Before we start cooking Indian dishes, we should probably know some basic Indian cuisine concepts and try a few dishes at an Indian restaurant or made by a friend, right? Indian food is easy to love. Lots of rice, tasty bread, and amazing sauces. But for many years, probably like many of you, I’ve stuck with the basics. Chicken tikka masala, butter chicken, and lots of naan. Those are amazing, but there’s so much more out there. Over the past couple years, I realized I love chutney, saag paneer, rogan josh, and vindaloo. Don’t worry, we will go over these dishes later. This post is about common words so you can better order, info on regional cuisine, and a few options on what to order depending on what you’ve had before. Stay tuned over the next few weeks as I dive deeper into ingredients, techniques, and dishes.
I wanted to start this series (and hopefully many similar ones to come) because Indian cuisine intimidated me. I wanted to build my knowledge, ingredients in my pantry, and cooking level over a few months to better appreciate Indian cuisine. Luckily I have a few, sweet Indian friends who guided my knowledge and misconceptions of Indian food.
Basic Words: Let’s start with some basic words. Hopefully knowing some of these words will get you to order a little outside of your comfort zone. Below are some of the most common I’ve seen, but remember Google is your friend. I like to check out a menu before arriving at a restaurant to know what some dishes are… and how to pronounce them, which I think is a way bigger hurdle than most of us are willing to admit. It’s also important to note that India has A LOT of languages, so words and spellings might be different depending on regional menus and recipes. When in doubt, google.
- Masala: simply means a mix of spices. You’ll see this as garam masala (a traditional spice mix), a masala chai (a milky, spiced tea), chicken tikka masala (chicken in a spiced gravy), plus lots more.
- Curry: Curry means a lot of things, so it can get confusing. It’s mostly associated with a sauce with lots of aromatic flavors, but doesn’t necessarily have curry powder. There are Indian curries, Japanese, Thai, Jamaican, etc etc. All are different, but tend to be a flavorful ‘gravy’, for lack of a better term. Curry powder can be used in curries, but not always. If you see a curry powder at the grocery store, it will most likely be yellow because of the turmeric powder and also contain other spices. But there’s no set formula to what goes into a curry powder. Lastly, there are curry leaves. They are the same size of bay leaves and used in the same way: added to dishes for flavor as a whole leaf, then usually removed before serving.
- Dal: (sounds like doll) dried beans, peas, or lentils. If you see this on a menu, it’s most likely a cooked lentil dish. We will go over different lentils in an upcoming post.
- Chai: (rhymes with eye) tea. So no need to say ‘chai tea,’ you can just say chai. Chai is usually a black tea served with milk and spices. You might be used to seeing (and hopefully ordering) a chai latte or masala chai.
- Chaat: (rhymes with lot) Indian street food. And chaat masala is a popular spice to top pretty much anything with, including fruit.
- Chana: (rhymes with banana) chickpeas. Chana masala, basically chickpeas in a standard Indian curry, is a popular dish.
- Aloo: (al-lu), potatoes
- Gobhi: (go-bee) cauliflower; Aloo gobhi is a popular dish: spiced potatoes and cauliflower, but not in a sauce.
- Matar: (matt-ter) peas. Aloo matar is a yummy pea and potato dish.
- Sabzi: (sab-zee) Vegetable, but usually refers to vegetarian sides.
- Paneer: (paw-neer) Although it resembles tofu, paneer is a thick, mild white cheese often cubed into curries. It’s a good vegetarian option and also really easy to make at home (all you need is whole milk and lemon juice or vinegar). If you’ve ever made homemade ricotta, you are one step away from making paneer.
- Saag vs Palak: (sog, pal-luck); If you like paneer, you might have tried saag paneer or palak paneer. They look the same: rich green gravy with Indian cheese curds. Saag usually contains spinach, but may contain other greens and is usually creamier from the use of heavy cream. Palak is always made with spinach (palak is Hindi for spinach) and is usually made with yogurt, so it’s a bit tangier than saag.
