Intro to Indian Food
April 28, 2005 8:03 PM   Subscribe

I am an Indian cuisine virgin. All I know is that there's curry involved. What is the best way to get introduced to it with a representative sampling? Are there single dishes that will give me a good idea whether I will like the genre as a whole?

-Bonus points for tips involving eateries in the Saint Louis, MO area.
-I'm not ready yet to try to cook anything myself - I wouldn't want to do it wrong, then swear off Indian because I can't make it right.
-Also, I like spicy as well as hot (sure there's a difference!) but not too hot. Not so hot you can't taste anything after the first bite. More like a medium+.
posted by attercoppe to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Answer to your 'genre' question:

No. Becuase that's like saying "is there a representative sampling of North American cuisine?"

Indian cuisine, much like Italian, is regional. There isn't really an overarching "this is what Indian food is."

Your best bet? Find a bunch of the Indian restaurants in St Louis. Out of those, pick the ones that the immigrant Indian population goes to. Then tell the waiters that you don't know much, you're new to Indian food, and to introduce you to what's good.

Also, will help you a lot.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 8:17 PM on April 28, 2005

The first time I ever had Indian food, I was with a friend who was knowledgeable about the various entrees on the menu. She gave me suggestions and pointers, and I enjoyed the meal greatly. That's one way to do it; another way is to try an Indian lunch buffet. A lot of Indian restaurants have these, and it's a great opportunity to sample various dishes without the risk of ending up with an entire plate of something you don't like. In my experience, the buffets tend to be on the medium spicy side (probably so that they appeal to as many diners as possible). If you're ordering off the menu, you can specify your desired level of spiciness to the waiter.

As dirtynumbangelboy said, Indian cuisine varies from region to region, and has a wide variety of dishes to choose from. Not all are spicy or curry-based. There's bound to be something you'll enjoy in one category or another.
posted by Aster at 8:21 PM on April 28, 2005

Best answer: India is like Europe. A hodgepodge of cultures, distinct yet sharing a common lineage. Same for cuisine. But typically, only 2 forms of Indian cuisine are exported, North Indian a.k.a. Punjabi and South Indian. There's also regional cuisines like Gujarati or Konkani or Bengali..etc. 90% of Indian eateries abroad (i.e. outside India) are Punjabi, although they are rarely, explicitly earmarked as that. They just specify themselves as Indian. Typically, the core of a Punjabi meal is a Sabzi + Naan i.e. a vegetable preparation + some bread. There's also 'dal' a.k.a. 'curry' which is a specific type of dish, but wrongly misappropriated in the West to mean all vegetable dishes with curry in them. Many sabzis are curry-based, but not all.

Onto practical advice, look for a regular Indian restaurant to get a sampling of pseudo-Punjabi cuisine. Look for places offering (Gujarati) 'thali/thaali'. Look for places offering dosas/idlis for South Indian cuisine.
posted by Gyan at 8:25 PM on April 28, 2005

Best answer: Indian cuisine is hard to sample via just one dish. The country is very diverse, and thus the cuisine differs from north to south, from east to west.

Curry is wrongly used outside of India, there is only one lentil soup known as curry and that too is Sindhi Curry. Curry actually is a mix of spices commonly known in India as garam masala (hot spice mix). This masala is used widely all over India, and known as curry powder in the west.

North Indian cuisine is what people typically think of when they think of Indian food. The cuisine typically includes kiln baked (tandoor) bread such as naans, parathas, rotis and "vegetables" (such as Malai Kokta, Chicken Tikka Masala, Butter Chicken, Navratan Korma, etc), which are then divided into non-vegetarian dishes and vegetarian dishes.

South Indian cuisine is more popular because of their breakfast menu, which includes dosas, idli, medu vada, etc. These are incredibly popular all over India, and outside the south, people actually have 'em for lunch and dinner too. Along with dosas you get sambar (hot lentil dipping soup) and coconut chutney. Their regular meals are rice based, non-vegetarian fares include fish.

Western Indian or Bengali cuisine is again rice and fish based. They have excellent fish based dishes, which are popular in the west as fish curries.

Eastern Indian cuisine is again split up into subsections, Maharashtrian cuisine is rice based. Rajasthani cuisine is slightly dry on the whole. Gujarati cuisine, which Indians from India who aren't Gujaratis (with roots linking back to the state of Gujarat or residents of the state of Gujarat), the menu includes wonderfully fluffy rotis, dhoklas, fritters, a typical yellow daal (lentil soup) that is wonderful with rotis, veggies, and rice, many different kinds of vegetarian vegetable based dishes including the ever popular Undhyo, which is probably the most favourite Gujarati dish.

I would recommend you visit a good quality North Indian restaurant, and start out with butter chicken (mild), chicken tikka masala (spicy), malai kofta (vegetarian and mild), palak paneer (spinach and cottage cheese, vegetarian, usually mild) or alu palak (spinach and potatoes, veggie, and usually mild), with ma ki daal aka black daal (usually mild or medium spicy) with saffron rice and butter naan. For starters have kababs and vegetarian samosas (not the one with chicken in it).

