An Indian food primer for the interested American.
Because we make and eat a lot of Indian food, and also because we get a lot of questions about it, Matt has prepared the following:
This isn't a guide to Indian food, which is as diverse as the cooking of
any other area with a comparable population and size (China or the
Mediterranean), so much as a guide to the Indian food served in restaurants
and cooked by interested Westerners in the United States. Indian food in
America is filtered and dumbed down (over here, you'll find little grilled
food, few if any pickles, and a complete lack of certain regional favorites
like Punjabi cornbread), but, hey, it's still tasty.
Indian food might seem intimidatingly exotic, with its unfamiliar and
rarely translated names and apparently extravagant use of spices, but in
terms of ingredients there's little in Indian food you won't find
elsewhere: beans, tomatoes, potatoes, spinach, onion, garlic, ginger, and
spices you'll probably recognize from other contexts such as Mexican
cooking and sweets like spice cookies (in Americanized Indian food, anyway;
authenticaly Indian food sometimes calls for more specialized ingredients
like mango powder and kari leaves). Their use may be novel, but the
ingredients themselves are the same things people eat around the world.
Most authentic Indian food is vegetarian, for reasons both religious and
economic, but what you'll get in this country are usually Americanized
versions of Mughal cuisine, upper-class and festival food from the
Muslim-influenced and therefore more meat-eating north. So far as meats
are concerned, you'll find chicken and lamb most often, with some seafood
and occasionally pork (so far as I can tell, pork is present largely
because of the Portuguese). If you see an Indian restaurant which serves
beef or a cookbook with a recipe that calls for it, make no sudden moves
but do back away slowly. The prohibition against killing cows has spilled
over from religion into culture to the extent that even an Indian Muslim,
for whom eating beef is spiritually hunky-dory, is likely to regard eating
it much as we'd regard eating puppies and kittens. Water buffalo is fair
game, but if you're having a hard time finding an Indian restaurant, you're
almost certainly not going to find one that serves water buffalo.
This glossary should help you decypher the names of common Indian dishes.
It won't tell you everything, but it might comfort you to know, for
example, that "saag paneer" is just spinach and cheese, "aloo ghobi" is
potatoes and cauliflower, and "murgh makhani" is a really, really tasty
Fun Words To Learn And Say
Chai: The word "chai" means tea. That's all. Nothing else. Just tea.
Nothing about flavorings, sweetenings, or even the presence or absence of
milk. In the words of the poet, anyone who tells you different is selling
something. Alas, Indian restaurants have to communicate in a language
which customers understand, so some have been forced to adapt the term to
mean something it doesn't. If you see chai on a menu (or on a grocery
store shelf, or at a Starbucks, or...), it's really *masala* chai. That is,
flavored tea. The water to make the tea is simmered with a variety of
spices, which might include cardamom, cinnamon, clove, fennel, ginger,
pepper, and others, giving it a distinctive flavor. Even without the
spices, Indian tea is always cooked with milk and sweetened with sugar
(I've only seen white people use honey). The ingredients are usually
cooked together, giving it a pleasantly if subtly different flavor than tea
prepared in the Western fashion.
Chapati: A sort of griddle-cooked whole wheat tortilla, a very common
Chutney: This means, approximately, a condiment, something added to food
by the eater. Ketchup, mustard, and salsa, for example, could be regarded
as chutneys (in fact, I once made a tomato chutney which was almost
indistinguishable from ketchup). Major Grey's chutney, a mango-based
sauce, is just one of a huge variety. They can be sweet, savory, spicy,
cooling, or anything else. Frequently encountered chutneys include
herb-based sauces (lots of chopped mint or cilantro with a little yogurt
and a few other flavorings), spicy onion (chopped onion with spicy red
pepper), tamarind (a thin, dark, sweet sauce), and raita (a yogurt-based
sauce with grated cucumber, onion, and mint).
Curry: Curry isn't really an Indian cooking term. Or, at least, it
doesn't refer to a particular dish or set of flavorings. Its etymology is
in some dispute, but it appears that forms of the word existed in Indian
culinary terminology with fairly specific and limited meanings. It was the
British who applied to a wide range of dishes. These days, the term is
usually used to mean a stew-like dish with a more-or-less thick sauce.
Most restaurants have a fill-in-the-blank curry on the menu (chicken curry,
lamb curry, etc.), which is inevitably the most generic and least
interesting dish they have.
Curry powder: So if curry doesn't exist, what's curry powder? Well, it's
not an Indian invention. It's a Westernized, standardized mixture of
spices meant to summarize Indian cuisine. Predictably, it doesn't work.
The proper use of curry powder in your own cooking is this: Go outdoors
(you don't want to do this inside; you might break something). Make sure
your curry powder is tightly capped. Holding it in your hand, draw your
hand back as far as you can. Throw the curry powder, as hard as you can,
as far away as possible. Go back indoors, do not look back, and make your
Daal: Legumes. Although they're not necessarily well-represented in
restaurant cooking, beans are immensely important in Indian cooking, and
the Indians do very interesting things with them. The daal most frequently
found in restaurants is lentils. They're usually made into soupy dishes
with the beans at least partly mashed.
Ghee: Strictly speaking, clarified butter: the fat extracted from the
water and protien content of the butter. Ghee is used for frying and to
enrich dishes. In many contexts, though, actual people just use vegetable
oil instead. In Indian groceries, vegetable oil is sometimes sold as
"ghee" or "vegetable ghee."
