If you've never tried Indian food before, you might be a bit intimidated by the menu. The names may be foreign to you, but the cuisine is full of rich aromas and flavors. Once you learn to identify some typical Indian cooking styles and ingredients, you'll be ready to order food you will really enjoy.
Read on for a look at some popular – and delicious – Indian dishes.
Biryani is almost the Indian equivalent of a crockpot meal. In a biryani, veggies, meat, chicken or seafood are cooked in a variety of fragrant spices like pepper, cinnamon and cardamom, and then layered over rice in a large dish. Onions are added on top, and the dish is sealed and slow-cooked for hours.
Kashmiri-style dishes are made up of rich, cream-based gravies, nuts, dried fruit and spices like cinnamon and cardamom. These dishes are usually mild, so they're one of your best bets if you're not feeling spicy-hot adventurous.
Any type of korma is a dish that's been marinated in yogurt and spices, like ginger and garlic. The dish is then cooked in its own juices, and a rich gravy develops. These dishes often include spices like coriander, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom or cumin, as well as chilies, tomato and onion.
Masalas are very common menu items at Indian restaurants. But the word masala just means "spice mix," so the definition of a masala varies greatly. Masalas do tend to have thick gravy, however. They're best enjoyed with bread or rice, which will soak up the sauce.
If you see the word "saag" on the menu, that means you're looking at a dish that contains leafy greens like spinach, mustard greens or dill. Saag is often cooked with another ingredient like meat, fish or cheese (called paneer).
A tandoor is a clay oven, so any item called tandoori will be baked in this device. Tandoori dishes are marinated in spices and then cooked in aromatic spices that impart a great deal of flavor.
If you want to sample many different types of Indian cuisine, try ordering a thali. A thali is a platter that typically includes vegetarian as well as meat dishes, all presented in small bowls. A thali usually includes chutneys (chunky, almost salsa-like condiments) and a dessert.
Tikka is codeword for "chunks" or "bits." So if you're ordering chicken tikka masala, a very popular dish, you're ordering chunks of marinated, grilled chicken cooked in a thick, tomato-based gravy.
Vindaloo is a spice mix that's made from grinding dry red chilies with whole spices like cinnamon, cloves and cumin in vinegar. This mix is typically cooked into a gravy and served over meat. Vindaloo is seriously hot, so eat it with some bread or rice to cut the heat.
Don't forget the bread
If you order a saucy Indian dish like chicken tikka masala or saag paneer, you'll probably want to order some bread to go with it.
There are several types of Indian bread, but naan bread tends to be a favorite. Naan is leavened flatbread that's baked in a tandoor oven. It's soft, a bit bubbly and often brushed with butter or oil. Naan is available kicked-up with garlic or chilies, as well, for extra flavor.
Your Indian restaurant may also serve chapati, which is a crispy flatbread, or paratha, which is pan-fried flatbread. If you're not sure which type would best complement your meal, ask your server for a suggestion.
Beat the heat
Scared to try a spicy dish? Don't worry. While many Indian dishes are in fact very hot, there's also a wide variety of mild to medium dishes to sample on any menu. To cut the heat, try ordering your meal with a lassi, a yogurt-based drink that's blended with sugar or fruit. These cooling drinks are basically yummy smoothies meant to cool down your tongue and delight your taste buds.