Always remember the following, with Indian cusine you usually eat with your hands, and hardly touch the cutlery, and most importantly mithai (sweet treats or just sweets) are meant to be consumed with the meal not as a dessert, this helps balance out the heat. Raita (yogurt based dish) is also good to battle the spice.

Enjoy! :)
posted by riffola at 8:26 PM on April 28, 2005 [3 favorites]

Er I skipped a few words...

Gujarati cuisine, which Indians from India who aren't Gujaratis (with roots linking back to the state of Gujarat or residents of the state of Gujarat) are big fans of.
posted by riffola at 8:30 PM on April 28, 2005

Go with a friend, have one person order Chicken Masala, the other order Lamb Korma. Get a dahl appetizer/soup course, and maybe Ras Gulla for dessert. Make sure you get naan with your meal. That should get you in the spirit of things.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:31 PM on April 28, 2005

Oh and don't order all the dishes I mentioned at once unless you are with a big group. For two people, two dishes (vegetables) are just fine along with black dal.
posted by riffola at 8:32 PM on April 28, 2005

At Indian restaurants in the US, you can certainly eat with a fork and knife if you're more comfortable doing it that way, just like you can choose whether or not to use chopsticks at US Chinese restaurants.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 8:34 PM on April 28, 2005

You should try eating with your hand, since that way, you have to envelope the sabzi with the naan, or dip the naan into the daal, and then eat that. Fork and knife, generally means eating them in sequential order, which I don't think provides the same experience. What I'm saying is that the naan is the evolution of a functional equivalent, not just a style.
posted by Gyan at 8:40 PM on April 28, 2005

or you could order a bunch of appetizer/tapas type things--samosas, pakoras, bhajias...or order appetizer sized portions of main dishes.
posted by amberglow at 9:06 PM on April 28, 2005

I second the "just go to restaurants and order different dishes" suggestion. If you're a couple, just order a couple of dishes, rice and naan. No need to get fancy with the rice and naan the first times out. Regular old naan is pretty damn good just by itself. :)

My husband and I usually pick one vegetarian dish like one of the myriad lentil dishes or saag paneer or aloo gohbi and then a meat disk -- lamb curries, chicken tikka masala, tandoor chicken, etc. Rice+naan and two dishes is *plenty* of food for two people. Each time we go we try to order different things, although I do have old standbys that I get if not adventurous that night (channa masala, saag paneer). If you get something hot-spicy, you might want some raita (yogurt sauce) for cooling if it would go (I love the stuff and would say it goes with anything...) Apparently most of the stuff we've been ordering is northern indian, not southern. Although Kennedy's Irish Pub & Indian Curry House in San Francisco serves dosa, so I guess we are going to have to try it. :)

The lunch buffet suggestion is great as well - the one I go to most often usually has 2-3 rice varieties, 6-8 vegetarian dishes, 3-4 meat/fish dishes, a dessert or three, and various side things like fruit, raita, different random appetizer type things, etc. Plus they serve fresh naan at every table. Plenty to choose from and you can take just a little bit of lots of things. Unfortunately, this place is in San Rafael, CA. :(

BTW, I used to 'hate" Indian food. I say "hate" because I had only went once and had a bad experience -- and refused to go again whenever my husband suggested it (even to different restaurants). Now I love it. It's a tossup whether Indian, Thai or Japanese is my favorite food (I love all of them more than the food I was raised on).

posted by R343L at 9:21 PM on April 28, 2005

Butter chicken is sometimes called chicken makhani, isn't it? Yeah, try to have some of that. It's la bamba.
posted by clockzero at 10:19 PM on April 28, 2005

Yeah, makhan = butter.
posted by Gyan at 10:44 PM on April 28, 2005

clockzero - I'm a big fan of Indian food (actually, any food that's got loads of flavour...) but only recently had a chicken makhani for the first time... very, very nice. Slightly sweet, very tasty, pleasant level of spiciness.

attercoppe - once you've tried (and enjoyed) your "real" Indian meal, I'd definitely recommend getting a good cook book. They're really easy to make, and taste fantastic.
Even some of the jars/sauces are pretty good - although you can't beat buying the spices yourself and making up a proper mix...
posted by Chunder at 2:15 AM on April 29, 2005

I always recommend that "newbies" order chicken tikka masala (which I understand is actually an English/Indian invention). They have never been disappointed.

It's also my personal fav, but there is lots of great tasting Indian food. Like suggested before, bring a bunch of people, order different stuff, and share. Also, the nan bread is super tasty.

