There’s nothing quite like the aromas of Indian food. It’s a heady mix of garlic, ginger, onions and cardamom. A splash of yellow-coloured turmeric brings them all to life. Perhaps that’s star anise I can also smell, and there’s definitely the sharpness of chilli there somewhere. A variety of food shapes the Indian culture, but for a country that is still really only just starting to be explored by others, there are also many myths about Indian food.
These are our top 10 myths about Indian food to help you prepare for your first trip to this country.
Indian food is hot
Yes, I’ve seen the sweat pour down Stirling’s forehead as he knocked back a fiery beef vindaloo, but this isn’t the norm. That moment was also in Australia too, not when we were in India.
In fact, everything we ate in India was incredibly mild. Note, don’t mistake mild for lack of flavour either. This is where the spices come in.
Not all Indian food actually contains chilli either and like many ingredients when cooking, can simply be dialled down or left out altogether.
Indian food is spicy
Commonly, people align the word spicy with hot, which just isn’t the case. Spicy in India simply means that the food contains lots of spices. Spices such as turmeric, garam masala (a blend), cloves, cumin and coriander, none of which have any “chilli” heat associated with them.
All spices aren’t used all the time either. It’s not a one size fits all approach. Some curries will have quite a few spices, others may have one or two.
Indian curries don’t use curry powder
When many people think curry, they usually have a strong link in their mind to curry powder, a yellowish blend that can indeed be used to make a curry. Just not an Indian curry. You won’t find this curry powder in any traditional Indian curries.
The core of many Indian curries is garam masala, a blend of many spices that is subject to regional differences. This is their “curry powder”. In the north of India, the garam masala is quite mild as there is little use of chilli, using black pepper instead.
In the south, the garam masala will usually include chillies. I learned how to make Kundapur chicken curry from the chef on board the Golden Chariot train in southern India. This recipe includes both red and green chillies as part of its spice and curry mix.
Curry isn’t the only Indian food
Whilst there are plenty of good ones around, there’s other food too so don’t despair if you aren’t a curry fan. In the south, particularly around Goa, there is wonderful fish. Tandoori chicken really does exist and the best ones are those that are cooked in the tandoor. There are many vegetable dishes and rice dishes like biryani.
All Indian food is the same
That’s like saying all Asian food is the same and that all pasta in Italy is the same. Or, that once you’ve eaten one French croissant, you’ve eaten them all. This isn’t so. Like many countries in the world, Indian cuisine is regional and dependent on the types of ingredients and produce they can find.
Chillies are used more often in the south. In some cities like Varanasi, it’s harder to find meat dishes. There’s more seafood on the west coast, where you’ll find the famous Goan fish curry.
Indian food takes too long to cook
Some of the tastiest curries I’ve made, like my Lamb Rogan Josh, can be done in around 30 minutes. Many of them definitely less than an hour. The secret to Indian cooking is usually in the preparation of the spices and the meat, if it’s not vegetarian. The actual cooking process itself is quite straight forward.
Indian food is difficult to make
Again, like the comment above, Indian food can be some of the simplest international cuisine to cook. People often think that Indian food has a ton of ingredients and therefore this adds to the complexity.
Sometimes the list of ingredients might look long, but it’s mostly comprised of spices that get all thrown in together, in small amounts.
Indian food is unhealthy
What cuisine around the world doesn’t have unhealthy food somewhere in its repertoire? I’d politely suggest that there aren’t any. India also has a strong vegetarian population.
When references are made to unhealthy Indian food, it is usually directed at their desserts and some of the street food. Deep fried in ghee and dripping with a sweet syrup, a snack like Jalebi isn’t high on the list of healthy things to eat. But they sure taste good.
Like anything that is food related, individuals can totally manage their food consumption even in another country. The only time I ate these types of desserts like Jalebi and Gulab Jamun was on the food tour.
Indian bread is called naan
Well, there is naan, and it’s delicious, but it’s not the only bread you’ll find in India. It’s like saying bread in the western culture is just square and white. Not so.
Naan is a leavened bread. We mostly know leavening to mean adding yeast, but it’s basically an ingredient that is added to a dough to help it rise. It could for example be something like baking powder or a bread starter.
It is made from white flour and usually cooked in a hot tandoor oven, where it puffs up and gets some of the char from the walls of the tandoor on it. It’s often eaten with curries and is particularly good for sopping up the remaining liquid.
Not all bread is leavened. Roti, Paratha and Chapati are all made with wholemeal flour and are not leavened. Paratha is particularly tasty as it is layered with ghee so behaves kind of like a piece of puff pastry when cooked on high heat.
There’s also Pani Puri, also unleavened and fried, creating a delicate round ball full of air. These can also be stuffed.
There are over 20 types of bread in India.
What’s not a myth! Food in India will make you sick
I’ve left this till last for a reason. People who live in India or love eating food in India and have had the good fortune of never getting sick like to call it a myth.
As travellers to India, and writing as my authentic self as I always do, I can categorically state it’s not a myth. Whilst I do accept that not everyone who eats in India gets sick, there are higher than normal risks associated when eating in this country.
There are so many factors to know about and to assist in trying to avoid getting sick in India. As someone who got sick twice in three weeks, and Stirling very, very sick on one occasion in particular, this situation is real.
There’s no harm, I believe in saying this. Alerting people to possible issues is like any safety matter and the better prepared you are, the lower the risk.
More reading: Our tips for how to avoid getting sick in India
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