I think one of the things that people are equally fascinated by and at the same time scared of in India is the food. How to avoid getting sick in India is a big question that trip planning evolves around.
I was no exception and to be quite honest, I wasn’t all that excited for the food overall. While I love many Asian flavors like Thai, Vietnamese, Sri Lankan and couldn’t even be deterred by the spider legs Cambodia offered, Indian has never really been my cup of tea.
I remember an event when I was little and came for a visit in the big city, Hamburg, with my mother to see my brother. He took us to an Indian place and I vividly remember a little dough-something that was nice enough on the mixed starter platter but turned into a doughy ball of heat, spice and subsequently pain in my mouth as a main. I stuck to coke for the rest of the evening and for a long time after this remained my only experience with Indian food.
Mind you, when the Kerala Blog Express rolled around I was willing to have my mind changed. After all, Kerala food was said to be the best of India and so I declared in my promo video that my goal for the trip was to eat my own bodyweight in seafood curry.
But to be very honest I was also a bit apprehensive because from previous press trip experience I knew that there is usually a lot of hotel buffet food involved. I understand that the logistics of feeding a 30+ group often don’t allow for little hole in the wall eateries, street food stalls or smaller, authentic restaurants. But even the fanciest hotels can be a real hit or miss because you know….buffets.
That’s why I decided I needed to get a proper glimpse into Indian food beforehand. Food that wasn’t at the merci of a chef who has to present his dishes under a cloche with a side of carved carrot swans.
Three weeks in India didn’t make me an expert, I know that. But I managed to not only avoid a Delhi belly but my stomach felt peachy throughout (except maybe while I started this post, but that’s because I was stuck on a bus for 8 hours and we had an open bar the night before).
I also gathered some tips from fellow travelers and locals so you can rather worry about gaining a few kilos on your next India trip.
Tips on how to avoid getting sick in India
1. Get a guide
I reached out to Intrepid, one of my favorite companies when it comes to experiential travel, to see if they would host me on one of their food trips. As I was pressed for time I chose the Bite-size Break Delhi. It is advertised as a 3-day trip, but in all honesty, it is only 1,5 days and 2 nights which for my purpose was still perfect. Especially since I lucked out and was the only one, having my amazing guide Jo all to myself.
If it is your first time in India, I highly recommend you get yourself a guide too, one that knows his city and food culture well. Jo took me to all of his favorite “restaurants”, many of which were only frequented by locals. He explained to me how dishes were made, the degree of spiciness, and even more important how to eat them.
I have always been a fan of street food. Unlike big restaurants, most stalls offer only one or two dishes they specialize in. The turn around time is quick and the ingredients are thus always fresh. My Indian friend Nuthan recommended skipping on condiments that may have been standing around for a bit too long, something I instinctively did (it may have just been that I am not too keen on pickled something).
The other advantage of having a guide is to have someone to help out if you have any allergies or are vegan or vegetarian. While the latter is incredibly easy in India, being vegan is not. In many dishes you get dairy or ghee, making it a bit tricky at times if you don’t speak the language.
Even Jo, a vegan himself, said he struggled at times as soy products are not that common yet. No masala chai for him (chai is traditionally served with milk!). Even something presumingly harmless like toddy, fermented coconut schnaps also called the champagne of Kerala*, is made with the help of ghee and a deer bone.
And most importantly you want someone to introduce you to all the great dishes out there that you may never find out about on your own. Who knew that puffed rice, chickpea noodles, potato, onion, tomato, cilantro, mint sirup and pomegranate seeds make one damn tasty dish?! It’s called Bhelpuri and I can highly recommend it if you happen to be in Delhi!
It is also useful to have someone teach you how to eat (somewhat) gracefully with your hand without biting your thumb and the differences between naan, roti, poori and chapatti (which I forgot immediately after, but fluffy bread whether fried or baked is always a great idea in my books).
2. Wash your hands. Often. With soap. Honestly, eating food with your hands is one of the greatest pleasures I rediscovered in India, but needless to say, your hands should be clean. Use hand sanitizer instead or even in addition.
3. The great thing about eating with your hands is that you know where your hands have been, something that cannot be said for most utensils. So see above and dig in. When in doubt use a roti or poori as a makeshift, edible spoon/grabbing device.
4. As much as I loved Indian food, it is quite carb heavy and a lot of things are deep fried. Which makes for a real feast, but I was craving something fresh very soon. I loaded up on salads and fruit whenever possible. However, I stuck to the rule of not eating any fruit or veggie that cannot be peeled. I made an exception for tomatoes and peppers, but only in places where I was relatively sure they were washed with filtered water.
5. When in doubt, go vegetarian. I will admit that I am an extremely fussy meat eater; I don’t like bones and stuff. So when I wasn’t sure about the quality of certain meats, I opted for vegetarian. On that note, Kerala people love their beef and got quite cross when a radical Hindu party recently made news and wanted to take it away from them.
6. While I think Slumdog Millionaire did much good to spark my interest in India, it also freaked me out a bit. Especially when thinking of the scene when they refill water bottles in a restaurant with tap water. I was eyeing each bottle very suspiciously at the beginning. If you have to buy water, buy from reputable companies and shops. Afterward preferably refill with filtered water, available at most hotels to save on plastic waste. I also only used bottled/filtered water for brushing my teeth.
I saw some of our group who didn’t let the bottle touch their lips. I thought that was both a skill and unnecessary. However, if you are worried get yourself a bamboo/reusable straw to drink from.
7. Coconut water is your friend. There is nothing better to rehydrate and fresh coconuts will come in handy especially in areas like the hot and humid Kerala.
8. One friend recommended a sip of schnaps before each meal, another ginger tea with honey. Apparently they both work.
9. Some say it is a just a matter of luck if you get sick or not. If you feel iffy, go for charcoal tablets (if you don’t have any, someone mentioned burned toast with honey works). If it gets worse flush it out with lots of saltwater. Immodium & Co. should only be used as a last resort, out is better than in.
Disclaimer: I was invited by Intrepid to their Delhi bite-size break and Kerala Tourism to be part of the Kerala Blog Express. Thank you for laying the foundation of many happy kilos I gained in India!
*It isn’t, it just became a running gag as I apparently mentioned champagne when they ‘surprised’ me with a Facebook live interview upon arrival. If you want to have a good laugh you can still find it here. Don’t judge!