OK, I'm going out for Indian tonight!
posted by qwip at 5:02 AM on April 29, 2005

If you like the mildness, you might like a malai; I'm partial to chicken malai, myself.
Vindaloo is usually at least a little spicy (most Indian restaurants here will ask you to specify how much spiciness you want). My wife frequently gets lamb bhuna, which is very good.
As with other asian foods, spellings will be approximate. Korma might be spelled kurma, etc.
Buffet is really your best bet; there are a lot of pretty foreign flavors and textures in Indian food, and you don't want to pay for portions of something that might repell you. Find a good Indian restaurant, then see if they have a weekend buffet (my favorite one here in NJ does just that).
Before you know it, you'll be eating goat on purpose.
posted by willpie at 6:45 AM on April 29, 2005

Best answer: In St. Louis, you can try Gokul, its on Olive Road or in that general area, you should google it and call first for hours. I used to go there all the time. Its vegetarian and they often have a lunch buffet, although I'd recommend ordering off the menu. Its not upscale in the least, but the prices are decent and they have a wide variety; people are nice, just ask them for advice. Also in that area (not on Olive but one of those roads that run parallel to Olive, can't remember the name), there is a Pakistani restaurant, which might be called 'Indian Food' or something like that. (Think it was originally called Jinnah House.) Might be worth a try if you want chicken/lamb, etc. I've never been there but heard its good. Sorry for the vagueness on that one.

Also, the HoJo (I think) near the airport has a buffet on the top floor on the weekends, they usually have some South Indian (dosa and idlis) and tons of North Indian selections. India's Rasoi (one in CWE and one in Clayton) also has a lunch buffet, but I think the food is greasy. (Not a problem unique to this restaurant.) But the people at Rasoi are nice and used to having lots of caucasian Americans eat there. St. Louis is a bit behind in the development of slightly more authentic Indian restaurants but the appearance of Gokul and the aforementioned Pakistani restaurant are good signs; not sure what else has opened up since I left a year ago.
posted by hellacious at 7:33 AM on April 29, 2005

If you like heat, I'd recommend lamb vindaloo. And definitely have some garlic naan.
posted by jonmc at 7:54 AM on April 29, 2005

I always recommend that "newbies" order chicken tikka masala (which I understand is actually an English/Indian invention). They have never been disappointed.

Me too. A warning, though: if you go to a restaurant with any pretensions to authenticity, the waiter may roll his eyes when you order it, and perhaps even coax you to "try the Chicken Shahjahani!" (or whatever). This is because 90% of the people who come in order chicken tikka masala (it's the "spaghetti and meatballs" of Indian-American cuisine) and the waiter is sick of writing it down and the chef is sick of making it -- his entire goal in life is to get Americans to experience his favorite regional specialties, and all they want to eat is chicken tikka masala. Do not let this deter you. When you've gotten comfortable with the basics and are ready to branch out, you'll be grateful for this chef's expertise, and he'll be grateful to you for actually ordering the specials he's been lovingly perfecting, but there's no better way to start than chicken tikka masala, and even after you've discovered the amazing cultural mix of Goan cuisine and the delights of Madras sambars, you'll still order it from time to time, because it's goood.
posted by languagehat at 8:40 AM on April 29, 2005

Cooking your own curries is not difficult. You can pick up Madhur Jaffrey's "Ultimate Curry Bible" (try the Curried Whole Chicken, Durban Style on p. 80, which is now one of my favourite party pieces) or you can purchase curry paste (I use Patak's I used to prepare my own spices from scratch, but found these pastes did the work for me). You can get these from an on-line store in the US and use the recipes on their web-site.
posted by TimothyMason at 10:01 AM on April 29, 2005

Whatever you do, friend, when the waitor asks you how spicy you want the food, remember the magic word: "mild." You may be thinking, as I once did "but I love spicy food. Tobasco sauce! Taco Smell! YUM!" Not so. The first time I ordered Indian food, I asked for hot. My white face was enough for the waitor, who was kind enough not to double over in laughter, to ask me if I've eaten Indian food before. He even managed to keep a straight face when, after I answered no, he said "I'll make it mild." "Mild" was enough to bring tears to my eyes. Now after spending tons of time around Pakistanis (who seem to love to feed people at every opportunity) I have graduated to "Medium." Just remember the magic word and enjoy your dinner. This is a supa-fine cuisine!
posted by leapingsheep at 10:52 AM on April 29, 2005

I'll second India's Rasoi in St. Louis, and the garlic naan.

Hellacious: I wish i had known of Gokul before i left...sounds great.
posted by schyler523 at 11:15 AM on April 29, 2005

One thing to remember: Indians usually eat rice or Naan, not both, with their meal. Naan, though it looks small, is incredibly filling. Pick one or the other and your waist line will thank you.
posted by haqspan at 12:40 PM on April 29, 2005


Luncheon buffet, of course. Can't only be an east coast thing, someone mentioned California. If they truly don't exist in your area- clearly time to move.
posted by IndigoJones at 3:10 PM on April 29, 2005

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