Trying to break out of the picky-eaterness.
June 30, 2011 8:56 AM   Subscribe

Middle Eastern and Indian Cuisine Filter: I can't tolerate spicy food and I love chicken. What should I order?

I want to try new food! There is a bunch of middle eastern and indian restaurants that deliver to me and I would like to try to order from them. Unfortunately most of the menus I can find online don't specify what foods are spicy and which are not. I am too shy to call and ask them.

Traditionally speaking, are there specific chicken dishes that are usually not spicy or only very lightly spicy? What are they usually called? How about starch based dishes? (I am not a vegetable fan unless it happens to be carrots)

Is there some other word or phrase I should keep in mind?

Anecdotal: When I was much younger I went to a Middle Eastern Restaurant in Dearborn, MI. They had some american fare options and I picked one of those. One of family members ordered a chicken dish. This dish consisted of small pieces of boneless chicken that were coated in a non-spicy brown sauce that had an oily consistency to it. I tasted it and LOVED it. To this day, no one knows (not even the family member) the name of the dish or which restaurant we went to. I want to try more stuff like that dish!

My spicy tolerance level: If I eat more then 20 or so salt and pepper potato chips, my mouth feels like it's on fire.
posted by royalsong to Food & Drink (31 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Tandoori chicken is very entry-level Indian food, but delicious. From there, I'd move to Butter Chicken, or Chicken Makhani, but specify mild when you order it.
posted by ferociouskitty at 9:00 AM on June 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Butter chicken.
posted by ladybird at 9:00 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Middle eastern food does not tend to be spicy. Any grilled meat is going to be very simply seasoned, you can never go wrong with chicken, beef, or lamb souvlaki. I also like kofte/kefte which is like a sausage-shaped meatball that is grilled. I don't know the dish you're talking about, but I love Lebanese chicken frarej, which is roasted in a ton of olive oil, lemon, and tomatoes, usually served over rice. Shwarma is another common dish, usually chicken and/or lamb, also not spicy. Really, the only "spicy" thing I ever come across in US Mediterranean restaurants is a garlic paste/sauce made from raw garlic and so is hot like raw garlic, but it's always served on the side.

For people who don't like spicy food, I always recommend the korma at Indian restaurants. The sauce is almond and/or coconut milk. I've never had a spicy korma (though I've been asked as a matter of course how spicy I wanted my korma, to which I have always said none).
posted by Lyn Never at 9:03 AM on June 30, 2011

Makhani Masala.
posted by fire&wings at 9:03 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Honestly, any Indian restaurant that caters to non-Indians will be able to make food non-spicy for you. Based on what you liked before, I'd recommend ordering butter chicken or chicken tikki masala. Both have pieces of chicken in rich sauces. Just ask for them mild or not spicy.

It should come with rice and you can also order naan, which will further moderate any spice.
posted by lunasol at 9:04 AM on June 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Chicken shwarma isn't usually prepared to be especially spicy.

I like apps and sides and stuff, so, from the Indian places, be sure to try naan (flatbread) and samosas (turnoverish, usually stuffed with potato). From the Middle Eastern places, try pita (every culture has its flatbread) and either hummus or, my preference, baba ghanouj.

Spellings are anglicized and may vary, but these are all very standard American-ethnic-restaurant menu items.
posted by box at 9:05 AM on June 30, 2011

In every Indian restaurant I've ever been in (in the US), you can specify how spicy you want any given dish, usually on a scale from 1-6 or 1-10. My daughter used to not tolerate spice at all* and even a 1 would have some spice to it. We started asking for "no spice" and that worked just fine. My kids started out on Tikka Masala, Butter Chicken, and Paneer Makala (homemade Indian cheese cubes in a buttery, tomatoey sauce..mmmmm).

One caveat to consider is that many Indian restaurants will have spicy-ish appetizers, like samosas and fritters. You'll be safe with plain or garlic naan (or onion or paneer; stay away from the "spiced" ones).

*she eventually acclimated; perhaps you can too, if you'd like to!
posted by cooker girl at 9:15 AM on June 30, 2011

I can't stand too-spicy Indian food either, so you might enjoy Chicken Jalfrezi (low cal, except there are veggies) and Chicken Saag (creamier, lots of spinach), Mild. Seconding samosas and naan, or even better poori (big ol' zeppelin bread!)

I'm definitely going to try Butter Chicken next time.
posted by Sayuri. at 9:16 AM on June 30, 2011

Chicken korma is really really mild as in no spiciness at all and is common enough that they should do a decent job of it.
Peshwari Naan bread is actually sweet, yum yum!
posted by like_neon at 9:16 AM on June 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

Woah, just saw Sayuri's post. I don't know where you're from but in the UK jalfrezi is SPICY. The only thing spicier is a vindaloo. Stay away.

