When Dad came to visit a few weeks ago, he had one goal: eat some real food. After almost four weeks in a Saudi man camp eating gruel (OK, not really, but that is what he called it), he wanted to get some food that did not taste like Styrofoam. Believe it or not, you can get that in Mumbai. Real food. Oh, and Styrofoam, too. Sometimes, they come together.
Our tour of Mumbai was largely gastronomic. We had hamburgers at the Hard Rock, sushi at the Trident, and high tea at the Taj. Yes, I took my dad to high tea. I have photographic evidence.
We had samosas and dahi puri. It was one of the few times we ate Indian food during his stay. Eating Indian food at the Taj is not like eating at the little shop down the street. Sure it tastes good, but it has been formulated to suit Western palettes, i.e., it’s not spicy.
Indian food has a reputation for being spicy hot. It comes by that reputation honestly. This is the land of the bhut jolokia (ghost pepper), the hottest pepper on Earth (or at least it used to be). But, much of Indian cooking is not about heat, but rather about flavor. As we traveled around India over the last few weeks, some of the best food we ate was not hot, but was well spiced.
Many tourists will never eat real Indian food for fear of the dreaded Delhi belly. They hear about it before they even get here, and they have it built up in their minds so much that they are paralyzed with fear of eating authentic Indian food. Even after living here for some time, I was a little nervous about eating too much food from different regions. I am happy to report, that Brian, Deb, and I all survived the trip without an upset stomach. Here’s how.
Top 10 tips for avoiding Delhi belly
- Do not drink the water. This advice is normally first on everyone’s list, and it is probably the most important thing to remember when traveling. But, while people think about the obvious water they have in a glass, few people think to avoid the water they put on their toothbrushes. At home, I rinse my toothbrush with the filtered water in the kitchen. Even in the poshest hotels, I do not brush my teeth with tap water. The hotels usually supply a couple of free bottles of water (if they don’t, change hotels immediately); place one bottle by the sink.
- Do not jump into Indian food the minute you land. Ease into it with small doses and continental food. For example, when Deb first arrived, we had Sevrine make a Mangalorean chicken dish with dal (lentils) and pulao (rice). Sevrine understands Western palettes and does not make the food too spicy. We also ate thoroughly boring things like pasta and pizza. Even people who like spicy food still need to transition to Indian spicy, which is different from Tex-Mex spicy. More green chillies, fewer jalapeños.
- Listen to your guides. While you are touring around the county, be sure to ask your guides for recommendations. They will not steer you wrong. The last thing they want is a tourist to go home and complain about how they got sick on the food. Just be sure to tell them your level of heat tolerance. Most likely, they won’t take you somewhere very authentically Indian, but they will at least help you to avoid McDonalds and KFC.
Note: Do not be lured into thinking that you will find American food at either McDonalds or KFC. Mickey Ds does not have hamburgers, and the spicy chicken at KFC is quite spicy, not that mild stuff they call spicy in the States.
- Know your limits and allergies. If you know you do not like spicy food, it is OK to say so. Many Indians don’t like their food spicy hot either. If you have allergies, be sure to let the restaurant know. The waiters are good at suggesting dishes that don’t have an ingredient that you can’t eat.
Important: If you have a dairy allergy, be sure to tell the staff not to cook with ghee, which is made from cow’s milk fat.
- Do not eat street food. I repeat. Do not eat street food. I don’t care how cool you are, or how many times you have watched that show on Discovery with the guy who eats crazy things. You are not that guy. He does not pay your medical bills. Many restaurants, especially in Mumbai, serve street food on their menus. If you want to try dahi puri in Mumbai, I recommend the Taj Mahal hotel or Bombay Blue. Brian recommends the Reliance Corporate Park canteen, but not everyone can eat there. Sorry.
Note: There is one exception to this rule: coconut on the side of the road in Kerala. It is sanitary to drink coconut juice with a straw, so you are safe.
- Eat the raita. Raita is a yogurt-based sauce that often contains vegetables (cucumbers and tomatoes). If an Indian offers raita to you at dinner, eat it. At least a little bit. I am not a big fan of raita. I like certain versions of it, but not others. But, when it is served as part of the meal, I eat at least a spoonful. The yogurt aids in digestion and settles the stomach after the ubiquitous green chillies and cumin.
- Eat the local bread. Whether that is naan, roti, chapati, or parrottas, you cannot go wrong with bread. Unless you have a gluten allergy. Then, you need to be careful, and ask what flour they use. Fortunately, some breads are made from rice flour or chena (gram to the Brits and chickpeas to the Americans). Just be sure to ask. Many Indian breads are not leavened like in the US. They are meant to be used to pick up your food, like a giant spoon of doughy goodness.
- Eat fried food. I recently saw an episode of Outsourced (yes, they show that here) where Gupta wisely stated, “Fried dough is fried dough no matter what country you are in.” If you are watching your weight, this advice will get your waistline into trouble, but your stomach may thank you for it later. Frying kills germs and bacteria. During monsoon, fried food is comfort food for Indians because it takes the chill off. American-style donuts, like those found at Mad Over Donuts, are very popular.
- Avoid raw fruits and veggies. This suggestion is old-school but a good one. You don’t have to completely avoid fruits and veggies. It would be a shame if you did because India has amazing fruits, like jackfruit and custard apple, that you will find few other places. Just be careful to avoid things that are hard to wash like lettuce. I don’t ever get the lettuce at Subway, but eat the tomatoes and green peppers. Brian eats the lettuce.
- Eat at your hotel. Like your guides, the hotels do not want you to get sick. The sanitation standards are usually better in a five-star hotel than a local restaurant. The Indian food might be blander than what you will find elsewhere, but it is less likely to make you sick.
Just remember to enjoy yourself and go with the flow. If you are open to new experiences and flavors, then you will get to experience Kashmiri chicken at a roadside restaurant in Rajasthan and egg curry for breakfast on a houseboat in Kerala.