Here, Eat This: A Beginner's Guide to Indian Cuisine

Categories: Here, Eat This

Pondicheri 010s.jpg
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
The thali -- India's version of a sampler platter -- is a great way to try several items at once, as with with the Yogi thali seen here from Pondicheri.
Say you've decided to be spontaneous and embark on a new culinary adventure, sampling a brand-new cuisine for the very first time. Good for you! You deserve a virtual high five.

But what do you order? This is a common concern among people who've either decided to try something new or are outright afraid of trying something new. You don't want your first foray into a confusing new cuisine to be inedible. I didn't know menudo was filled with cow stomachs! you may cry, or How was I supposed to know that five chile peppers on the menu meant that I was going to turn inside out from pain?

That's where our beginner's guides come in. When I'm showing a friend a new cuisine for the first time, I try to order the most straightforward yet representative dishes possible for them. I want them to have a good first experience, but also sample food that's just different enough to pique their interest in future dinners.

If you want to jump in head-first -- again, good for you! Otherwise, give the dishes below a try if you're venturing out for your first Indian meal.

Note: For ease of explanation, the dishes below are sketched out in broad, accessible language. This is not a dissertation. And with so many regions in India -- and South Asia, for that matter -- this is by no means comprehensive, nor should you expect to find every dish here listed on every Indian menu.

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Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
The samosas and chutneys from Shiv Sagar are mildly spicy.
Samosa

Every cuisine worth its snuff has a pocket food. Empanadas, pierogie, Cornish pasties, bao -- you name it. The samosa is the Indian version of these portable treats, and it's popular throughout South Asia. The pastries can be baked or fried, but are notable for their triangular shape. Inside the crispy, flaky flour shell you'll typically find an assortment of vegetables: Peas, potatoes and onions are most common. Samosas aren't always spicy, but can be -- just ask your server if you're concerned about heat levels. In my opinion, they're among the most accessible of Indian dishes thanks to their finger-food-friendly size and tasty, simple filling. I tend to think of samosas as an appetizer before a meal -- little snacky bites of lightly spiced vegetables inside pastry pockets -- although they can be eaten at any time.

Chutney and raita

Here's what you'll dip your samosas in, although these dressings/sauces have a variety of applications. "Chutney" is basically a word for any sauce featuring spice, fruit and/or vegetables. You'll most frequently find two kinds: red and green. The red is tamarind, which is both sweet and sour. The green is typically either mint or coriander. Think of them as the Indian version of salsas. Raita is a yogurt-based sauce with a blend of spices that can include cilantro, cumin, mint and other herbs. I like having raita on hand to cool off spicier dishes.

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Photo by Troy Fields
Good naan -- like this from Tandoori Nite -- should have a few blisters from the heat of the oven.
Naan

Do you like fat, fluffy rounds of bread a million times fluffier than the fluffiest piece of pita bread? Then you'll like naan. Everyone likes naan. It's amazing. Dip it into chutneys or some raita or into the sauce for your butter chicken or rogan josh. Do whatever you want with it. It's versatile and meant to be enjoyed throughout your meal.

Pakora

If you like vegetable tempura or fried okra or any other iteration of fried veggies you can think of, you'll probably like pakora. Although pakora can have chicken inside, it's battered vegetables you'll find most often. Look for eggplant, potato, onion, spinach and cauliflower as standards.

Saag paneer

This is the dish that first turned me on to Indian food, mostly because of my very white-person love for creamed spinach. Saag paneer is very similar, but has cubes of soft cheese (like panela) bobbing in the creamed vegetable mixture. It's not just spinach in there, though; the bright green color of saag paneer comes from a blend of all kinds of greens, from collard greens to broccoli. It's one of the dishes you'll find most often on menus and buffets, and one I can never pass up.


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21 comments
jasminsena78
jasminsena78


Brief summary of Indian Cuisine, Indian Food. Spices and more spices and a fragrance that will lift your spirit up: this is the essence of Indian food. For more details visit http://www.vaango.in/


afpotter214
afpotter214

Lunch at Pondicheri yesterday was wonderful.......just order at random. Life's too short to waste on analyzing a menu. 

jennytulltx
jennytulltx

OOH and my favorite - pappadum!  Nutty, crunch, yum!

Net Dmed
Net Dmed

Kalbi is very good i love kimchi korean food is very good

Smedley
Smedley

Ethiopian! Blue Nile is awesome.

Kathy Stabe
Kathy Stabe

All Asian foods - China, Japan, Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, Turkey, maybe even Russia. And where the best places in Houston are to eat them.

DEClarke
DEClarke

I think this is a great piece. As a fan of Indian food, I kind of feel that Chicken Tikka Masala and Lamb or Chicken Biryani sould have been included on the beginners guide though...

Laurin Marchand Guadiana
Laurin Marchand Guadiana

How about Korean food for beginners? I tried Korean food once about 15 years ago and hated it. I had no idea what to order. I'd like to give it another shot.

carlasoriano
carlasoriano

Love this new series, Katharine! Short and sweet, yet informative. I would love to see a guide about Peruvian and Argentinian food.

Houstess
Houstess

Who knew there was broccoli in my saag paneer.

gossamersixteen
gossamersixteen topcommenter

Yeah I start everyone off on vindaloo and rogan josh, God help them if they don't like spicy food. Muhaha.

Anse
Anse

Does Himalaya count as Indian food? I think the owners are from Pakistan, yes? That place is incredible and I would recommend it to anybody who has yet to fall in love with this cuisine. Saag paneer can be pretty humdrum in a lot of restaurants but it has a zest at Himalaya that is lacking elsewhere. And the rice...don't get me started on the rice. Most places, rice, for me, is an afterthought. But the rice at Himalaya is amazing. I have tried several menu items there and have never had a bad meal. 

Bruce_Are
Bruce_Are topcommenter

Better yet, head to your local Indian buffet and have at it. In Clear Lake, Cuisine of India has a very good lunch buffet for $9.95.  Mogul and Bombay Tadka are pretty good too, but I'd steer first timers to COI.

UrbanSwank
UrbanSwank

Great article and concept...are you going to continue with a series on other cuisines? I think it would be very helpful.

chas.walton3
chas.walton3

I had lunch at Pondicheri a few months back. As a dedicated Indian food lover, I was so disappointed in the blandness of their fare!  If one does not like spicy, then try Pondicheri.

gossamersixteen
gossamersixteen topcommenter

@Anse That's technically Indo/Pak, if you like Himalaya (which I do too) try la zeeza..

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editor

@UrbanSwank That's the idea! And I'm happy to take suggestions on types of food y'all want to see in guide form. Vietnamese is planned for next week.  :)

MadMac
MadMac topcommenter

Agreed. This article makes it all sound SO good. And so I keep trying it and hope to start liking it.

UrbanSwank
UrbanSwank

@kshilcutt @UrbanSwank Not quite sure how many restaurants we have in Houston for some of these (with the exception of Thai) but I would love to see a guide on Greek, Cuban, and Thai cuisine. I think these guides would really open to door for people to try new things.

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