Regional Flavors: Where to start? There are books written about this, like this and this. But to keep it short enough so hopefully you can remember, I’m just breaking it down to north and south. We can talk about coast and mountains later on, but this is Indian Food 101 and I don’t want you getting lost. India is huge, with all different climates, terraine, and religions that impact what people eat. Although most Indian restaurants in America will have a blend of regional dishes on their menu, it’s important to realize why some restaurants don’t have certain dishes; they most likely focus on a certain region.
- Northern India: Known for flat breads, thicker curries, like rogan josh (josh has a hard O, not like the name) and chicken tikka masala, and usually a lot of dairy. Tandoori chicken and biryani are also popular. Cuisines come from Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, Delhi, Punjab, and more. Note that many of these regions have borders that cut cultures in half, but dishes will be very similar in bordering countries, like Pakistan.
- Southern India: Warmer climate means tropical flavors, like coconut and tamarind. The gravies (or curries) are less heavy to help beat the heat. You’ll see a lot of sour dishes in the south, like sambar, a sour lentil and veggie stew, and rasam, a spicy sweet-and-sour soup. Serving dishes on banana leaves is popular is some areas. Rice is king. Cuisines from Goa, Tamil Nadu, Chennai, and Kerala mostly have these characteristics.
- I’m really generalizing here, but I want you to remember the flavor profiles and explore different regional cuisine from there. Do you like thicker curries or thinner? Do you like coconut-based or yogurt-based?
Meats: Pork is only common in a few regions, like Goa and northeast India. Beef is not popular (although I have seen hamburger curry in the states). Depending on the region, lamb, goat, chicken, and seafood tend to be the most popular. 30-40% of the Indian population is vegetarian, so you’ll see tons of dishes without meat. Don’t worry, they pack their diets full of lentils, beans, and dairy to get plenty of protein.
Chutney: Usually served in a small, side bowl or dolloped on top of a main dish, chutneys are the tangy punch many Indian dishes need. You usually don’t mix them with the dish, but more so add a bit of chutney to each bite. They’re usually tangy; some are spicy, but they serve as a way to wake up something like a curry dish that’s been cooking for a few hours. From all the chutneys I’ve seen so far, they’re either room temp or cold. Some are blended smooth; some are chunky. At a buffet, you will usually see a few options, some restaurants default give you one-two, others you may need to order to try out (usually only a couple bucks). They vary drastically by region, but here are some I’ve tried and loved:
- Cilantro (aka coriander): Sometimes not spicy at all; sometimes surprisingly hot. Fresh and tangy. My personal fave.
- Tomato: One of my favorites for its versatility. Yes, it’s very good spooned on Indian-spiced meats and veggies, but it’s also great on sandwiches or a part of a meat-and-cheese board.
- Mango: The sugar content in mangoes usually gives this a jam-like consistency. Great alongside bread or rice and great to cook with.
- Others I’ve seen but aren’t as common in the states: peanut, onion, coconut.
Other Condiments: Two others I often see in the states and love. Hopefully these list spark your interest to search for even more Indian goodness.
- Achar: (uh-char), Indian pickles, essentially. Kind of. Well, think of them more of a relish. Chunky, really sour, sometimes sweet. If you feel like your dish is missing some sharp tang, a spoonful of achar on the side usually does it. Mango is quite popular (the flavor will vary depending on the region), but you may see other fruit and veggies used. The mango achar I’ve had at a few places definitely has an acquired texture. The mangoes usually have their skin intact and you have to work around it.
- Raita: (rye-tuh) A yogurt-based condiment used to cool your palate. I love a cucumber raita (similar to a tzatziki), but I’ve also seen it with carrots and potatoes.
