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Saturday, July 23, 2005

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
chicken dish.

Fun Words To Learn And Say

Aloo: Potato.

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.

Chana: Chickpeas

Chapati: A sort of griddle-cooked whole wheat tortilla, a very common
Indian bread.

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
own masalas.

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."

Ghobi: Cauliflower.

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.

Matar: Peas.

Murgh: Chicken.

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
its own.

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

33 Thoughts for food:

At 6:13 AM, Blogger Zarah Maria said...

Thank you, I love this - I hope it's okay I read even though I am a Dane ;-P! Now I don't have to feel so stupid going to Indian restaurants any more!

At 11:08 AM, Blogger Stephanie said...

I think Matt's assuming the rest of the world is more familiar with 'ferrin' cuisine than most Americans...we're happy to have helped!

At 11:42 AM, Blogger Laura said...

mmmm yummy - this is a really good guide -- of course now I'm hungry. i've been fortunate to live a few blocks from not 1 but 2 decent Indian places for the past few years, so that's a blessing.
i'm inevitably amazed when I find friends that haven't explored this-- I usually end up at least making a homemade masala for them so they can get the idea.

At 11:44 AM, Blogger Stephanie said...

Thanks, Laura.

We love Indian food. We have two places here in Knoxville which do a pretty good job, and of course, we do like to make our own. Yum, indeed.

At 11:49 AM, Blogger Laura said...

By the way, while I"m thinking about it... suggested cook books for fun...

Mama Dip's Kitchen (yummy downhome cooking and good commentary by Mama Dip)


Nanny Ogg's Cookbook
if you read the Terry Pratchett Discworld books at all, this is especially a riot)


Sky Juice and Flying Fish: Traditional Caribbean Cooking by Jessica Harris

(i wore out one copy, and had to get another!)

At 12:00 PM, Blogger Stephanie said...

Thanks, Laura...I'll look into them!

And Matt is a big Disc World reader.

At 2:32 PM, Blogger Cate said...

Nice Guide! We're actually getting Indian food tonight - can't wait!

At 5:20 PM, Blogger Stephanie said...

I wish I was. Now that it's up, I can't stop thinking about Indian food!

At 12:53 AM, Blogger Anthony said...

Ah great stuff Matt. I always get a bit overwhelmed by the long list of ingredients but most of them are spices. I should go out and get some airtight jars and buy some. Years ago when I did mix my own spices I remeber being happy with the results, so no excuses really.

(and cool for the bit on the chai and the honey - I am such a sucker for insider tips)

At 1:11 AM, Blogger Stephanie said...

Well, Anthony...Matt is an academic. Research and list-making? That's fun-time for him.

But it does help to know what you're getting (and getting in to), doesn't it?

At 1:14 AM, Blogger eat stuff said...

YUM! Love indian!

At 1:24 AM, Blogger Stephanie said...

Me, too! And I've been jonesing for it all weekend...darn it all.

At 5:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, that was a comprehensive write-up. Great job, Matt! Steph, maybe you should seriously consider giving Matt a weekly column or something, heh. ^_^

At 9:42 AM, Blogger ChichaJo said...

Indian is one of my favorite cuisines and I always find myself trying to memorize the stuff in the menus for future ordering. Thanks for this guide...it will be a lot of help!

At 11:13 AM, Blogger Stephanie said...

Julia...Matt's always welcome, although he very much sees this as 'my' thing.

Chichajo...Matt was a great help to me when I first started eating Indian. Knowing what's what really makes s differnce, doesn't it?

At 4:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, found you linked from the "Is My Blog Burning" tea event. Have you heard of Suvir Saran? He's a chef in NYC with a restaurant called Dévi. And he wrote a cookbook called Indian Home Cooking (Here is is at Amazon.) It's a WONDERFUL book.

Thanks for your primer, as I am often over my head with Indian food. (Suvir's book has helped, of course!)

At 4:40 PM, Blogger Stephanie said...

Welcome, Tana!

No, I can't say I've heard of him, but I'll make sure we both give his book a good look-see.

I really like your site; we used to live in the East Bay. And we're all kinds of in favor of organic farming. heck, we're just plain fans of farming, period. But the kinder to the Earth the farmer, the better the 'reaping', we believe. Great work!

At 9:30 PM, Blogger Shakthi said...

"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."

Ever been to Kerala or to a Malayali restaurant???

At 8:07 AM, Blogger IBH said...

I came via Mahanandi's blog...this is one awesome collection of terminology.....

I would like to leave one comment here regarding the curry !
Curry is basically the way we prepare dishes in Southern India...especially from Tamil Nadu (the southern most part of India)...
the main ingredient for seasoning any gravy dishes or for the fact dry ones,there in Southern Indian cooking is that of curry leaves ....

we also call Meat as curry in our language....!Curry was basically derived from a "Tamil" word called kari...

I am going to bookmark this one for my reference...thanks once again!

At 2:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

came here via mahanadi.

ibh said what iwas planning to say anywayz ;)

in srilanka(subtly different from south indian cooking), Tamils call all the side dishes as curry with a few exceptions.

and we also call vegetables as 'marakari' - mara or maram - plant/veggies

kari - curry

goog job on the whole though!