Gulab jamun: One of the desserts you'll most often find in Indian
restaurants. Golf-ball sized, with a texture a little like cornbread but
made mostly of dried milk powder, soaked in a lightly perfumed sugar syrup.
Keema: Ground meat, usually lamb.
Masala: A masala is a mixture of flavorings. In most Indian dishes, the
cook will prepare a masala or multiple masalas (some "wet," some "dry") by
combining a variety of spices and/or grinding together strongly flavored
ingredients like ginger, garlic, onion, and chile peppers. The ingredients
are usually roasted or fried separately to deepen and enhance their
flavors; this technique will be familiar to anyone who knows Mexican
cooking. Most masalas are more-or-less ad hoc, prepared specifically for
the dish in question, although there are a few "standardized" masalas which
are refered to as ingredients in their own right, such as chaat masala and
garam masala. The term is also used as an adjective. Restaurants may have
a fill-in-the-blank masala dish to accompany the fill-in-the-blank curry,
which simply means "flavored (whatever)." They're generally a bit more
interesting than the curries, but not much. However, vegetable and daal
dishes which use "masala" in the title are usually exceptions, most notably
the traditional chickpea dish chana masala.
Naan: A yeast-raised flatbread with a yogurt-enriched dough, originally
slapped onto the sides of a tandoor to bake. They are occasionally stuffed
with paneer, ground meat, and other flavorings.
Pakoras: A popular style of appetizer. Vegetables, paneer, and other
savories are dipped into a chickpea-flour batter and fried.
Paneer: A dense cheese, usually freshly-made and served the same day.
Paneer doesn't melt, so it often appears in dishes in small cubes, a bit
like tofu but rather richer. It's surprisingly easy to make at home.
Papadum: A wafer (often the size of a saucer or salad plate) made from a
legume-based flour, quickly fried to crispness before it comes to the
table. Think of it as a flavored cracker.
Paratha: Another griddle-cooked bread. Similar in form to to a chapati,
but more flaky and buttery. Parathas are sometimes folded over and cooked
with a flavorful filling in the style of an omlette.
Poori: Much like a chapati, but deep-fried so it puffs up like a pillow.
Pulao: A flavored rice dish, etymologically related to "pilaf." A pulao
can have anything from a few light spices and bits of vegetable added more
for color than for flavor to enough ingredients for a full-blown dish of
Roti: Yet another flat, griddle-cooked bread, somewhat richer than a
chapati. The word "roti" also means bread in general.
Saag: Edible greens. In this country, "saag" usually denotes spinach,
although technically a spinach-only dish would have the name palak rather
than saag (which might include mustard, fenugreek, and other greens). Saag
paneer (sometimes called paneer saag) is probably the best-known saag dish.
It usually includes a healthy dose of green chiles, so it's not as bland as
it might sound.
Samosa: Another appetizer. Something like a wonton skin is filled and
Tandoori: A tandoor is a clay-sided oven. Strictly speaking, then,
"tandoori" simply means roasted in such an oven. However, it most often
refers to a style of cooking chicken, marinating it beforehand in a spicy,
yogurt-based sauce, usually with a festive red food coloring.
Thali: Strictly speaking, a thali is a large, round, usually stainless
steel platter with a raised lip. In restaurants, a thali means a sort of
combination dinner. Instead of ordering a la carte, you can get small
portions of several dishes and a chutney or two, each in their own small
steel bowl, along with rice and/or bread.
Vindaloo: A dish with vinegar-marinated meat (originally pork, but you'll
find chicken and other meats these days) cooked in a spicy sauce. Most
Indian dishes aren't necessarily hot-spicy, but vindaloo is an exception.
Vindaloo is always burn-your-face-off hot.
Getting and Eating Indian Food
Although French and Chinese food are always held up as the two great world
cuisines, Indian food, in my not-so-humble opinion, is tied with Italian as
one of the two most worth eating, so it's very much worth your while to
find an Indian restaurant or make some of your own.
If you go to a restaurant, consider ordering a thali, if one is available.
However, do check what's in it. It might contain less interesting dishes
than you might get on your own. Also, go with a few people you like so
that you can each order something different, sample each other's dishes,
and get a broader feel for what you might enjoy. Make sure you've got
plenty of rice; most Indian dishes you'll find will have a lot of intensely
flavored sauce which is well served by mixing up with the relatively bland
rice. We also always get some breads. Bread and rice is apparently more
often an either/or than a both/and proposition in India, but it's all very
good so we can't resist.
And, of course, it's almost always worth making it at home. First, find an
Indian cookbook. The ones you'll see linked in the list of cookbooks on
the right side of the page are at least tolerably good. Read the book
thoroughly before you start cooking, since it might detail techniques with
which you're unfamiliar. And stock up on spices: cardamom, clove,
cinnamon, corriander, cumin, nutmeg, paprika, and turmeric will be the
easiest to find and most used. You may also need things like fenugreek,
saffron, mustard seeds, and tamarind. You'll also find yourself running
through a lot of onion, ginger, and garlic, and you may want to invest in
an electric coffee grinder (to grind spices; do *not* use the same grinder
to grind both spices and coffee, use one for each!) and a tortilla press
(to make chapatis and other breads). Restaurants usually finish dishes
with more cream and/or ghee than home recipes call for (making them much
richer), but if you add more on your own, you're unlikely to get