Here, Eat This: A Beginner's Guide to Indian Cuisine
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.
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.
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.
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt The samosas and chutneys from Shiv Sagar are mildly spicy.
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.
Photo by Troy Fields Good naan -- like this from Tandoori Nite -- should have a few blisters from the heat of the oven.
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.
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.
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.