At 1:55 PM, Blogger Stephanie said...

I think what needs to be remembered here: Matt put this together with the average, not-knowing-lots-about-Indian-food American in mind.

Sure, there are exceptions; but if you're coming out of Boise or Deluth...well, what Matt's outlined here is not only useful, but appropriate.

At 8:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. My husband is Indian and so I'm quite familiar with the food, but it's nice to see some of my thoughts echoed by another non-Indian (I assume). I have to say that beef isn't all bad at an Indian restaurant and there are certain parts of India where beef is eaten. That being said, I've never ordered it or made it because when there are so many other interesting things, why skip 'em for beef?

Chana masala (with a nice hot bhatura) is maybe my favorite Indian dish ever. I make a North Indian kind that is not as thick as the gravy/curry you get at a restaurant, but that uses tea and much less oil. Now, if only the bhaturas could be healthied-up!

I'd love to see some recipes for the home cook - care to share? I'll share back! :-) Borders had a decent Indian cookbook on its' clearance table a few years ago and I've taken many of those recipes and made them our own. Do you find that you need to add more spice than most recipes call for? Invariably, I'm doubling the chilis, chili powder and cumin.

At 11:31 AM, Blogger Stephanie said...

Christy...you're welcome!

No, neither Matt (my hubby and guest poster) nor I are Indian.

I don't know that we have any recipes of our own; Matt's rather fond of Julie Sahni. We grab what we can off the web, and have been quite pleased to find Indira's blog, Mahanandi...she's become an excellent source of recipes!

Hmmm...often, we'll find the dishes we make at home aren't as flavorful as the ones we get from our favorite Indian restaurants. It's been pointed out to us that the pros use a lot more ghee (!) than we do. I suppose we do end up (more often than not) using more spices, to try and compensate for the flavor.

At 2:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, I know they use so much more oil and/or ghee than we do which is why my curries are usually much less thick than theirs. But then ours are usually much less oily and I feel better about eating them regularly and feeding them to our child. But no matter the source of a recipe (internet or cookbook), I find that I almost always have to at least double the spices. I don't know that that is only from less fat, I think a lot of cookbooks sold in the US are spiced-down, whereas our tastes are for very strong spiced food.

Does Matt make his own garam masala? I haven't yet (lazy) but know that I should. That's problem the biggest problem there - a weak garam masala.

At 1:19 AM, Blogger Stephanie said...

Matt says to tell you he agrees: most of the recipes are under-spiced.

And...oh, yes! He always makes his own garam masala.

And you should see the face he makes anytime we see a recipe calling for 'curry powder'!

At 8:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never seen a recipe for real Indian food call for curry powder. Only recipes from my Mom and Grandma for kitschy 50's food.

Will Matt share his recipe for garam masala?

We made kofta last night with bottle gourd. It was something my husband used to eat as a child but that is never in restaurants. I was impressed as it turned out well and I'm not the best at believing in foods I haven't tasted at least once. This one was a keeper and we'll make it much more often.

At 12:54 PM, Blogger Stephanie said...

Christy, I'm surprised when I see 'curry powder', myself; although I often find it in British cookbooks!

Matt said he'll post the garam masala recipe as soon as he can, and that the bottle gourd kofta sounds really interesting!

At 1:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How do I find your email? I'm horrible at finding them on blogs. I typed up the kofta recipe - we had gotten it off a website for Indians/by Indians and all of the spices were in the language of the writer, not English, so I had to "translate" it before I could make it again - it took more time to read the recipe last time than it did to make it. Anyway, I have it typed up and am happy to share it with Matt and you because it was delish! And hopefully, in doing so, Matt will see that I'm not a fly-by-night blog reader, but someone who is faithfully reading hoping to see that garam masala recipe he's got!

Also, I wouldn't hate it if you sent that popover recipe you've recently written about!


At 1:25 PM, Blogger Stephanie said...


You can find my email address directly under the 'links'.

Matt should have time to figure it all this weekend. Things have been a bit crazy around here, but Sunday doesn't look to be too insane!

And once you send the kofta to me, I'll get the popover recipe to you...promise.

At 7:53 PM, Blogger glkolb said...

I loved your explanation of curry powder. I had a Thai recipe that called for "Indian curry powder", and I actually found a bottle so labled at the local Asian market. When I told my friend from Bangalore about it, the pained look on his face was priceless. He explained tersely, "We never use it."

At 5:45 AM, Blogger Stephanie said...

Gary, thank you. For both showing us this post is still relevant four years later as well as for the seriously good laugh it brought us.

Yeah. 'curry powder'. I shake my head....

At 12:04 PM, Blogger marmatt61 said...

I stumbled in and got the a belly laugh from discription of how to dispense your jar of curry powder, still lmao. Anyway the post was great, I'm going out for a first run at Indian and was looking for info. There this was and it is a big help. Cheers

At 2:59 AM, Blogger Stephanie said...

marmatt61; so glad this was useful!!


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