A Guide to Indian Food for First-Timers

Having an aunt from India, and an adventurous mother in the kitchen, my family has been eating Indian food for as long as I can remember. It was always a staple growing up, although I didn’t necessarily value the fact that my mother chose to cook ethnic foods over macaroni and cheese. My classmates spared no expense at commenting on the left-overs of last night’s chana masala for lunch. Now I’ve grown to appreciate it as one of the more complex cuisines, because each region in India has its own delicious specialties. Indian cuisine has evolved over thousands of years, and has absorbed influences from all over the world. While I cannot say that I’ve mastered the delicate art of cooking Indian food, I am completely confident in my ability to eat and critique it.

I probably lost you at chana masala. Do not fret, my foodie-poseur, today you will learn the basics of Indian cuisine and how you can order properly without making a fool of yourself.

The most prominent spices in Indian food as are follows: curry, cumin, turmeric, fenugreek (also called mehti), ginger, coriander, garlic, chili pepper, black mustard seed, cinnamon, cardamom and clove. Now you know why I don’t mess around with this stuff. What makes Indian food so elaborate is that most dishes will consist of several spices. The nuances of each dish depend on how many spices and when the spices are cooked.

Indian cuisine is largely based on a vegetarian diet, although there are meat-eater friendly dishes. I admit that I’m a vegetarian and can’t order the plates with meat, but I find the vegetarian choices stand on their own with their rich flavors and textures. The dishes I mention below are must-haves for any first-time diner.

Samosa: A crispy pastry filled with potatoes, peas, onions, lentils and sometimes meat. They are served as appetizers and usually come with several dips, both savory and sweet.

Naan: Oven-baked flatbread used to scoop up food. I hope you already knew that.

Chicken Tikka Masala: The creamiest curry you will ever try. It consists of chicken cooked in an orange-colored sauce made of tomatoes and spices. Apparently its the most popular dish in Britain (ahh, Colonialism).

Saag: Spinach that has been slow cooked to a mild perfection. My favorite is Saag Paneer—it has bits of cheese.

Daal: There are a variety of daals, but each one contains lentils in some shape or form, and they are all heavy. Do not order more than one per meal.

Tandoori: a preparation from a firey-red yogurt-based marinade that is usually done with chicken.

Mango lassi: Mango juice, sugar and yogurt.

Indian food is best eaten in a group, so everyone can order a dish and share. The plates above should provide you with a good start, although I always find it the most satisfying to explore new things.

Indian food around the city:

Lahore Karahi
A hole-in-the-wall Indian-Pakistani restaurant that serves up delicious food, albeit very slowly. You won’t find the best customer service here.
Naan-n-Curry
You won’t find the highest quality Indian food here, but there is a $9.95 lunch buffet. Try a little bit of everything.
Aslam’s Rasoi
Contemporary Indian and Pakistani cuisine. Upscale, and extremely fresh.

One thought on “A Guide to Indian Food for First-Timers

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