants offer Italian food (pizza, pasta) and Chinese food (fried rice, soup) in addition to the standard curries, biryanis, etc. We often purposely ate at restaurants that had these options because they catered to tourists and, as a result, used safe food practices such as making fresh juices and smoothies with filtered water.

This street vendor's juices were made from only freshly-squeezed fruit -- no added water.
This street vendor’s fruit juices were made with no added water.

There are a few food safety rules for people traveling to countries like India:

  1. Don’t drink the tap water (this includes brushing your teeth)
  2. Don’t drink anything with ice cubes in it (unless the ice cubes are made of filtered water)
  3. Only eat cooked vegetables (unless raw vegetables are washed with filtered water)
  4. Only eat fruits with thick peels, like oranges (the filtered water caveat applies, yet again)
  5. Only eat street food that is cooked in front of you so you know it’s fresh

These rules aren’t necessarily hard to follow. I had no issues when I visited Morocco in 2010, and I also loved the food I ate there. In India, the food was fine with one glaring exception — when I got sick. Now, getting sick was totally my fault because I broke the rules I just outlined above, and it happened on my second full day in India, so, unfortunately, it did color the rest of my experience in the country.

This man looks so forlorn about his huge pan of lassi
This man looks so forlorn about his huge pan of lassi

Getting sick also made for one of my best India stories. And by best, I actually mean worst. Best in a tragic, self-deprecating kind of way.

It was samosas that did me in…

Tune in next week for a thrilling tale of stomach sickness on an overnight train! (That last sentence should be read in an old-timey radio voice.)

Have you been to India? What did you think of the food? Has a meal ever made you sick while traveling?

Emma Holliday is well-traveled. After 5 years in Boston, she and her husband upended their lives to move to Berlin where she is currently writing a (funny) book about travel and grief and attempting to learn German.


  • Megan Allene Smith (@meganotravels)

    Nooo! On so many counts! Eating authentic Indian food is one of the major draws of visiting India for me. And samosas are one of my all-time favorite foods, so I’m sorry to hear that’s what made you sick!

    I broke one of your rules when I was in Morocco (I ate raw veggies) and ended up getting sick-sick-sick. I feel your pain.

    Also, awesome tips. Out of curiosity–did those tourist food places also offer Indian fare? Or only Italian, Chinese, and American?

    • opportunemma

      I got sick from eating samosas, but only because I broke one of my rules. I’m sure that if you visit you’ll be able to find safe and delicious samosas!

      The tourist-oriented restaurants offered curries, biryanis, and other more “traditional” Indian fare as well as Chinese, Italian, and American cuisine. Sometimes going to these restaurants was a compromise because it meant the people in our group who didn’t want Indian food could have pizza, but the rest of us could still order what we wanted. Other times we went to these restaurants because they had excellent food and the fact that they offered other cuisines was just a bonus.

      I think if one of the main reasons you want to visit India is the food, then you should find a tour with that focus. If I were to go again, I’d want to eat more street food and I’d want to learn more about the background of my food (what region in the country it comes from, etc.). These are things I could have asked Earl (my guide), but I didn’t have specific questions and he didn’t supply a lot of information on the topic without prompting. I think doing some research and choosing a focus for your trip (whether it’s architecture, religion, food, shopping) would help make visiting India less overwhelming.

      You should definitely still go! My experience may have been a total anomaly!

  • Colleen Brynn

    Ah, so you know I am in India right now. The food I am eating in Mumbai is fully prepared by local ladies. The volunteers here have a “maid” who cooks and cleans in the mornings and evenings. I am still getting used to the idea of a maid but really this has to be seen as a job for someone, and she loves it. She has been very good about using the filtered water for us. So far, no gut issues (but I seem to just be waiting for them!). At the school, the food is also cooked by local ladies. They make food in huge tubs because they feed all the staff and the tiny little kids that go to the school. Everyone eats on the floor or on tiny little boxes and we eat with our hands. That was an interesting one to get use to. I’ve only eaten with my hands at an Ethiopian restaurant and that was in Winnipeg (and you get the bread for scooping). At the school, there is one tiny sink for everyone and a bar of soap. Truly, it is a gift just to have that running water there. Lots of these kids live in slums with no running water. Some of them are even homeless and sleep on the street every night. So I wash my hands as many times as I can every day, and especially before I eat! So far, the food has been very rich in flavour and delicious but I haven’t tried a lot of variety (as it seems they cook the same or similar each day for simplicity and affordability). We will see how my palate develops as this adventure unravels!

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