After 10 days in (South) India, here is what I’ve discovered/experienced regarding drinks:
note that bottled drinks are almost always opened in front of you at your table, sometimes even after confirming with you that it’s ok (which also gives you a chance to feel it to make sure it is cold)
Tea: if you ask for “tea” it is hot milk (not water) with infused tea. Not to be confused with chai or masala tea (spiced, with milk).
You can ask for black tea (water, not milk).
Oddly enough, tea isn’t always available, for no apparent reason (it’s boiled water/milk, tea, and a cup, no?).
Several times I’ve been told there is no tea (or no coffee) and once I was told not until after 15:00 (it was 14:45).
One time on the long distance train, the tea was hot milk out of a big container, and a tea bag to steep in it myself. On the local train, it was pre-steeped milk tea served from the over-sized stainless steel thermos.
Cost: Rs3-12/$0.08-0.30 for a cup (sometimes in a resto you can buy a glass or pot)
- Coffee: can be black or pre-mixed with milk. Not always available. And it’s usually instant (Nescafe) unless it explicitly says “filter coffee” on the menu.
Cost: Rs5-15/$0.13-0.38 for a cup (sometimes in a resto you can buy a glass or pot)
- Espresso/cappuccino/etc.: available in upscale coffee shops
Cost: Rs40/$1 or more
- Fresh fruit juice: One of my favourites, I ask for no ice and no sugar (they seem to like sugar in their fruit juice here). This is fresh fruit cut up and either run through a blender or, less commonly a juicer. I only have this in restos, as street stalls will add (tap) water to it – I tried that once, took a little sip and discreetly dumped it (not worth the risk!). So far I have had orange, pineapple, madulai/pomegranate, papaya and mixed juice.
Cost: Rs17-38/$0.43-0.95 (“no ice” can cost Rs0-5 extra, but that is already added into the price range shown here)
- “Fresh lime soda“: another favourite as it’s cold and refreshing and no plastic waste:
it’s fresh-squeezed lime juice (they have really small limes here) in the bottom of a glass and a 300mL glass bottle of Soda water (i.e. club soda).
- Lassi: with or without fruit
Cost: Rs20-30/$0.50-0.75 I think. Have only had one.
- Soft drinks: of course they are available, but I only had one once and it was too sweet to be refreshing (300mL glass bottles)
Cost: Rs15/$0.38; note that soda water (club soda) is usually a little less, Rs10/$0.23
- Water (plastic bottle): usually purified water, not spring water
I haven’t bought many in restos; in stores they vary from Rs20-40/$0.50-$1.00 for a 1L or 2L bottle (the best I’ve seen is Rs20/$0.50 for a cold 2L bottle!)
See also below on reducing plastic waste.
- Water (tap): In non-touristy restos, they have tap water on the table in a stainless steel jug (and stainless steel cups).
I presume this is not safe to drink, but I purify it (see note below).
- Beer: not available very often, since liquor licences are expensive. The tourist restos will have Indian beer, and sometimes you have to keep the bottle on the floor so that it isn’t visible to a policeman on the street; in some areas, it’s called “secret tea” and is served in a teapot.
Cost: Rs110-120/$2.88-3.00 for a large 650mL bottle of Indian beer (Kingfisher is a popular brand, quite drinkable)
Update: in state of Kerala, beer was as low as Rs80/$2 for a large bottle.
- Wine shops: the official liquor outlets sell beer and alcohol, but not wine
I saw a large beer bottle for Rs40/$1
Note about reducing plastic waste:
One new gizmo I have that helps in this regard is my SteriPEN which is a portable UV light sterilizer (it runs on 4 AA batteries, the same (rechargeable) kind I use for my camera and my travel shaver, so I only have one recharger with me). It cost me about US$75 at REI, a travel gear store in Seattle (a store similar to MEC in Toronto).
One downside is that it doesn’t improve the flavour of the water (but at least it doesn’t make it worse, like iodine tablets do). Another downside is that the water isn’t quite as cold as a fresh refridgerated bottle.
So far I’ve used it in 2 ways:
To purify tap water that I then use for brushing my teeth (this alone could avoid 1-2 1L plastic water bottles per week of travel).
In non-touristy restos, they have tap water on the table in a stainless steel jug (and stainless steel cups); I purify a cup of this to drink along with my meal.
So combined with choosing glass bottled soda instead of plastic bottled water at a resto or drink cart, I am only buying one 2L plastic water bottle every 2-3 days (as opposed to one or more a day!)
Actually the very first day, before I started using my SteriPEN, I probably went through 4 plastic bottles (300mL and 1L sizes). Oops!
So far I have not gotten sick (and these last few days I have been drinking a total of 2-3 glasses of purified water in the restos per day.