Sampling India bite by bite

  • From street food tours to sampling regional cuisines in homes to gourmet dishes made from local superfoods, India's gastronomic power is being unleashed.
  • And, with over 1.2 billion people, 29 federal states and 22 official languages, India's cuisine goes far beyond chicken tikka masala.
A man cooking chicken biryani in the old city of Delhi in India.
Eye Ubiquitous | Universal Images Group | Getty Images
A man cooking chicken biryani in the old city of Delhi in India.

On a hot September afternoon, Anubhav Sapra walked down the narrow, bustling lanes of Delhi's walled city with a small group of people, some of whom had come straight from the airport after a red-eye flight from Montreal.

Over the next few hours, Sapra took them on a walking food tour through the ancient city built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1639.

Sampling food and history

Old Delhi, or Purani Dilli, as it's popularly known in Hindi, oozes history — some of the best Mughal architecture is located there. That includes the Red Fort and India's largest mosque, Jama Masjid.

Against that backdrop Sapra took his group to 10 eating joints — small hole-in-the-wall shops that serve up food with recipes dating back centuries — in between stopping at the flower and spice markets.

As he guided his clients past carts, rickshaws and masses of people, he told the story of the place through its food.

"The cuisine changes from every bylane to bylane," explained Sapra, who started the Delhi Food Walks in 2011.

 A view of chicken restaurant 'Babu Bhai Kabab Wale' in New Delhi, India.
Pradeep Gaur | Mint | Getty Images
 A view of chicken restaurant 'Babu Bhai Kabab Wale' in New Delhi, India.

Sapra's specially curated tours cost between $20 and $50 per person and cover every kind of street food available in Delhi — from Tibetan to kebabs and curries.

What started as a hobby for Sapra, who calls himself the foodie-in-chief of his company, is today a thriving business.

Not just tikka masala

From street food tours to sampling regional cuisines in homes to gourmet dishes made from local superfoods, India's gastronomic power is finally being unleashed. Increasingly, visitors are looking beyond their comfort zones and food is becoming an important piece of an Indian holiday, experts said.

Sapra is one of the committed food enthusiasts who want to unleash a food movement in India. Another is Sanjoo Malhotra, who sits in Stockholm and promotes Indian food.

"India's biggest soft power is its food. Food should be the reason why people visit India," Malhotra told CNBC.

With over 1.2 billion people, 29 federal states and 22 official languages, India's cuisine goes far beyond chicken tikka masala, said experts.

Food activism

Malhotra started the Tasting India Symposium last year in Delhi and also came up with a food manifesto to start what he calls a "360-degree discussion on food — looking at all aspects, from food safety, to reviving traditional foods to engaging Indian chefs. Our culinary wealth is our best-kept secret. It is an unexplored territory of India," he said.

Aside from his activism, Malhotra also designs food itineraries. His trips, which cost around $3,000, include different aspects of Indian cuisine.

He is a great promoter of home-cooked food, so his tours will include a meal at home. That even sometimes includes delectable Punjabi food at his own mother's house.

"The world needs to see more of Indian hospitality. Eating at someone's home brings our diversity to the table," said Malhotra.

If the trip is in the state of Rajasthan, which is studded with forts and palaces, many of which have been converted into hotels by the erstwhile maharajas, then Malhotra will throw in a cooking class with a royal family.

When in Delhi or Mumbai, a meal at one of Malhotra's handpicked restaurants serving modern Indian cuisine is also a must.

Food as a metaphor for India

A few years ago on trip to a few southern Indian states, Malhotra took his clients to the famous Tirupathi temple to taste holy cuisine.

"Food is a metaphor for our culture," he said.

Several Indian travel professionals are selling food as a unique Indian experience. From a biryani-only tour in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, to wine tasting in the vineyards of Nashik in the western part of the country, or tea tasting tours in the gardens of the northeastern state of Assam, the possibilities are many.

Customers sit drinking wine during a festival in the Nashik Valley, Maharashtra, India.
Dhiraj Singh | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Customers sit drinking wine during a festival in the Nashik Valley, Maharashtra, India.

Shuchir Suri, who started the website Food Talk India in 2015, is a proponent of Indian spices and ingredients.

He told CNBC he was recently on a trip to the northern Indian state of Kashmir with two chefs to source ingredients like wild berries, apricots and trout fish, all native to the region. They then cooked up a meal and sold it for $200 a piece in Mumbai.

"Earlier, it was all about 'let's get the ingredients from abroad.' Now, Indian super foods like Yak Cheese, Sea-buckthorn berries and jowar (sorghum) are popping up in a lot of menus," said Suri. "Indians are now consuming their own culture."

Well-heeled Indians and foreigners are both targets for the food tours. While Malhotra's largely has Europeans in the 35 to 50 age group in his tours, Sapra said he has seen his clientele shift from being only locals to now 90 percent foreigners.

"My British clients crave naan," said Zareen Kahai, who runs Myztic Travels and specializes in luxury travel within India, referring to a type of Indian bread.

In need of a bigger appetite

More than 10 million foreign tourists visited India in 2017, according to the country's tourism ministry. Yet while officials agree that food has become an integral part of an Indian experience, the progress food tourism has made in India is largely due to individual initiatives, experts said.

"The government is just a facilitator, the actual work is done by the private sector," said Vikas Rustagi, regional director in the tourism ministry who handles niche tourism.

The government has identified 21 areas as niche tourism products that range from golf, polo to adventure tourism, but food is not on that list.

People like Malhotra are asking why that is: "We have to reimagine India. Build India's story around food," he said.