I also just thought, you may also enjoy a chicken biyriani which I consider like an Indian fried rice.
posted by like_neon at 9:19 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Chicken Korma, Chicken Tikka Masala or Butter chicken.

All three of those are supposed to be mild by default, but I have noticed some Indian restaurants offering you a choice of spicy level for every dish (which is weird because then you could have a mild vindaloo? does not compute). So if its one of those restaurants, you can order whatever you like and ask for it mild. But the above three dishes I named should be mild if the restaurant prepares it "traditionally". Note that Chicken Tikka Masala is a made-up dish that isn't even served in India, it was a British-Indian invention, to cater to non-Indian tastes. That might make it a good bet to start with.

Chicken Korma and Butter Chicken (I have a suspicion these are the same dishes masquerading under different names) are both a cream-based sauce, whereas Chicken Tikka Masala is a tomato-based sauce. All are good.
posted by Joh at 9:20 AM on June 30, 2011

Tikka masala is very, very popular in the UK but it may just be on the edge for you.

I like the coconut based dishes - passanda, korma, shawarma.
posted by mippy at 9:21 AM on June 30, 2011

I will nth the suggestion of Chicken Tikka Masala, which is usually hella mild, totally inauthentic as an actual piece of Indian cuisine, and HUMANKIND'S GREATEST CULINARY ACHEIVEMENT. Get some extra naan to sop up the sauce afterwards.
posted by Greg Nog at 9:22 AM on June 30, 2011 [8 favorites]

As everyone else is going to tell you, in Indian food Butter Chicken is the ultimate non-spicy (or at least rarely spicy) chicken dish. It's so good that it doesn't even matter that it's not hot. Most of the non-meat dishes are usually quite good too and, even for carnivores, and they are not typically spicy. Chana Masala (made from chick peas) and any Saag dish (made from spinach) are my favourites. Indian vegetable dishes are made with a lot of oil and have a very savoury, meaty taste even though they are technically meatless.

Any Indian restaurant will be disappointed, but perfectly happy to prepare most dishes "extra mild" if you ask for it. They're used to hearing it a lot so they often store the prepared food mild and only add the hit spice at the end.

Most middle eastern food isn't naturally spicy. Often a hot sauce will be added, but that's completely optional. The chicken dish you describe was certainly Chicken Shawarma, which is a very common middle-eastern street food. The brown, oily sauce that you recall sounds like how the chicken fat browns on the surface of the meat as it cooks on a large spit (oh... so tasty), but it might have been some other sauce since these things vary regionally. Around here, Shawarma is typically served with Tahini Sauce (looks white and creamy, made mostly from sesame paste) and hot sauce added as it's served.
posted by dodecapus at 9:27 AM on June 30, 2011

Nthing tandoori chicken (basically the Indian equivalent of roast chicken, with a distinctly Indian flavor but typically no spicy heat) and tikka masala (chunks of chicken in a mild, creamy tomato-based sauce with lots of flavor, but again no heat).
posted by maxim0512 at 9:39 AM on June 30, 2011

Most Indian restaurants have lunch buffets. If you can, just go to one of the restaurants and try a bunch of things. Get a mango lassi (a yogurty mango drink) and drink it if you accidentally eat something really spicy.
posted by asphericalcow at 9:46 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Middle Eastern food (at least what traditionally comes under that banner in my neck of the woods*) is not typically spicy at all unless the menu specifies it as such or it's called "Extra Spicy Chicken Kabobs" or something. You can't go wrong with a schwarma or souvlaki, or most things labeled "skewer" or "kebab".

Indian food is a total crapshoot. In my opinion, very little on an Indian menu, with the exception of vindaloo, is spicy. On the other hand, I know people who don't like spicy food who insist that Chicken Tikka Masala, Tandoori Chicken, and Chicken Korma are all way too spicy. Anything called "makhani" or "butter [protein item]" is probably the mildest thing you're going to find on the menu. "Dopiaza", which means "with onions" is also a good bet, if you like onions.
posted by Sara C. at 9:49 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sorry, that asterisk was going to be a disclaimer that "middle eastern" and "mediterranean" cuisine tends to vary widely from place to place. Here in New York, it tends to only be food from the Arab Middle East proper - so no Greek, no Moroccan, probably not Turkish, nothing from the Balkans. More and more, not even Israeli.

But someone else in a recent thread described Chicken Paprikash (a Hungarian dish) as classic Middle Eastern cuisine. So it's fully possible that your local Middle Eastern restaurant has a bunch of spicy dishes that none of us are thinking of as falling under that rubric.
posted by Sara C. at 9:58 AM on June 30, 2011

Well, in Michigan, most of the middle eastern restaurants are Lebanese or Syrian. We have yet to find anything spicy on the menu. Even the garlic sauce isn't that spicy, and a lot of places only give it to you if you specifically ask for it. As for vegetable dishes, karnabeet is great - it's cauliflower fried until it's brown, and it's not oily at all when done right, just delicious. Usually a tahini-based sauce is drizzled on top.

