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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
other way Indian food is served, is
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
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.
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
"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.
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.