if you’re new to Indian food, Chicken Tikka Masala (not technically Indian), Tandoori Chicken, Saag and naan are popular, safe things to order. Lot of spices without being spicy hot, delicious dishes - you really can’t go wrong. But if you’re ready to graduate to more “advanced” Indian food, what should you order?
A little bit of everything:
When presented with the option, I always order the thali at an Indian restaurant. Thali = plate in Hindi. Each region of India will have something different in a thali, but you can expect to receive some appetizers, some vegetables, a curry of some sort, definitely a yogurt based dish, some lentil based dish, a bread, rice and poppadoms. It is by far the best way to try a little bit of everything the restaurant does best - basically a chef’s tasting but in fewer courses. Could you get the same effect at an Indian buffet? Sure, but this is way more photogenic.
Indian Street Food:
Indian street food is frankly the very best of Indian food. Vendors usually specialize in 1-2 dishes and usually sell out of wooden carts right on the street. If you’re concerned about hygiene (this is understandable and should be a concern especially for chutneys), several restaurants serve street food either listed under Street Food or Chaat. There is no Chaat that is not amazing and delicious. None.
Chaat includes things like sev puri (puffed puris topped with boiled potato, onion, chutneys and crispy chickpea vermicelli), bhel puri (puffed rice with potato, onion, chutneys and crispy chickpea vermicelli), chole tikki (chickpeas in a spicy tomato based sauced, over potato patties), and one of my favorites pav bhaji, pictured below. Pav bhaji is spicy vegetable puree served with hot buttery bread and onions and butter. It is DELICIOUS!!!
If you’re looking for Indian street food in Cleveland, Bombay Chaat is pretty legit!
Quick tip, you do not need to say “naan bread”. You can just say “naan”. Naan is a type of bread, so when you say “naan bread” you’re just saying “bread bread” which is redundant.
If you’re going to get naan, you want to make sure it’s at least butter naan, or garlic butter naan or cheese naan. If you’re ready to graduate beyond naan, I recommend roomali roti, which is rolled super thin, like a handkerchief.
Also recommended: Aloo paratha (stuffed potato paratha) or any type of stuffed paratha and kulcha, which is like a stuffed paratha but leavened instead of the unleavened paratha.
If you’re ordering a curry, then yes, basic basmati rice is an excellent vehicle to get the curry into your mouth. However, if you’re ready to graduate to the next level of rice, try biryani. Biryani is a one pot dish that mixes meat and vegetables in one dish and is absolutely delicious. You don’t even need to order a curry or daal to go with it, but you can if you want. It is typically served with a side of raita (yogurt), which is incidentally a great way to cool off a spicy mouth.
If you like Saag (or Saag paneer) you may also want to try vegetable korma (mixed veggies in a creamy sauce), vegetable jalfrezi (mixed veggies in a tomato based sauce), Mutter Paneer (cottage cheese cubes + peas in sauce), Sarson da Saag (cooked mustard greens). If you want something really different and smoky, Baingan Bharta (smoky eggplant in spicy tomato sauce) is also delicious. You’re likely to like it if you like baba ganoush.
Beans & Lentils:
Kaali daal or black daal or daal makhani is the gold standard in Indian lentils. Slowly simmered black lentils cooked until they are falling apart - topped with some butter, this stuff is absolutely amazing. Once you’ve had this, you’re ready to graduate to other dishes like Rajma (kidney beans cooked in tomato and spices), chole or chole masala (cooked chickpeas in sauce), and kadhi (made of yogurt).
Most indian food avoids beef (out of respect for Hindus) and pork (out of respect for Muslims), leaving mainly chicken and fish. You can’t really go wrong with any type of kebab, but I highly recommend trying Seekh kebabs (made of lamb or goat) or rogan josh (a lamb curry). You can also try a vindaloo or a xacuti (both really spicy curries from Goa, India - heavily Portuguese influenced, comes in a variety of meats), but either way, if you’re feeling adventurous, try some lamb or goat.
Indian desserts are very sweet, but they are also delicious and perfect to help cool off your mouth after a lot of spices. Some of my favorite are gulab jamun, which you may have tried already. If you’re ready to try something new, check out jalebi (thin fried dough soaked in sugar syrup), kheer (Indian rice pudding with cardamom and spices and no egg, so its more like a soup rather than a custard), and kulfi (Indian ice cream).
After the meal:
Sometimes after your meal, you may be brought a bowl filled with warm water, a lime wedge and some rose petals. This is for washing your fingers at the table if you’ve been eating with your hands (highly encouraged).
If you are brought a bowl of brightly colored small candy (they may look like candy covered rice), they are candy coated fennel seeds, used as a digestive and mouth freshner.
On some occasions, you may also be served a rolled up leaf, called paan. This is a betel leaf. It traditionally contains a nut that may have stimulant properties, but most of the time at restaurants, its filled with mouth refreshers like fennel and won’t have any adverse side effects.
What to do if you went overboard on the spices and your mouth is on fire: At most Indian restaurants in the U.S. you can specify your spice level. In India, you can ask for your dish to be made less spicy. However, if you overestimate your tolerance for spice and feel like your mouth is on fire, don’t attempt to drown it with water. Instead, try drinking lassi, eating naan, plain rice or yogurt. Something with dairy or fat is usually better because it absorbs the oils from the spices and helps cool you down.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look into Indian food and feel more confident about ordering the next time you’re at an Indian restaurant! If you like this piece, please feel free to pin it to your pinterest board using the image below, or any of the images in this post. If you’re interested in some easy Indian recipes at home, check out our Bombay Taxi Cooks series.