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PlaygroundEquipment Blog
Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Beginner's Guide to Indian Food

photo by qasic (flickr)
One of the perks of living in the United States is the availability of food from other cultures. In any major American city you’ll find Italian, Chinese, Thai, and Mexican restaurants, all within a few miles of each other. But one of the great, and perhaps underappreciated, styles of cuisine out there is Indian food. Indian restaurants are spread all over the country, often small family-owned places slotted between two other stores in a strip mall. Most people are afraid to give these places a chance, which makes some sense. Indian food is renowned for its use of strong flavors and spices, and if you’re not familiar with it you risk ordering a meal you won’t like. That risk is compounded when you’re also taking a chance on a restaurant that you’ve never been to before. However, when those strong flavors are blended together just right they can make some of the most diverse and interesting foods in the world. For all the ‘risks’ associated with Indian food, there is even more reward. This guide is meant to help those who are new to Indian cuisine determine where to start.

First a few pieces of advice:

1.     Look at online reviews-- Before trying out a new restaurant, it’s a good idea to look at what other people have said about it.  This can give you a good idea of what to expect; although be careful about overlooking places with less than stellar ratings, especially when there are only a few reviews. People sometimes order things that they don’t like, or that are too spicy for them (see #3), and leave a bad review for the restaurant because of it. Small restaurants can be severely harmed by these negative reviews, and you can be harmed by missing out on a hidden gem because of 3-star ratings. However, for a beginner it might be safest to start with a restaurant that has a well-established reputation.

2.     Try the buffet—A staple of Indian Restaurants is buffets, most commonly offered around lunchtime. These buffets are usually remarkably inexpensive for an all-you-can-eat meal, and are perfect for those who have little experience with Indian food, or who might be unsure about what to order. It’s the ultimate crash course, and it generally costs less than ten bucks. Most economists will agree that an unlimited amount of anything for less than ten bucks is a good deal. With your first round to the buffet, I recommend making a ‘sampler platter’ with a little bit of everything.  You can find out which foods taste better than they look and vise versa, then go back and fill a second plate with your favorites. Plus, you’ll know what to order next time.

3.     Watch out for spiciness— Personally I love spice, but on more than one occasion I’ve ordered or made Indian food for friends only to realize that none of them could stomach it (I’m not selling this very well, but trust me). Not all Indian cuisine is spicy, but it certainly isn’t afraid to venture into that territory. If spice isn’t your thing, don’t worry; there will still be plenty to eat. But I’d recommend asking how spicy a meal is before ordering it.

Now for the specifics. I usually think of Indian food as having two main components: you’ve got your starches, and you’ve got your goopy stuff. These aren’t official categories by any means, and there was probably a better word choice than ‘goopy stuff’ that I could have used, but these two categories cover it pretty well. The ‘goopy stuff’ is usually your entrĂ©e, such as curry or something tasty in tasty sauce. Many of these will be two words: one for the sauce, and one for what’s in it. Think fettuccini alfredo or huevos rancheros. This is the likely the strongest flavor in your meal, which you can dilute however much you want with your starches. That’s why most of them come with rice.

Some examples of sauces:

·      Masala--  a creamy tomato-based sauce, with a blend of other spices mixed in. This is like the Pad Thai of Indian food, and I highly recommend paneer, channa, or tikka (chicken) masala if you’re not sure what to try. It is sometimes spicy, but not always.

·      Palak-- creamed spinach sauce. If you can get past how green it is, palak is pretty mild and tasty.

·      Curry—a general word for a soupy collection of spices and veggies. This is often a separate category on the menu.

Some examples of stuff that goes in the sauces:

·      Paneer-- Indian cheese. This cheese is white, mild, and looks a little bit like tofu, but there’s a reason for all of that. Paneer has just enough flavor to complement the sauces and flavors that it goes with, but not enough to overpower them.

·      Dal-- lentils. A lot of Indian food uses brown, green or red lentils. These are a delicious and underrated vegetable, and a great source of protein.

·      Channa-- chickpeas. These go particularly well in a lot of different dishes.

·      Meat-- cooked animals. The most common meats used in Indian food are chicken and lamb. Because of the prevalence of Islam and Hindu in India, beef and pork are less common.

These are just a few words to look for, but truthfully there are a lot of other things to try. And whatever you get, you’ll have no shortage of things to dip in it.

·      Naan— a sort of flatbread cooked in a special oven called a tandoori. Most places offer a few variations of it, like garlic naan or paneer naan. If you remember no other advice from this blog post, let this be your takeaway: whatever you get, get naan. It’s like pita bread, but better. It’s cheap, it’s tasty, and you can use it as a plate or until for eating your goopy stuff.

·      Samosas— crispy, savory, pastry-like things with a delicious filling of peas, vegetables and spices.  Almost as important as naan, these are usually served as a side or an appetizer.

·      Rice— Indian food typically comes basmati rice, a variety with longer grains and more flavor than standard white rice. As with Thai or Chinese food, mixing rice into your food changes up the texture, makes it last longer, and cuts some of the spiciness.

Indian cuisine is one of the oldest culinary traditions in the world with an extremely diverse range of ingredients and influences. This guide only begins to scratch the surface, but hopefully it provided some useful tips on where to begin.

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