Demystifying Indian Cuisine

indian.jpgby Steven Doyle

Indian cuisine can be super delicious, possibly spicy and extremely healthy. It can also be difficult to maneuver for the uninitiated, so we wish to dispel a few notions about the food so that you might enjoy this fantastic food that you may have been missing out on.

We will go through a few categories so when a menu is presented you will know what to order right away, but feel free to catch one of the many buffets in the DFW area where you may graze your way around the various dishes and flavors. This is an excellent way to begin your journey into Indian cuisine.

Know that almost always you may substitute whatever protein with any sauce to create a dish that is custom delivered to your taste. You may sometimes also ask for a varied spice level as you might in Thai cuisine. Use this guide as a starter, there are so many more flavors out there for you to enjoy.



Every culture has a pocket food such as dumplings, which in essence is exactly what a samosa is, only fried. Inside the crispy, flaky flour shell you’ll find an assortment of vegetables including [eas, potatoes and onions. Think of  samosas as an appetizer before a meal , but might be enjoyed by themselves as a quick meal.

Chutney and raita

Chutney is one of those all encompassing words that basically means condiment. Use the  red and green sauces to kick up your samosas or dip your bread into. The red is tamarind, which is both sweet and sour. The green is either mint or coriander.  Raita is a yogurt based sauce with a blend of spices that can include cilantro, cumin, mint and other herbs. Raita may be used to temper spicier dishes.


Naan, Paratha, Papadum and Chapati

Naan is the ultimate bread. It is made by slapping dough against the insides of their tandoor oven, the same oven to roast bits of meat or seafood. Naan is all at once fluffy, crispy, buttery and warm at its best.  There are flavored and stuffed naans such as garlic and cheese (paneer). Use to soak up your gravies and sauces as you might any bread. Paratha is similar but but a flatbread that has flaky and buttery layers. Papadum are crisp wafers made of lentils and will typically be served much like chips and salsa, but with a side of chutneys. Chapati, also known as roti, safati, shabaati and roshi, is an unleavened flatbread.


If you like vegetable tempura or fried okra or any other iteration of fried veggies you can think of, you’ll probably like pakora. Think battered eggplant, potato, onion, spinach and cauliflower.

Saag paneer

Paneer is a housemade cheese made very much like mozzarella, but the curds are pressed overnight to extract as much of the liquid as possible. The texture can be very much like tofu but with a much different flavor, as you might imagine. The paneer might be used in several dishes including a favorite called saag paneer, or palak paneer.   Palak paneer is puréed spinach and seasoned with garlic, garam masala, and other spices. Saag paneer is a generic name used for a similar dish to palak, but there could be substituted greens such as mustard or mint. Generally you will find these names interchangeable, but if concerned do ask about the ingredients.



Thali refer to a metal plate that thali meal may be served on. The idea behind a Thali is to offer all the six different flavors of sweet, salt, bitter, sour, astringent and spicy on one single plate. According to Indian food custom, a proper meal should be a perfect balance of all these six flavors. Restaurants typically offer a choice of vegetarian or meat-based thalis. Vegetarian thalis are very typical and commonplace and are a popular lunch choice.



Tandoori chicken

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 the most popular dishes on the menu. They are also less seasoned and perfect for the uninitiated. These are chicken dishes braised in a creamy sauce made with butter, coconut milk, cream or yogurt plus some mild spices. Korma is slightly sweet, slightly with cashews at times. There may be a few vegetables included, but rare.




Vindaloo spicy curry from Goa, India, has roots in vinh d’alho, a stew brought to the region by Portuguese colonists. Now an Indian restaurant staple, it comes in countless variations—some fiery, some mild—from the subcontinent to the British Isles. Look for an assortment of meats and even fish to go with this spicy sauce. Particularly delicious with cubes of lamb.

Chicken 65

Chicken 65 is a spicy, deep-fried chicken dish originating from Chennai, India, as an entrée, or quick snack. The flavour of the dish can be attributed to red chillies but the exact set of ingredients for the recipe can vary. It can be prepared using boneless or bone-in chicken and is usually served with onion and lemon garnish. Vegetarian variants like “Paneer 65” or “Gobi 65” use paneer (cottage cheese) or cauliflower instead. While the name “Chicken 65” is universally used to refer to the dish, there are many different theories claiming its origins. The most popular is it was named for the year it was first created.


Tikka Masala

Chicken tikka masala is a dish of chunks of roasted or grilled marinated chicken (chicken tikka) in a spiced curry sauce made from a yogurt base. The sauce is usually creamy and orange-coloured. There are multiple claims to its place of origin, including the Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent or Glasgow in Scotland. It is among the United Kingdom’s most popular dishes, leading a government minister, Robin Cook, to claim in 2001 that it was “a true British national dish”. Consider this starter Indian food.

