Indian Food 101

We present a beginner’s guide to this spice-forward cuisine that ranks among the world’s best.

The Background

India is home to more than 1.3 billion people living across 29 states. This results in a plethora of regional cuisines that are primarily divided into two categories: north and south. Northern Indian food features a lot of influences from the Middle East, as seen in its favoring of flatbreads and spice-heavy, oft-creamy stews (curries). Southern Indian food is more tied to Hindu culinary traditions, with a heavier reliance on rice, legumes, and vegetables. Throughout the subcontinent, and across Indian menus, beef is not as prevalent as it is in America because cows are sacred to Hindus, and pork is also scant because Muslims do not eat it. The most common meats are chicken, goat, and lamb, in addition to fish.

indian saag paneer curry in balti dish with cilantro garnish

The Dishes

For the sake of brevity, let’s focus on a few of the most common appetizers and entrees on Indian menus. Samosas—fried dumplings filled with veggies or meat—are universally beloved. Also fried, pakoras are vegetable fritters made with chickpea batter. Speaking of chickpeas, these legumes reach new heights of deliciousness in Indian cooking. You’ll see them labeled as chana on menus, and a great introductory delicacy is chana masala. Perhaps the most well-known Indian dish in the U.S. is chicken tikka masala, wherein marinated chicken is served in a creamy sauce that frequently features tomatoes. Tandoor-cooked meats are also prevalent, as well as vindaloo (a pepper-centric curry), rogan josh (typically lamb or goat braised in an aromatic gravy), and dosas (rice and lentil crepes packed with spiced veggies or meat).

The Veggies

Vegetarians will find a lot to love about Indian food, given its array of veg-centric entrees, apps, and sides. For those who eat dairy, paneer—a mild, soft cheese—is the star of many preparations, including enveloped in a tomato-based gravy, known as mattar, and stewed in spinach, known as saag. For a completely vegan option, go with aloo gobi, a turmeric-laded, hearty combination of cauliflower and potatoes. Another common vegetarian option across the subcontinent is dal. Literally meaning “dried legume,” dal is often the name used to refer to the thick stew made from legumes, such as lentils or peas.

The Sides

Regardless of what you order, you’ll most likely receive basmati rice. Native to India and Pakistan, this long-grain rice boasts nutty, floral undertones, making it the perfect accompaniment to Indian food. If you enjoy rice as an entree, then try biryani, which is spiced with mixes like garam masala, dotted with meat or fish, and topped with nuts, onions, and maybe fresh fruits or herbs, depending on the regional influence. Breads are also key to the experience. Baked in a clay oven (or tandoor), naan is by far the most common flatbread. You’re also likely to come across roti, which is unleavened; paratha, which is basically a layered roti often stuffed with a sweet or savory filling; and fried variations such as poori.

The Condiments

Indian chutneys are endlessly versatile and abundant. Some favorites are hari, a cilantro condiment often served with fried bites like samosas, and tamarind, which lends a sweet-and-sour flavor. There’s also an onion relish that pairs well with papadums, crispy wafers made from lentil or chickpea flour. A yogurt sauce known as raita is another mainstay; be sure to request this if you accidently order a spice level that leaves you hot and bothered.

Indian spicy sauce raita with herbs and cucumber

The Drinks

Need something to wash it all down? Tea is ubiquitous in India, and masala chai is a delicious, spice-forward rendition to try. For something tamer, sample lassi, a drink made of yogurt, water, and spices. Fruit, such as mango, also pops up in lassi, and it can turn the drink into the dessert of your dreams.

The Desserts

While India is not known for its sweets, there are a few options to choose from. The most common offerings you’re likely to see at Indian restaurants are rice pudding—made with basmati rice, often spiced with cardamom and saffron, and topped with nuts and raisins—and gulab jamun, a sticky sweet most akin to a doughnut.

The Eating

Feel ready to give Indian food a go? The best way to test the water is by visiting a lunch buffet. Aroma Indian Cuisine in West Palm Beach serves a vast and comprehensive smorgasbord daily.

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