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Indian Food

 

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Indian cuisine benefits from thousands of years of prime position along the world's tastiest trade routes.  As a result, ingredients from around the globe such as tomatoes from the Americas and cloves from Indonesia have been incorporated and perfected into dishes that are now known as quintessentially Indian.

Like with America, Indian food changes quite a lot as you cross the country, due to the availability of ingredients, different religious requirements, and regional traditions.  Mostly around the US, though, you’ll find that Indian restaurants serve North Indian food, while some also serve a few South Indian dishes. 

 

Internationally, "North Indian cuisine has become the ‘face’ of Indian cuisine," explains Chef Milind Sovani, Bombay-born celebrity chef who now runs Singapore's Song of India, and has fed a variety of prominent people, including India's Prime Minister, and many Bollywood movie stars.  "People from the North have been more into setting up business, so they are the ones who open restaurants" when they migrate overseas.  This is good news for those of us trying Indian food for the first time.  The dishes from the North are sometimes less spicy- some not spicy at all- so they’re a great place for beginners to start.  On top of this, Indian food is also a good choice for vegetarians, as an entire, flavorful meal can be created without any meat dishes at all.  Occasionally, you might find all-vegetarian Indian restaurants, or restaurants that serve South Indian food, which is the second most-popular cuisine to spread globally.

When you enter an Indian restaurant, you might typically see traditional Indian images on the walls: Elephant paintings, woven fabric wall hangings, pictures of the Taj mahal. In both low- and high-end restaurants, though, you might find almost virtually no trace of these cultural stalwarts. Likely, in the low-end restaurants, they don’t have the money to spend on these extras, whereas in high-end restaurants, such as Dawat in Manhattan, or Song of India in Singapore, the intent is to present the food in a more contemporary, less cliché setting.  Regardless of what kind of Indian restaurant you go to, the tables and chairs are the same as what you’ll find in American restaurants, and on the tables, you’ll see silverware that you’re used to seeing, though they're used a bit differently as we'll explain. If there’s a cloth or wet towelette provided, go ahead and use it to wipe down your hands. To further set the ambiance, you may well hear quiet tabla music, or soundtracks from popular Hindi movies, depending on the restaurant. Whether you find your own seat, or are brought to a table depends on the restaurant’s level-- keep an eye out when you enter for a hostess stand and directions as to what to do.

WHAT TO ORDER & HOW TO EAT IT

When eating Indian, the first item that will come to your table is a basket of pappadums-- these are flat, round crackers about the size of a flattened softball (seen in the picture below rolled up), and are made from gram flour, so are wheat-free; take one, put it on your side plate and break off pieces to eat, as you would normal bread.   Accompanying them are some dips, known as 'chutneys'. 

Green dip is typically made from mint, or ground coriander, which is herbal but not spicy, lumpy orange-colored dip is mango chutney, which is mildly sweet (but not sweet like jam would be), and/or spicy.  With the dip, you can also put some onto your side plate, into which you’ll dip the broken pieces. 

Also on the table might be some pickled vegetables.  Feel free to eat these at any time throughout the meal, but be aware that oftentimes, they are spicy hot.  They're also chopped up such that you'll need serve them to your side plate, then eat them with a fork-- not your fingers.

 

While you’re munching on these, you can start planning your meal.  Indian food has its roots in Ayurveda, a method of eating a balanced meal to keep healthy in all aspects.  Although modern Indian food has since incorporated other ideas, having a balanced meal is still important.  There are a few ways to ensure that the dishes you order balance each other well.  In some restaurants, you'll be able to order a set menu.  This may well be served on a thali- a personal silver platter with sections for all the different dishes included.  "There has to be some raw element," Chef Sovani says.  "Like there is a salad, there will be a pickle, there will be a pappadum, there’ll be two curries, there’ll be rice."

The other way Indian food is served, is family-style, with shared serving dishes placed in the middle of the table and each diner taking what they want to their own plate.  As such, the more people you have in your party, the more dishes you can order.  Again, the basics of what you’re going to need are: A few different meat or seafood dishes, some dry and some in sauces, at least one vegetable dish (to make your mother proud), and rice.  Must-haves for your first time eating Indian include: Tandoori chicken, which is chicken BBQ, Indian-style and not spicy at all; butter chicken, which is the most popular Indian curry and great for people who want to start somewhere mild; rogan josh, which is a lamb curry that’s not too chili hot either.  I also like saag paneer, which is like creamed spinach with chunks of cheese mixed in.   Adding some raita can also be good as this is a mild yogurt dip that you can use to offset anything that’s too spicy. 

You should order some bread, called ‘naan’- typically one order is enough for two to four people, but ask your waiter for advice on how many orders would be right for your group (this is because some restaurants sell it by the piece, and others have multiple pieces in one order).   Naan is a flat bread like pita, that you can use to scoop up your curries or raita.  Tear off a bite-sized piece with your right hand, and dip it into the curry of your choice.  Personally, I like mine plain so it doesn’t interfere with the food flavors, but for fancier flavors you can eat the bread on its own. 

 

 

It's a good idea to order some appetizers as well.  Popular choices are pakoras, which are deep-fried battered vegetables (or sometimes other things, like cheese or chicken), and samosas, Indian-style stuffed triangular pastries, usually stuffed with potatoes and peas inside (eat these with your chutney).

It should be noted that you'll never find beef on an authentic Indian menu.  This is because the cow is a sacred animal in Indian culture and thus is never eaten. 

 

WHAT TO DRINK

            To drink, Indian beer is popular, like Kingfisher, as are fruit juices or lassi, which is a yogurt smoothie of sorts, not to be confused with the dog of the same sounding name.  You can have it sweet or salty and sometimes in fruit flavors, like mango or strawberry.  India also has its own popular colas, which might be on some menus, such as Star Cola- feel free to do a Pepsi Challenge with it.  For the more adventuresome, a spicy version of lemonade might be on the menu, called Jal Jeera, often had at the start of a meal.  Any drink with ingredients like coriander and green chilies will definitely wake your taste buds up, though jal jeera is supposed to be good for the digestive system too.

 

DESSERT & COFFEE

"Everyone carries an impression of Indian desserts being too sweet.” Chef Suvani admits, concurring that, "Indian desserts [do] tend to be sweet.”  Desserts like, gulab jamun, milk dumplings served in a syrup.  Kulfi, a kind of cardamom-flavored ice cream, is also popular, as well as mango, and other ice cream flavors that will be more familiar to us.  Give any of these a try.  After this, you might be brought a dish of large white crystals and little seedy looking things.  Pop either in your mouth.  The large crystal is a big rock of sugar, while the seeds are cardamom and have a licorice kind of taste.

 

 

Instead of coffee, think of having tea-- India is a big tea-producing country and has a wide variety to offer.  Masala tea is a lightly spicy, milky tea, though other choices will include a typical black tea, like Darjeeling, or ginger tea.

THE LAST WORD

Another great way to try Indian if you can't find any daring souls to try it with you, is to try it at lunch.  A lot of Indian restaurants have great, easy-to-order set lunches, where you can get just one serving of a meat dish, side vegetable and rice, served on one plate like it would be if you went to an American food restaurant.  After you’ve got to know what you like, you can then step up to bring your family and friends for dinner, ensuring that your first time eating Indian isn’t your last.  

 

Read on...

The Food Virgin's First Time

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