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Here, Eat This: A Beginner's Guide to Indian Cuisine

The thali -- India's version of a sampler platter -- is a great way to try several items at once, as with with the Yogi thali seen here from Pondicheri.
The thali -- India's version of a sampler platter -- is a great way to try several items at once, as with with the Yogi thali seen here from Pondicheri.
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt

Say you've decided to be spontaneous and embark on a new culinary adventure, sampling a brand-new cuisine for the very first time. Good for you! You deserve a virtual high five.

But what do you order? This is a common concern among people who've either decided to try something new or are outright afraid of trying something new. You don't want your first foray into a confusing new cuisine to be inedible. I didn't know menudo was filled with cow stomachs! you may cry, or How was I supposed to know that five chile peppers on the menu meant that I was going to turn inside out from pain?

That's where our beginner's guides come in. When I'm showing a friend a new cuisine for the first time, I try to order the most straightforward yet representative dishes possible for them. I want them to have a good first experience, but also sample food that's just different enough to pique their interest in future dinners.

If you want to jump in head-first -- again, good for you! Otherwise, give the dishes below a try if you're venturing out for your first Indian meal.

Note: For ease of explanation, the dishes below are sketched out in broad, accessible language. This is not a dissertation. And with so many regions in India -- and South Asia, for that matter -- this is by no means comprehensive, nor should you expect to find every dish here listed on every Indian menu.

The samosas and chutneys from Shiv Sagar are mildly spicy.
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt

Samosa

Every cuisine worth its snuff has a pocket food. Empanadas, pierogie, Cornish pasties, bao -- you name it. The samosa is the Indian version of these portable treats, and it's popular throughout South Asia. The pastries can be baked or fried, but are notable for their triangular shape. Inside the crispy, flaky flour shell you'll typically find an assortment of vegetables: Peas, potatoes and onions are most common. Samosas aren't always spicy, but can be -- just ask your server if you're concerned about heat levels. In my opinion, they're among the most accessible of Indian dishes thanks to their finger-food-friendly size and tasty, simple filling. I tend to think of samosas as an appetizer before a meal -- little snacky bites of lightly spiced vegetables inside pastry pockets -- although they can be eaten at any time.

Chutney and raita

Here's what you'll dip your samosas in, although these dressings/sauces have a variety of applications. "Chutney" is basically a word for any sauce featuring spice, fruit and/or vegetables. You'll most frequently find two kinds: red and green. The red is tamarind, which is both sweet and sour. The green is typically either mint or coriander. Think of them as the Indian version of salsas. Raita is a yogurt-based sauce with a blend of spices that can include cilantro, cumin, mint and other herbs. I like having raita on hand to cool off spicier dishes.

Good naan -- like this from Tandoori Nite -- should have a few blisters from the heat of the oven.
Good naan -- like this from Tandoori Nite -- should have a few blisters from the heat of the oven.
Photo by Troy Fields

Naan

Do you like fat, fluffy rounds of bread a million times fluffier than the fluffiest piece of pita bread? Then you'll like naan. Everyone likes naan. It's amazing. Dip it into chutneys or some raita or into the sauce for your butter chicken or rogan josh. Do whatever you want with it. It's versatile and meant to be enjoyed throughout your meal.

Pakora

If you like vegetable tempura or fried okra or any other iteration of fried veggies you can think of, you'll probably like pakora. Although pakora can have chicken inside, it's battered vegetables you'll find most often. Look for eggplant, potato, onion, spinach and cauliflower as standards.

Saag paneer

This is the dish that first turned me on to Indian food, mostly because of my very white-person love for creamed spinach. Saag paneer is very similar, but has cubes of soft cheese (like panela) bobbing in the creamed vegetable mixture. It's not just spinach in there, though; the bright green color of saag paneer comes from a blend of all kinds of greens, from collard greens to broccoli. It's one of the dishes you'll find most often on menus and buffets, and one I can never pass up.  

Tandoori chicken at the ready inside the Tandoori Nite truck.
Tandoori chicken at the ready inside the Tandoori Nite truck.
Photo by Troy Fields

Tandoori chicken

A tandoor is simply an oven, and tandoori chicken is -- to put it even more simply -- just roasted chicken with a few spices. The bright reddish-orange color of the chicken comes from that spice blend: turmeric, cayenne pepper, chile powder and paprika can all be used. Despite this, the tandoori chicken you'll encounter over here is rarely very spicy. Instead, it's generally savory with a hint of smoky sweetness from the paprika and the oven itself.

Chana masala

This is a dish that reminds me strongly of chili, if chili were made with chickpeas instead beef. The little garbanzo beans ("chana") are stewed down in a blend of chopped tomatoes, onions and spices including garlic, chile peppers and garam masala (a curry blend that features pepper, cloves, cinnamon, cumin and cardamom). It makes a hearty main dish despite being vegetarian, and makes for great leftovers heated up the next day.

Chicken korma

Both chicken korma and butter chicken are among the most approachable Indian dishes: they're creamy, stew-like concoctions in which chicken is braised in a velvety sauce made with butter, coconut milk, cream or yogurt plus some mild spices. In the case of korma, the sauce is slightly sweet, slightly nutty (it's not odd to find cashews in here) and slightly smoky from cumin and other spices. You'll even find a few vegetables floating around in the thick stew, which you can sop up with pieces of naan.

All dahi puri are created a little differently. These at Shri Balaji Bhavan come with plenty of tamarind chutney for those with a sweeter tooth.
All dahi puri are created a little differently. These at Shri Balaji Bhavan come with plenty of tamarind chutney for those with a sweeter tooth.
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt

Dahi puri

These little snacks are one to two bites each (depending on how dainty of an eater you are) and packed with flavor. This is perhaps the most "advanced" item on this easygoing beginner's list, solely because of the blend of flavors and ingredients found in each puffy puri shell. But it's also my favorite. It's not just about the brightly bouncing flavors inside shells -- sour-sweet tamarind chutney, tangy yogurt, spicy mint chutney, stiff red onions, herbal cilantro -- but about the contrasting textures and even temperatures. The chickpeas inside are soft and tender under the boisterous crunch of the puri shells and shreds of sev, the yogurt cold and bracing against the warmer chutneys.

Gulab jamun and kheer

What's a meal without dessert? Think of gulab jamun as Indian donut holes, where the little balls of dough are fried and then coated with a glaze of simple syrup laced with rosewater. The dough soaks up that sweet, sugary syrup, which oozes out as you take a bite. And kheer is simply the rice pudding that is featured as a dessert across dozens of different cuisines. Here, it's jazzed up with a variety of ingredients: You'll find it plain, or topped with items such as pistachios, raisins, cardamom pods and more.

Mango lassi

Think about the best mango smoothie you ever had. This is better.



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