There may be no more awesome feeling than sitting down at a random South Asian food joint, listing off a string of seemingly unintelligible words and being rewarded with some of the most amazing dishes on the planet.
However, if you have no idea what’s going on, you are stuck watching amazing plates go to everyone else while the waiter brings you a plate of plain rice and bread. What went wrong?
Thankfully, there are Indian restaurants in nearly every corner of the world, so you have plenty of opportunity to practice how to order indian food, even if you don’t stay in the subcontinent. Food is a great way to appreciate the culture, and an even better way to build some relational capital. If you are out with an Indian friend, you should let them order for you, even if you know what you are doing. But if you are on your own, here are some tips to help.
First thing first: there is no such thing as ‘Indian food’ similar to how there is no such thing as ‘European food’ – everything is regional. Most ‘Indian’ restaurants outside of India tend to be Punjabi, but you may find a few other options as well. This article focuses mostly on north Indian dishes, much to the chagrin of my south Indian friends and personal preferences. This is an important point, because if you feel that you have mastered the restaurant near you in Houston, you will likely have no clue what to order at a shop in Hyderabad.
Second, many Indians are strict vegetarians. If you are eating with an Indian, check to make sure it is ok if you eat ‘non-veg’. Indians have been perfecting the art of vegetarian cooking for thousands of years, and I promise you will not leave hungry if you order a meatless dish.
Here’s a typical Indian menu you might see outside of India.
These are usually called ‘starters’ in India. Many times, I’ve been happily gorging myself on these, only to realize later it was just the starter and the main course was coming. So it’s advisable to go a little easy.
Best practice for the beginner is to order something that is either fried (samosa, pakoda, vada, bajji, etc.), or has the word ‘tikka’ or ‘kebab’ in it. You will love either one.
Many Indian shops offer soup. While I love their spicy tomato soup, I don’t like to waste the stomach space on it. For goodness sake, don’t order anything with the name ‘salad’ in it. Most Indians can’t stomach the thought of eating uncooked vegetables. It isn’t their forte and is destined to disappoint.
The typical ‘Indian dish’ you have in your head is either rice or bread served with a saucy mixture (called a gravy, curry, or side dish). Each gravy is pared best with either rice or bread, so check with the waiter before ordering. (“Is the Chicken saag better with rice or bread?”)
One exception to the “rice/bread + gravy” rule is biriyani which is a dish made where the meat or vegetables are cooked along with the rice. It is eaten with a side of raita, which is a mixture of yogurt and either onions, cucumber, or other tasty addition.
Rice is pretty straightforward at most restaurants, and you don’t need to get fancy as a beginner. Just order plain steamed rice.
For bread, you have many delicious options. Naan is a heavenly, doughy white flatbread made in the tandoor oven, which can come with generous helpings of butter and garlic if you are fine with dying earlier but happier.
Chapatis are round, not as doughy and made over an open fire. Rotis use whole wheat instead of white flour. Parathas are like chapatis that have other food mixed in with the dough. Parottas are divine and a fantastic great way to clog your arteries.
When you order a gravy, the name of the dish often has the ingredients or the style it is cooked in. For example, Aloo Gobi is simply potatoes and cauliflower in a sauce. Keep ordering different gravies until you find one you really like. Here are some meanings that will help you:
- Murgh – chicken
- Palak – spinach
- Paneer – cubes of cheese
- Saag – a generic word for greens like spinach
- Chole/chana – chickpeas
- Daal/dhal/dal – lentils
- Mattar/muttar – peas
- Brinjal – eggplant
- Bhindi – okra
- Aloo – potato
- Gobi – cauliflower
- Tikka – Cooked in the tandoor clay oven
- Masala – Means ‘mixture with spices’
- Kurma – A very creamy sauce
- Curry – Another sauce with different spices
- Vindaloo – A spicy preparation popular in Goa; you won’t see this on any menus in India if you are not in Goa
You are likely thinking something along the lines of, “I hate cauliflower, so I’m not ordering that.” But what you actually mean is you don’t like the silly little raw florets next to the broccoli that you eat with as much ranch sauce as possible.
Take a bite of Gobi Manchurian and you’ll realize these vegetables are in a totally different league. Indians have spent thousands of years making the vegetables we consider boring (okra, spinach, peas, chickpeas, etc.) amazingly tasty and they have done their job well. (Generous helpings of oil and spices don’t hurt either.)
If the food is too spicy for you, ask for a small dish of yogurt (curd, dahi) and mix it into the gravy.
Don’t turn it down if it is offered! It may have a lot of milk and sugar already.
Please save some room for some of the most delicious things your mother would probably never let you have growing up:
Lassi is more or less a milkshake made with yogurt instead of ice cream. Punjabis make it by the washing machine load.
For gulab jamun, imagine the softest doughnut possible that has been luxuriously bathing in sweet syrup for 24 hours. Yes, it is exactly that good.
Kulfi is creamier and tastier than ice cream, and often comes on a stick.
Follow this guide on how to order Indian food and you will not only feel great about your ability to enculturate, your taste buds will thank you forever.
Image Credit: jypsygen on Flickr