A Primer: 12 Tips for Understanding and Enjoying Indian Food

By: Saundra Amrhein

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Dining at an Indian restaurant can be a festival for the palette, offering a rich experience in a range of dishes, thick curries, spicy masalas, fresh breads, and flavorful ice cream desserts. But sometimes the menu and diversity can be overwhelming for the newbie.

Here’s a primer to Indian food, a short introduction on popular picks, from a refreshing natural fruit drink, to appetizers, mainstay meat and vegetarian dishes to a must-have dessert.

LASSI – This thick, sweet or salty yogurt drink from North India is very popular. The sweet version often comes made with fresh fruit, like mango, or possibly with almond and rosewater, while a savory version can be made with cumin, salt and black pepper.  The popular mango lassi tastes somewhere between a smoothie and a milkshake. In addition to its refreshing nature on a hot day, it also soothes the tongue after a bite of spicy food because the yogurt neutralizes the acids in the spices. The drink is a great accompaniment to vindaloo and other spicy dishes. 

NAN (or NAAN) BREAD – This pillowy North Indian bread, baked in a tandoori or clay oven, is a big hit at Indian restaurants with its chewy and delicious texture, and can be ordered plain or in a host of other ways, such as stuffed with garlic and butter; stuffed with dry fruit and coconut; stuffed with cheese, roasted chicken, spiced ground beef or lamb; or topped with chopped green chilies and cilantro. It is great for accompanying a spicy dish to take the edge off the heat and is also wonderful for scooping up certain dishes that come in thick, soupy sauces, such as chicken tikka masala.

SAMOSAS – These popular triangle-shaped and deep-fried pastry pockets are often served as appetizers and stuffed with a variety of ingredients. Vegetable samosas come stuffed with spiced potatoes and green peas. They also can be stuffed with lentils, ground lamb, beef or chicken. They are often eaten with fresh chutneys of mint and coconut, tamarind, or red chilies to add either a bit of sweetness or spice.

DOSA – These fermented crispy and savory crepes from South India are extremely popular. Dosas, often likened to thin pancakes, can be made from washed lentils or rice batter fermented overnight, and are commonly cooked on a griddle. They can come plain or stuffed with potatoes, vegetables or cheese, and go great with coconut chutney. They are often served with a sambar, or lentil soup. 

CHUTNEYS – These popular dipping sauces or condiments that accompany Indian cuisine usually contain some combination of spices, herbs, fruits and vegetables. Usually they are divided between sweet and hot forms. Several common and popular ones include tamarind, cilantro (or coriander), and mint chutneys. The mint chutney – which also includes a touch of coriander – is sometimes called hari chutney for the Hindi word for green. Other types of chutney include mango, tomato, coconut, onion, red chili, green chili, and ginger. They can be used to add layers of taste and texture to everything from appetizers to entrees – to add a bit of spice to a mild dish or a taste of cool sweetness to a spicy dish.

CHICKEN TIKKA MASALA – This popular choice, widely served across India and reported to be the favorite restaurant dish in the United Kingdom, includes boneless cubes of chicken (tikka) marinated and sautéed in spices and yogurt, roasted in the tandoor (clay oven), and served in a creamy, masala (spicy) sauce. The sauce often includes tomatoes, heavy cream and spices, and is orange in color, usually from the use of turmeric or paprika powder or tomato puree. The chicken can be substituted in other tikka masala dishes with fish, lamb or paneer (cheese).

BUTTER CHICKEN – This dish, also called chicken makhani, is considered a specialty in some restaurants and is one of the best known Indian dishes around the world. It consists of roasted boneless chicken cooked in the tandoor (clay oven) in spices, tomatoes, butter and cream sauce, which can vary from mild to spicy. Its sauce or gravy is often made by mixing butter with Khoa (reduced cream), tomato puree and a variety of spices, including cumin, pepper, cinnamon, coriander, fenugreek and cream. Butter chicken goes great with nan bread and basmati rice.

LAMB VINDALOO – This mainstay dish was adapted from the Portuguese “carne de vinha d’alhos” – which was introduced several centuries ago by Portuguese traders to the Goa region of India and made with pork, wine and garlic. In India, the pork was replaced by lamb and other meats, and the vindaloo evolved into a pungent, spicy curry that traditionally includes coconut, vinegar and red hot chili peppers. Potatoes were not traditionally served with vindaloo but have come to be a common accompaniment inside the curry. Instead of lamb, vindaloo can also be made with chicken, beef, goat and fish.

EGGPLANT (BHARTA) – This eggplant vegetarian dish from North India comes mashed, includes a variety of vegetables and is seasoned with herbs and sautéed onions, tomatoes and green peppers.  First, the eggplant is roasted or grilled to achieve a smoky flavor and then the seasoning begins by mashing the pulp and sautéing the chili pepper, ginger, onions and cilantro. The dish goes great with nan and roti bread, or a yogurt salad.

SAAG PANEER – This delicious spinach-cheese vegetarian North Indian dish consists of fried Indian ricotta or farmer’s cheese (paneer) cut into cubes and cooked with creamed or blended, smooth spinach and fresh aromatic seasoning, including garlic, onions and ginger. Spinach is the common ingredient – making up the saag, the Hindi word for greens – but can be substituted for others, such as collard greens, mustard greens, and broccoli. This dish goes well with nan bread or any type of bread.

KULFI – This popular homemade frozen dairy dessert is denser and creamier than Western ice creams but not excessively sweet. Because it is not whipped during the freezing process, it tastes more like traditional custard. The popular flavors include mango, cardamom, saffron and pistachio. Many of them come served with chunks of nuts or mango in them and can also come with additional toppings like whipped cream or pistachio cream.

RAITA – A cucumber, carrot and yogurt salad that is a great side to go with the whole meal, particularly if the heat gets to be too much for a newcomer to Indian food. (Note: a glass of water does not do the trick and only swirls the spices around on the tongue.)

Want more? See An Expert Guide to Indian Cuisine.

More By saundra amrhein

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