Here, Eat This

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

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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.

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.

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