Different Breads: Here’s a breakdown on the basic breads offered at most Indian restaurants. Naan isn’t as popular in many parts of India as you would imagine by its popularity at Indian restaurants in the US. Northern parts of India eat more bread than the South. Southerners eat more rice and central area eat a mixture of both. There are several other styles of breads, but these are what I see most often:
- Naan: (sounds like non in nonstop) Usually the most common bread on menus. No need to say ‘naan bread.’ Naan simply just means bread. But in context of Indian bread: it’s a flatbread with a similar thickness to your average pizza crust. It’s bubbly and made with yogurt so it has a subtle tang. You’ll see it plain, brushed with butter, or flavored with garlic, cilantro, CHEESE and more. Used to dip in sauces and grab chunks of meat or veggies out of a curry.
- Roti: (row-tee, might also be called chapati) Slightly flaky and thinner than naan. I’ll compare it to an Asian pancake if you’ve had one of those or a flakier, thick tortilla. You can eat rotis the exact same way as naan. I also often see it served with less saucy dishes, like aloo ghobi (cauliflower and potatoes) or lentils. Because it’s thinner, it’s a little easier to use to pick up meats and veggies. I’ve also seen them used to make a taco- or burrito-style dish.
- Dosa: (Doe-sah) The thinnest of the bunch, think slightly crispy crepes. They are often served with chutneys or stews. Treating dosas like crepes and filling them with other Indian dishes is also quite popular now.
Dishes to Try:
If I can make one suggestion, if you are new to Indian food, seek out an Indian buffet in your area. Some are amazing, and some are okay. But they allow you to try several dishes at once, where you aren’t worried about mispronouncing anything or committing to a dish that you thought was something else. Plus you get bottomless naan and get to try out some desserts.
Whether you’re going to a sit-down restaurant or a buffet, here are my first-round picks:
- Chicken (or Chickpea) Tikka Masala: (Chicken tee-ka ma-sa-la) My very first Indian dish (shoutout to Desi Wok in Tulsa, OK). It can be fairly Americanized, but I think it’s the perfect starter dish. It’s usually not spicy. It’s creamy and flavorful and usually served with lots of rice. Even for the people who have bad vibes towards Indian food (too spicy, it’ll hurt their stomachs, etc), I’m willing to bet, you’ll like chicken tikka masala. If you’re vegetarian, the chickpea (aka chana) masala is equally as good.
- Butter Chicken: Very similar to tikka masala, but the gravy tends to be strained so it’s super velvety. Although it’s richer in flavor than tikka masala, it tends to be the most likable for Western taste buds.
- Biryani: (Beer-ee-anh-ee) If you’re the kind of person who leans on fried rice or lo mein at a Chinese restaurant, biryani is for you. Lots of rice, some protein and mild flavor. Just like how you can pick from several different proteins for fried rice, most Indian restaurants have several biryani dishes.
- Saag Paneer: (Sog Paw-neer) You might have seen this before and thought it was tofu and spinach, but it’s actually a mild cheese in a flavorful spinach (and sometimes other greens) curry. If you’ve ever had cheese curds, halloumi, or queso fresco, paneer is fairly similar to those. Bouncy texture and doesn’t melt easily. I always have this at any Indian buffet.
One Step Up from Butter Chicken:
- Dal: Very flavorful (but usually not spicy) lentil dish. There are several variations of this dish, but all the ones I’ve had are amazing. If you’re used to European style lentils and aren’t excited about them, don’t fret. I love Indian lentils so much, but I think European lentils are just okay. Dal is hearty, saucy, savory, and full of flavor. It’s a perfect lunch option.
- Korma: (core-mah), Usually made with chicken or lamb, korma isn’t as soupy as tikka masala or butter chicken. The sauce uses nut paste (just ground cashews or almonds), so it sticks nicely to the meat. If you’re a pot roast person or a meat lover in general, korma is my top suggestion. Although the mushroom korma is outstanding if you don’t want a meat dish.
- Vindaloo (spicy): (vin-duh-loo), I love spice and love ordering vindaloo, but it truly does pack some heat. Usually in a dark-red-almost-brown sauce, I’ve seen it made with chicken, lamb, and pork.
Now go out and enjoy some delicious Indian food. If you’ve had Indian food a few times, what’s your favorite dish to recommend to a beginner? Anything I missed? We would love to know what your favorites are!