I've been going to the University of Hyderabad for the last few months, and I kept my Fridays open, so I've traveled quite a bit around South India on the weekends, and eaten a lot.
Tamil Nadu is famous for its vegetarian food, supposedly because the meat-eating Aryans never got this far south. I didn't eat at many restaurants in Chennai, though, since I was with my friends relatives, but the seafood was pretty good in Mahabalipuram/Mamallapuram (same place). Pondicherry, despite what you might expect, has pretty unremarkable food, and even the pastries are lousy. In Kanniyakumari, theres an open-air banana-leaf thali place sitting diagonally on a corner a couple blocks up the main road from the southern tip of the subcontinent, and theyll give you a pretty good fish/sabzi (vegetables pronounced subji)/rice thali for about Rs. 20. With those kinds of places, though, its best to just judge them one at a time. There are 70 or 80 million cheap thali joints, and all the ones in a given region have the same menu, so youve just got to pick one. The Kamat Hotel chain is reliable and better than the Kwality chain recommended by the guidebooks.
Probably the worst restaurant experience Ive had in India was at the restaurant in the AP Tourism guesthouse in Warangal. It wasnt so much the food as the way that we waited from 2 to 4 in the afternoon, not having had any food that day except for some chips on the train, before realizing that aside from the waiter, who had cheerfully taken our order and steered us away from certain dishes and towards others, was the only other person in the entire restaurant, including the kitchen, and he was enjoying reading his paper.
Hyderabad was the capital of a rich Muslim empire for a long time, so it has a very refined carnivorous cuisine, in addition to the mostly-veg Andhra food that youll get all over the state. Right now its Ramadan (pronounced Ramzan in these parts), and the traditional fast-breaking food is haleem, which is kind of like meat porridge. It has a nice flavor, but the goopy, viscous, pureed texture is hard to forgive. But Hotel Shadab (restaurants very commonly are called hotels here, even when they have no beds) has a good version, and is an excellent restaurant all around. Their Pakistani chicken and Kashmiri kebab (ignore the sweet sauce on the side and just go for the meat) are particularly good. Hyderabad House is another good Hyderabadi place. They make a mean mutton (which usually means goat here) biryani, which is the stereotypical Hyderabadi dish, and also delicious achar gosht (mutton with spicy sauce).
In Ernakulam, Oakland to Kochis San Francisco, Frys makes very good Keralan food, although its a little greasy. On the other side of the bay, Addys is quite good and cozy, but overpriced, and the Kashi Art Café is a really nice place with a good cold coffee (not the same as iced coffee). Under the picturesque Chinese fishing nets, you can have a guy cook up the fresh fish that you buy from some other guy, and that can be quite tasty. Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) is a pretty charmless town, but if you wind up there for whatever reason, the Ariya Nivas hotel, near the train station, makes a fantastic thali with endless streams of a whole array of curries, plus a delicious, gingery lime juice.
In Hampi, which deserves a visit for its hundreds of Vijayanagar monuments and temples, theres a place called The Mango Tree. When I went there, it was absolutely dark, and you have to walk an unlit, narrow path between irrigation ditches in a banana field to get there, and Hampi is supposed to be a magnet for muggers, so my friends and I were a bit freaked out when we got there. But then we had one of the best meals any of us have had in India. There was one garlicky dish that I remember, but exactly what we ordered has escaped me, but at any rate, it was awesome.
I went to Goa solely to eat, and I had some pretty good meals, but it wasnt exactly what Id wished for. The train drops you off in Margao, and theres a dimly lit, relaxed place called Longuinhos that makes a very good pork sorpitel, but all the meals I had other than the four I had there were unimaginative. It probably didnt help that one of them made me sick and therefore less prone to enjoy the ones that came after it.
If youre here for a long time, its conceivable that you might eventually miss American food. Stay away from Indian pizza places; theyre horrible. Although Pizza Hut at home makes a pretty crummy slice, theyre the best bet here. They also have a number of Indian pizzas, which are actually pretty good. All Mexican food here is abysmal. Youll just cry if you try it, so dont bother. There are tons of Chinese (really Indo-Chinese) stalls, which have what must be a government-mandated menu. Chicken (or aloo/potato or ghobi/cauliflower or paneer/cheese) 65 (65 appears to mean in spicy neon orange chunks) is often pretty good. Except in heavily touristy areas, other cuisines are unavailable. The grilled-cheese sandwich has penetrated fairly well, under the name cheese butter toast, and occasionally youll a pretty good one, pressed panini-style.
If you take trains in Tamil Nadu, guys will come on at stations and sell small onion samosas. Buy them, they're great. If you go farther north, like to Maharashtra, they'll sell bhel, which is a mix of puffed rice, cilantro, onions, tomatoes, peanuts and a lot of other stuff, and that's really good too. It's very nice to have something clean and bright in your mouth sometimes - South Indian food can be kind of muddy sometimes.
You can also buy bhel or bhel puris at the chaat stalls that are on every street. They're among the best varieties of chaat. Pani puris are probably a bad idea, since they contain street water, and they're not really that great anyway, in my opinion. You'll be rewarded for exploring the various kinds of chaat beyond samosas and mirchi bhajji (fried chilis), though. For example, chole bature (chickpeas) and aloo tikka (potato) are good, and sev puri (crackers with little crispy noodles and lots of other stuff on top) are great. Any guy with a frying pan will probably give you a pretty decent plate of bhel puri, but, naturally, some are better. In Hyderabad, there's a very good cart in Laad Bazaar, west of Charminar, at the T intersection where the branch of the T leads to a street where hardware is sold. And the best chaat I've ever had is at a place called Gokul Chat that actually occupies a real storefront in the Koti neighborhood, near Sultan Bazaar. It's easy to find, because there are about 25 guys standing around in front inhaling curd and tamarind chutney off little metal plates.
In southwestern Tamil Nadu and Kerala, there's a kind of pastry called uniappam (although that might only be the Malayalam name for it) or adhirassam (although it's completely unrelated to rassam, which is a thin, spicy soup similar to sambar). It's dark brown, and usually is either a donut/wada shape or a rough ball about 3 or 4 inchess in diameter. Basically, it tastes like a molassesey bran muffin. It's quite nice. There's also a similar thing in Karnataka, which also has sesame seeds on it, but I don't know what it's called. The only place I've seen this version is Mysore. Also, at least in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, they make chips (like potato chips, not like fish and chips) out of tapioca, and theyre terrific. Theyll probably know what you mean if you ask for tapioca chips, but they call tapioca kappa (cuppa). There are lots of other salty fried things available all over, generically called namkeen, and a lot of them are good.
Alcohol in India is mostly pretty bad, but Kingfishers an okay beer, and Khajurahos pretty good, too. The same beer will taste different in different places, though, so watch out. Fresh fruit juices are easily available and good. Grape is often good, and pineapple, and even though chikoos are a tasteless fruit on their own, when you throw in a lot of sugar and grind em up, you get a nice drink similar to pear juice. Fresh lime sodas are always available in restaurants and sometimes on the street too, and theyre fabulous. I like them plain, but sweet is good, too, of course. Theres also a soda (cool drink) called Limca, which is exactly like what lemon-lime soda should be. People will occasionally try to give you Mirinda when they dont have Limca, but dont stand for it. Thums Up, though, is a horrible imitation of Coke. Maaza, Slice and Frooti are all decent, too-sweet uncarbonated mango drinks. Frooti even makes a green mango juice, but its not remotely as good as actual green mangoes.