Chicken Biryani

Biryani (and there are many variations) is popular throughout the Indian subcontinent and among the diaspora from the region. It is made with spices, rice and meat (chicken, mutton, beef, prawn, or fish) or egg is also added.


Mango Lassi

Lassi is a popular traditional yogurt-based drink and is a blend of yogurt, water, spices and sometimes fruit. You will definitely want to sample this during your first venture to an Indian restaurant.


is somewhat similar to a crepe in appearance. Its main ingredients are rice and black gram. Dosa is a typical part of the Southern Indian diet and popular all over India. Traditionally, Dosa is served hot along with sambar (lentil vegetable stew), stuffing of potatoes and chutney. The Dosa can be quite large at times and are crisp and quite delicious to eat.


Pani Puri

Although not extremely common at typical American-Indian restaurants, you may find them on occasion. Pani Puri consists of a round, hollow puri, fried crisp and filled with a mixture of flavored water (broth), tamarind chutney, chile, chaat masala, potato, onion or chickpeas. These are common street food and often a guest will stand while pani puri are made and eaten as fast as they are delivered until full.

Gulab jamun and kheer

Gulab jamun resemble 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. You may find it topped with items such as pistachios, raisins, or cardamom pods.


Indian Food Glossary

Atta flour – (also know as a chapatti flour) – whole wheat flour widely used for making unleavened flat breads.

Banana leaves – is widely used for wrapping ingredients (particularly fish) before cooking. They should be soaked briefly in hot water to make them pliable. If banana  leaves are unavailable use aluminium foil.

Basmati rice – the finest Indian long-grained rise grown in the foothills of the Himalayas. It is known as the prince of the rice because of its fine flavor and aroma. It should be rinsed and soaked for 10 minutes before using.

Besan – also known as gram flour, this is made from chickpeas. It is used to flavor and thicken curries and for making Pakoras and bhajias, pancakes and teamed patties.

Biriyani – a rice and vegetable, meat or seafood oven – cooked dish.

Biriyani masala -This is a special sweet spice mix for biriyani dishes. Grind together the cardamom seeds from 8 pods, 25 g (1 oz) cinnamon stick, 6 cloves and 1 tsp fennel seeds.

Bhoondi – tiny balls of fried besan or gram flour.

Chana dal – with their sweet and nutty flavor, chana dal is the most popular dal in India. They’re made from splitting a small relative of the chickpea in half. They’re a dull yellow and are renown for causing flatulence, which Indians try to counter by adding asafoetida to the dish. Chana dal is delicious, nutritious and easily digested, but, aside from its usage both in dal dishes and savories, the legumes are also roasted and powdered into chickpea flour (besan or besin) another widely used ingredient in nearly every regional cuisine. Chana dal is used in variety of vegetable dishes. It can be cooked until soft for the dish called simply dal, or as in southern India, it can be used as a spice.

Chapati – the bread  usually made on a circular cast iron griddle known as a tawa, which is slightly concave to give its distinctive shape. It is cooked without fat, over very high heat.

Chawal – rice

Chick peas – also called gram or, in America, garbanzo beans. As chickpeas often demand hours of cooking before they become tender.

Coconut – (Nariel) is essential to many dishes. It is obtained from the white flesh of the nut and is both rich and smooth-testing. widely used in southern Indian cuisine, is used both savory and sweet dishes.  Buy a fresh coconut to extract the milk or use desiccated coconut to thicken sauces or garnish finished dishes.

Coconut oil – Coconut oil is very heat stable so it makes an excellent cooking and frying oil. It has a smoke point of about 360°F (180°C). Coconut oil has a high amount of saturated fatty acids it also has a relatively high melting point. Above 76°F (24°C) coconut oil is a colorless liquid. Below this temperature it solidifies into a pure white solid. It is used in Indian cooking, especially in Goa.

Colam rice – short-grain polished rice widely used in Western India. Most common varieties of shor and long-grain polished rice may be used for Dosas and Uttapams.

Corn meal – flour made from pure maize (corn) which has been ground fine.

Dals (pulses)- dried split peas, usually bought skinned. There about sixty  varieties of pulses available in India. THese are dreid seeds of plants such as beans and peas and those most popularly sued include chick peas (kabuli channa), split black chick peas (bengal gram or channa), black gram (urid daal), red lentils (arhar) and yellow lentils (moong). Pulses should be rinsed in several changes of water. Pre-soaking usually cuts their cooking time by half and salt tends to harden pulses it should not be added until the end of the cooking. As they take a long time to cook, a pressure cooker is a great aid to cooking most pulses. The more unusual pulses are sold in health food or Asian food stores.

Dosa or dosha – is a flat bread made with flours, rice, wheat or legumes, cooked like a pancake. It may be filled with a spicy mixture.

