India: Breakfasts & Lunches

Last month, I was lucky enough to have a one-week long business trip to INDIA!!!  My company outsources a number of processes to India so I’ve been interacting daily with colleagues in India for years, all the while hoping I’d someday get to visit this warm, colorful, and flavorful country.  My wish finally came true and I’m excited to share my experiences with you.

First, not only was this my first time visiting India… another major “first” for me occurred on this trip: My first time flying Business Class!  With a 9-hour flight from to Chicago to Frankfurt, a 7-hour layover, and then another 7-hour flight from Frankfurt to Delhi, the fully reclining seats were a life-saver and I was able to get plenty of sleep.  I also loved the Business-Class lounges.  I’d always wondered what they would be like and was surprised to find their atmosphere to be very much like a coffee shop, but with free food and drinks.  My only complaint about the travel experience?  They fed us too much!  Each flight included one three-course meal (appetizer, entree, and dessert) PLUS a lighter meal about an hour before landing.  There was a lovely snack-buffet in the Business Class lounge that I did quite a bit of grazing at.

Once we landed in Delhi, my first impression of India was made by the very modern airport and the 9 sculpted hands hanging above the Customs counters – each representing a different “Mudra”, with the meaning of each hand position ranging from charity to victory to joy.

Mudras are expressive hand gestures that form an intrinsic part of Indian Classical Dance, Yoga and visual arts. Mudras are believed to channelize natural forces and aid spiritual and mental well being by enhancing the flow of energies through the body. (source)

Our flight landed around 1am Sunday night, so we headed straight to the hotel to catch a little bit of sleep before starting the business portion of the trip with a lunch meeting the next day.  When I awoke the next morning, I was excited to look out the window for my first glimpse of India in daylight.  Our hotel and office were in Gurgaon, a modern city full of office buildings and shopping malls, just a short drive from Delhi.  Right out my window was a shopping center with a Pizza Hut, several office buildings and hotels, and a large field where I often spotted friendly games of cricket, a few cows, and much to my surprise, several pigs roaming about.

Each day, before heading to the office I ordered room service for breakfast.  The room service menu was huge and comprised of half “western” fare (i.e. omelets, pancakes, etc) and half Indian food.  I made it a rule for myself that I’d only order the Indian dishes, and I tried a new one each morning.

I learned that I LOVE Indian Breakfasts.  In fact, a number of food trends I’m now seeing in the US replicate traditional Indian dishes like…

Savory Oatmeal (a lot like the incredible Upma above, a savory porridge)

Savory Pancakes (like these Uttapam – peppered with Black Mustard Seeds)

and Savory Doughnuts (like India’s “Vada”, made of lentil & rice flours)

Clockwise from Upper Left: Idli, Dosa, Poori Bhaji, Aloo Paratha

I also enjoyed Idli (soft cakes made out of lentil and rice flour), Dosa (large, crispy crepes filled with potato curry), Poori Bhaji (fried bread), and Aloo Paratha (bread stuffed with potatoes).  Each of these dishes came with Rasam (a South Indian Soup), various chutneys, spicy mango pickle, and/or yogurt.

Much to my surprise, I loved having soup for breakfast.  By the end of the trip, I also was hooked on the spicy mango pickle.  I never liked it before, but now think it’s simply amazing smeared on the various breads.

For lunches, the office typically ordered in food for us including spicy mushroom wraps one day, and grilled paneer wraps another, always with plenty of my favorite cilantro chutney.

They also fed us a lot of potato chips.  Right away, the Indian spirit of sharing and community was very apparent.  I’m accustomed to taking a small bag of potato chips and declaring it to be “mine”.  Instead, our colleagues would usually serve the potato chips “Indian Style” by opening the bag across the top AND across the back seam.  They’d place it wide open on the table for everyone to share.  With the “Indian Food Only” rule I had created for myself, I always skipped the Plain and Sour Cream & Onion chips and went straight for the Lay’s Magic Masala which were simply AMAZING.  The flavor reminded me of Barbecue but bolder and not at all sweet.

While I generally try to limit processed foods, when I travel I actually find them to be especially interesting.  Since large companies go to such great lengths in developing and testing these products to appeal to the masses, I always feel like I’m getting into the heads of the locals when I taste these lab-created foods.

Along the same lines, I had fun sampling an assortment of Veggie Pizzas delivered to the office from Domino’s one night including a slice each of “Mexican Green Wave“, “Peppy Paneer“, “5 Pepper” and “Deluxe Veggie“.  While the toppings varied widely (including corn, bell peppers, hot peppers, and paneer), thanks to the overpowering (and messy) “Cheese Burst Crust“, they actually all wound up tasting exactly the same – like a very mild processed cheese sauce. 

Top: Masala Burger; Bottom: McVeggie Burger

I also was strangely excited when the office ordered McDonald’s for lunch one day.  First – can you believe McDonald’s offers DELIVERY?  I think it would be way too dangerous (health-wise) if they offered that service here in the US.  But honestly, I think it’s been more than a year since I’ve had even a bite of McDonald’s food in the US.  Not only because I try to limit processed foods, but even at places with few options (like airports) where the convenience would sway me towards McDonald’s, at home they simply don’t have any good vegetarian options.

The McDonald’s in the Delhi region offers FIVE vegetarian sandwiches.  I tried two of them – the Masala Grill Veg Burger and the McVeggie Burger.  The Masala Grill Burger reminded me of Trader Joe’s Vegetable Masala Burgers.  The Patty had a mild flavor but it was topped with a spicy mayo that reminded me of Chipotle Mayo.  The McVeggie Burger had a crispy coating and was slathered in mayonnaise, sprinkled with lettuce, and topped with a sesame seed bun.  It was what I imagine a Big Mac would taste like, though truthfully I’ve never had one before.  The fries were just like ours, but in addition to Ketchup, a sweet Chilli Sauce was also available for dipping.

In the food pictures above, you might have noticed a symbol with a green dot inside a square on all of the packaging.  This is the Indian Symbol for Vegetarian and it was on all the vegetarian packaged food.  I even saw this symbol on my colleague’s can of Coke, and marked on the Domino’s Pizza boxes containing our meat free pizzas.  

On non-packaged products, such as restaurants, vegetarian selections were clearly labeled on every buffet.  Our office even had metal plaques stating “Veg” and “Non-Veg” that were set out on the table whenever our food orders arrived.

Unfortunately Vegan food appeared to be incredibly rare, but it was so nice to have such an easy time getting vegetarian food which sometimes can be difficult when travelling on business.

I also had the pleasure of trying some home-cooked Indian dishes.  One colleague brought in homemade Kheer for us which was simply the best rice pudding I ever had.   Not only was it rich and creamy, it also had generous chunks of fresh coconut mixed in along with diced apples and other fruits.  So good!

Another team member shared her afternoon snack with me, homemade Chapati Bread that she makes fresh every morning which we used to scoop up a spiced mixture of cheese curds that she made.

I can’t say enough about how joyful and generous with their time my Indian colleagues were.  Every night for dinner (always buffets at a variety of western hotels), four or five colleagues would join us, barely getting to see their families the entire week since they were busy being amazing hosts for us.  

A group of colleagues also took me for a day of sight seeing in Delhi and on Saturday, to the Taj Mahal which I’ll be writing about soon!

I’d love to hear from you!

Have you ever tried Savory Oatmeal / Porridge, Pancakes, or Donuts?

What’s your favorite flavor of Potato Chips?