Guest post by Big Apple Curry co-founder Myna who is my sister, lives in Toronto, and works in the non-profit world helping girls and women
Many people are interested in exploring Indian food, but they don’t know where to begin. If you’re not familiar with the cuisine, an Indian restaurant menu can be overwhelming. Whenever I meet someone who feels this way, I take them to a good, reputable Indian restaurant and walk them through the experience. The great thing about Indian cuisine is there is something that everyone will like — grilled ‘tandoori’ meats and kebabs that give a whole new meaning to the word “BBQ”; plenty of vegetarian dishes like creamy tomato curries with as many as nine vegetables; and the tastiest vegan options you’ll find in any cuisine from cumin roasted potatoes to pan-fried okra. Tandoori chicken with a side of steamed basmati rice is basically ‘chicken and rice’ — every single cuisine in the world from Italian to French to Mexican to Chinese has some variation of ‘chicken and rice.’ You can order the heat level of Indian dishes as hot, mild, or something in between. So folks, ordering doesn’t have to be intimidating – you just need to know what to look for. This is where I can help!
If you’re going to an Indian restaurant for the first time, I recommend you order the following.
For an appetizer, I recommend you order samosas, which are small deep-fried pastries with spicy fillings. Typically triangle-shaped, samosas can be made vegetarian (with potatoes, peas, and spices) and non-vegetarian (with ground chicken or lamb, and spices), and are often accompanied by a tamarind chutney. Deep-fried or baked and packed with flavor, samosas are a great way to start your meal.Similar to egg rolls in Chinese cuisine, samosas have become a very popular snack in North America. Even mainstream grocers have developed frozen packaged varieties. In India, many appetizers are commonly eaten as snacks at tea time or bought from vendors on the street — just like in other parts of Asia, street food is some of the best food in India.
Typically, Indian food is not individually plated — rather, it is served “family style” in large dishes for everyone to share. The best way to get a good taste of all that Indian food has to offer is order a few main courses. The following three dishes are great choices if you’re ordering for the first time:
If you’re a meat eater, Indian chicken dishes are the way to go for an inaugural main course. Tandoori Chicken is a particularly good option for people who like chicken wings and barbecue. Marinated overnight in yogurt and spices, anything made in a ‘tandoor’ is baked in a traditional Indian clay oven at more than 500F. The yogurt marinade makes the meat tender and the high heat of the oven seals in all the spices and juices. Tandoori chicken is a nice complement to other saucier curries, and is a dependable dish that won’t scare away an Indian cuisine newbie.
Butter Chicken or ‘Murgh Makhani’
You can never go wrong with Butter Chicken. Ever. I haven’t met a single person who doesn’t like it. As my brother-in-law Sean says, it’s a great dish to start for the novice as it’s fairly innocuous and mild in spice, low on the heat scale, but rich in flavor. When my friend Alison first tried Butter Chicken, she immediately exclaimed “where has this been all my life?!” She’s been hooked ever since.
Channa Masala or ‘Chole’
The unique variety of Indian vegetarian dishes is legendary. The earthy, flavorful, chick peas curry known as Channa Masala is always a winner – and not just among vegetarians and vegans! Last month I took my colleague Dave to an Indian restaurant for the first time. He’s a quintessential meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. Dave ate Channa Masala and said it reminded him of his grandmother’s baked beans – just spicier. Even carnivores who don’t typically eat legumes or beans discover they love this dish.
All Indian main courses can be eaten with rice and/or naan (Indian bread), of which there are many varieties. As well, there are numerous yogurt-based condiments and chutneys that complement everything on your plate. I recommend you order both rice and naan, as well as one condiment as follows:
Rice is a major staple in India, and there are many long and short-grained varieties. Basmati rice dishes are typically steamed or cooked in water. The flavor combinations are endless. Plain steamed basmati rice is satisfying on its own, while more complex rice preparations like biryani provide layers of flavor with slow-cooked meats combined with spices, saffron and roasted onions. Curries go particularly well with basmati rice — fluffy and fragrant, it compliments a range of dishes beautifully.
Naan (Indian bread)
Everybody loves naan! Seriously — if you like bread, you will like naan. Dough is slapped onto the inner wall of the tandoor oven and takes only seconds to fluff up to dreamy, pillowy flatbreads that go with absolutely anything. It is especially tasty when dipped into butter chicken sauce. Today you can find prepared naan in most mainstream grocery stores; some even use naan to make homemade pizza. Indian flatbreads come in all types including naan, rotis, chapathis, parathas, kulchas, and more.
Always order raita. This yogurt-based side dish is a great cooling agent to accompany any dishes with some heat. Its role is similar to that of tzatziki in Greek cuisine – a refreshing, cold accompaniment to the main dishes. This is also a must-have if someone has low tolerance for heat. When I first took my friend Meg to an Indian restaurant, raita was her savior as the food was much hotter than she anticipated. We still laugh about how she cautiously ate one chick pea at a time in a spoonful of raita.
In addition to these dishes, my advice is as follows:
- Unlikely favorites: curries with eggplant and spinach may not seem appetizing at first, but when prepared the Indian way, they make for delicious dishes. Consider dishes such as Palak Paneer – cubes of mild farmer’s cheese cooked with spinach in onions and spices; and Baingan Bhartha – roasted eggplant cooked with tomatoes, onions and spices.
- Heat Tolerance: always consider your tolerance for heat. Note that ‘spice’ is different from ‘heat’ — it gets confusing when the two terms are used interchangeably. While all Indian dishes are spiced (by a host of spices like cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom), not all Indian dishes pack a lot of heat (heat comes from things like cayenne, red chillis, and black pepper). If you can’t handle that much heat, then tell your waiter to make the food mild, just to be safe. Indian restaurants can generally make food that is mild, medium or hot and the waitstaff is typically good at asking diners what their preference is.
- Experiment: explore the menu and go for something unheard of! Indian food has a lot of variety, which means it’s good for sharing. Most restaurant menus are predominantly North Indian, but some offer items from India’s many culinary regions. You might discover something completely different that you love. Give it a try, see what you find!