Food colorings – turmeric an saffron will color food yellow, but you can also buy coloring that has no taste.

Garam masala – a blend of ground spices used in many savory dishes. Garam masala recipe>>

Ghee – clarified butter made by melting butter and separating the fat from the solids. It can be made at home. From the best flavor ghee is made from unsalted butter. Cheaper blends of butter are most suitable to make ghee. Once prepared it will keep for up to three or four months in a cool place.

Gram flour – made from chickpeas and also known as besan.

Halva – a sweet dish

Idli – is a bread from the South, almost like a cake, round and thick, made with fermented rice from the Kerala and legume flour (urad), shaped and then steamed (the legumes have a leavening effect).

Jaggery – raw sugar, eaten as it is and used to flavor various dishes, even vegetable curries.

Kalonji – (also known as nigella) small black tear-shaped onions seeds, used to add piquancy to vegetable curries and Indian breads.

Kewra water – also sold in the stronger form of essence, kewra water is used for flavoring and has a delicate fragrance.

Khoa – full fat milk powder

Lassi  – a yogurt drink

Masala – spices

Masoor dal – skinned split red lentils (they actually orange in color)

Mint – widely used herb often paired with lamb. Indian mint has a stronger flavor and more pungent aroma than Western varieties.

Moong dal – skinned split mung beans.

Murghi – chicken

Mustard oil – a yellow oil made from mustard seeds that is pungent when raw and sweet when heated. Much used in Kashmir and Bengal.

Naan – a kind of bread popular in North India. It is made with leavened dough (chopped onion or cilantro can also be added to it), and is often made from buttermilk or yogurt. The dough is stretched by tossing the piece of dough quickly from one palm to the other to form a thin oval flatbread, slightly thicker around the edges than in the center. Traditionally is baked on the walls of a tandoor oven, brushed with a thin coating of oil or ghee and served hot.  It can also be stuffed with cheese, vegetable curry or meat. In this case, the filling is placed on part of the dough which is then folded over on itself before being rolled flat with a rolling pin.

Panch phoran – mix of five spices – cumin seeds, onion seeds, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds and anise.

Papaya – a fruit with good digestive properties

Paratha  – a bread; richer version of chapati, crispy and cooked in ghee on a griddle. They are very thin and are stacked up like crêpes.

Puri – is a bread fried in hot oil, completed submerged so that it puffs up. Pooris are common to the

Pappadams and pappads – the pre-made and precooked flat breads (made from legume flour (urad) and rice flour) that need only be immersed in hot oil to puff up instantly; they are turned with a skimmer so that they stiffen up slightly and then are drained and served while still crisp. Some are plain, others are spiced with mixtures of spices. They can also be prepared under the broiler, thus eliminating the chore of frying.

Raita – a cooling side dish made with yogurt.

Rose water – available from chemists this is used like kewra water for flavoring many Indian dishes. The essence form is more expensive.

Roti – The name is related to the French word “rôtie,” meaning toasted bread. It is made from whole wheat (aata), millet (bajra) or sorghum (jowar)

Rumali – Toasted bread, or handkerchief bread, which is also found in other eastern countries, is made up of numerous layers of dough like a folded handkerchief.

Sambar powder – a southern Indian spice mix for vegetable curries.

Tamarind – the most popular souring agent in Southern India. The pods are collected, de-seeded and dried. Before cooking the acid flesh is soaked in water, and the juice is squeezed out. It is this tamarind water that is used in the curry. In some Goan recipes, the tamarind flesh is ground with spices. Nowadays tamarind concentrate can be bought in any grocer’s shop.

Tava – a flat cast iron pan used for making bread.

Thali – a large tray, often of wrought metal.

Toor dal – a glassy dark yellow split pea, similar to chana dal.

Uppama – a flat bread whose dough is made from semolina instead of flour. It can be quite rich and may include onions, chilies, ginger, mustard seed, nuts, various vegetables etc.

Urid dal – polished split black lentils, often used as a spice in southern India. It takes quite a long time to cook.

Varak – silver leaf used as a decoration for both sweet and savory dishes.

Vindaloo – a highly spiced and hot curry, traditionally from Goa.


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4 responses to “Demystifying Indian Cuisine

  1. It’s good to know that tandoori chicken is savory without being too spicy. My boyfriend absolutely loves Indian food, and I want to take him out to dinner for his birthday this weekend. Since I have a relatively low spice tolerance, it will be helpful to know what kinds of things I can order.

  2. Pallavi - theknitpicker.india

    I’d started with 95% but towards the end revised it to a 85% score as certain factual errors crept in.

    Overall the post is the most accurate one authored by a person of non Indian origin that I’ve come across.
    I am very pleased Steven Doyle. My blue ribbon goes to you.👌🏽😍

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