Are you going to an Indian restaurant for the first time and need a basic idea of what the main dishes are and how they taste? Or maybe you've been once or twice but don't know all that you should. After eating Indian food for the first time, I gave up because I didn't like it. It wasn't the American food that I was used to and my mind didn't stay open for very long. But then I decided to give it another try and that's what started my love affair with Indian food.
My advice to you is to never, ever give up after the first try. At least give it a few tries before you decide it's not for you. Start with the popular dishes first, because if you start with something only Indian food lovers can appreciate, the chances of going back are slim. In this article I will discuss the dishes I've tried and still love to this day, and also some tips to try while you're eating or ordering.
Chicken Tikka Masala
This is the most popular dish among non-Indian people, and it is the first one their friends will tell them to try. I am going to say that they are right. This entree is made with chunks of tandoori chicken (mostly breast pieces) that are combined with a tomato and coriander sauce with cream and bold Indian spices. I usually do not stray from this dish every time I go out because it's my favorite.
There are different versions of chicken tikka masala depending on where you go, with some places using more cream or less, but it's mostly the same line of spices. You can order this dish as mild, medium, or hot, but as a beginner, stick with the mild. Some say it's more tastier as it gets hotter, but I prefer not to burn off my tongue!
If you would rather try something other than chicken, most places have different meats or vegetables in the same sauce, like lamb tikka masala, fish tikka masala, etc. On a side note, I really don't like rice, so I will eat the chicken and either dip a naan in the sauce, or pour everything onto a naan. I usually will get a specialty naan, like coconut and raisin filled, and it just adds another level of flavor to the dish.
This dish is very similar to tikka masala, and you may not even truly taste the difference, but there are differences. Chicken makhani (also called butter chicken) is a true Indian dish, whereas tikka masala came from Britain. This sauce is a tomato cream sauce as well, but has butter and can have a nutty flavor if cashew paste is added.
The chicken in this dish is marinated for several hours with cream and spices, and usually is made with thigh meat. Both dishes are cooked in a tandoor (clay oven) before being added to the sauce. A key spice in this dish (I think in both dishes) is fenugreek, which cannot really be described unless you taste it. I don't make these dishes at home without it because it elevates the dish to a whole new level.
I've found the makhani to be more smooth and lighter than the tikka masala, and so your choice will depend on which you prefer. If you don't necessarily like sauces, you can always order Tandoori Chicken, which is the chicken without the sauce. It is flavorful as well, and you really get the clay oven aroma and taste even more.
This is a vegetarian dish made from pureed spinach, spices, and paneer. Paneer is a cheese that is common in the South Asian countries, is similar to cottage cheese and is cut into little chunks. It has a nice mild taste that you can enjoy while you get in your vegetables (in this case, spinach). This dish is usually found on Indian buffets and you have it as a side dish, unless you are a vegetarian.
There are a variety of dishes paneer is used in, one of them being Mattar Paneer, which is made with peas instead of spinach. I have gotten this dish alone instead of chicken tikka masala, not only as a nice change, but because it has such a great flavor. Usually, it is not on the buffets I go to, so I have to order it.
Pakora are little fried Indian fritters, and are often found on buffets as a great side snack or appetizer. They are made with a chickpea batter, cauliflower, spinach, potatoes and onions. You can have them plain or dunk them in yogurt, sauces, or chutneys (which I will also be discussing). There can be different variations of pakora, like paneer pakora and palak pakora.
Also to be included in appetizers is the samosa, a fried pastry filled with potatoes, cauliflower and spices. It's not something I enjoy, but we all have different tastes, so go ahead and give it a try. It's on most buffets so get at least one.
Malai Kofta are vegetable balls that are deep fried and added to a creamy curry sauce and is one of my favorites that I strongly suggest trying. If you aren't sure of any dish, ask to try a little of your friend's dish or go to a buffet to sample different things. Usually I can't find this dish too often on a buffet, so it has to be ordered once you know you like it.
The fried vegetable balls will get soft sitting in the sauce and fenugreek is a main spice in the dish. Indian is a very wise choice for vegetarians because the food is so beautifully made that you really don't miss meat here and there.
There is a very good chance you will see this dish on the buffet. It is simply potatoes, cauliflower and spices, with other vegetables possibly being added. It is very good dish to try, and the fact that it might be on the buffet gives you a chance to try a little before you decide if you like it or not. If you see anything that says 'Aloo', it means there will be potatoes in the dish. The same can also be said for 'Gobi' which means cauliflower.
There are different breads you can get either in place of rice or as an addition to your whole entree. I will name a few here that are popular. Roti (pronounced roh-tee) is a flat bread made from wheat flour and cooked on a griddle. Paratha are wheat flat breads that are thicker than rotis, and are fried and can be plain or stuffed with vegetables.
Batura is made with white flour, oil and yogurt and fried until they puff up and become soft, fluffy bread. Kulcha is the non-fried version made from the same dough. And finally, the most popular bread is naan, which is sold in many grocery stores next to pitas. It is a thick flat bread resembling pitas and is cooked in the tandoor. It can be plain, topped with garlic and/or butter, or stuffed with various things like vegetables, meats, cheeses, or coconut and raisins!
Chutneys are sauces you can have with your breads, on rice, with samosas, or even on your entree. There are different kinds, from mango to coriander to other fruits like figs and pineapples. The sweet ones pair well with fried foods, or they can be used to balance the heat of a dish. Tamarind chutney is brown in color and is seen on Indian buffets and has a sweet taste, while coriander chutney (which is also on buffets) can be quite spicy.
These chutneys should be tried a tiny bit at a time to get used to the flavor or to see just how hot or sweet they are. Raita, a yogurt that can be mixed with cucumbers, tomatoes and/or onions, is very popular and can be poured over your entree to tame the heat your dish might have.
In the next article, I will write about Indian drinks and desserts. The keys to your Indian food journey are to give it a few tries and start with buffets so you can sample each dish and side. You will soon discover what goes with what, according to your taste. You'll also discover new things to try on different buffets, because they are not all the same. So make sure you try different Indian restaurants as well and keep an open mind. This is my favorite food ever, and it might become yours too!