Oh wait, I just remembered, there is a spicy Syrian sausage called sujuk - it's not a common menu item, but that would be the one thing for you to stay away from. Although the menus always point out anything spicy.
posted by needled at 10:10 AM on June 30, 2011

I find Indian food to be spicy in a different way to black pepper or Mexican food spicy. There's less tongue burning and more throat warmth.

That said, tikka masala anything is usually going to be mild. Paneer tikka masala is cheese cubes in delicious gravy and it is the best thing ever. Most Indian restaurants will temper the heat of a lot of dishes if you ask them to make it not spicy.
posted by elsietheeel at 10:34 AM on June 30, 2011

Our new Indian place serves a VERY SPICY butter chicken, so please be careful and DO NOT BLINDLY ORDER THIS DISH EXPECTING SOMETHING MILD. One of the problems with these dishes is that the sauce is often prepared ahead of time and pre-spiced. It can't be "unspiced" and the level of spiciness will just depend on the place you're getting it. Unlike cooker girl's experience, none of the Indian restaurants I've eaten at have ever been willing to accommodate someone who had a spice preference.

I also take issue with descriptions of what people are giving you in terms of "tandoori chicken." Based on your description of what you consider spicy - salt and pepper potato chips don't even register on most people's "Spicy Meter" - I think you may personally find tandoori chicken too spicy. My mother makes it using fresh chiles, and the recipe involves marinating them overnight so that they intensify in spiciness. And in order to determine if this was just a weird practice in our family or not, I spot checked a handful of recipes on Google and found that all of them call for some sort of cayenne pepper or serrano chile or a good deal of black pepper. That's in addition to a lot of other flavors, like ginger and onion, which can themselves be considered spicy. And of course, the crux of any tandoori chicken recipe is going to be the garham masala, which is a blend of spices which you may or may not find tolerable. It is only slight hyperbole to say that this spice blend goes in everything in Indian cooking.

Ultimately, you are really going to need to have a conversation with someone who works in your local Indian food restaurant if you want to know if it is a doable thing. They are there to help you. They aren't going to lie to you. They aren't going to judge you and slam down the phone if you call and ask what their mildest chicken dish is. They want your business. They want to find you something that you love so that you will come back and order it six nights a week.

Another dish that you might ask about is "biryani" which is a rice that is very flavorful but seemingly not made with chiles. Again, like all these dishes, I'm sure it varies by location and chef, but it's possible that it is sweet, savory and citrus-y.
posted by jph at 10:37 AM on June 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hey - did you know you could "Spice Train"?

As you sample more foods with a hint of spice, eventually, you'll get used to it and be able to tolerate even more spiciness! It takes years tho, so don't over do it:)


Suggestions above are good, but make sure you ask about the spiciness of any rice Biryani dish - I still find them sometimes amazingly hot.

Avoid Merguez sausage. It's a French/Moroccan/Middle Eastern lamb sausage that will kick your ass, spice-wise.
posted by jbenben at 10:48 AM on June 30, 2011

For Indian food: I second tandoori chicken, chicken korma, chicken tikka masala, and butter chicken. As others have mentioned, these can be spicy, but are usually not (at least, not in most restaurants in the United States). Most places around here do the spice-level thing, but even those that don't are usually accommodating if you mention you don't like spice.

I would also suggest you order a a bowl of raita -- this is yogurt sauce with cucumber and mint, and is a traditional way to cut the spice of whatever you're eating. Tandoori chicken, briyani or rice, plain naan, and some raita to spoon over everything would be perfect for a first Indian meal... and if you're with someone with a higher tolerance for spice, you could order korma or tikka masala to go with it, and try a bit with some raita and rice.
posted by vorfeed at 11:40 AM on June 30, 2011

I think the best thing you can do in your situation is go to the restaurant(s) a couple times; they'll typically bend over backwards to accommodate you, especially if you show them the same enthusiasm you're showing here. Let them help you explore.
posted by mkultra at 11:55 AM on June 30, 2011

If you want a braised/curry-like dish that isn't tomato-based like butter chicken or tikka masala, chicken korma has a creamy, sometimes yogurt base and a much milder spice profile with good flavor from cardamon, coriander, etc.
posted by deludingmyself at 12:14 PM on June 30, 2011

I cannot believe the answers people have given!

" Chicken Korma, Chicken Tikka, Biryani??" Each one of these dishes has more spices than a bag of salt & pepper chips x2 - way more cause apparently these dishes are most popular among Indian people. They prefer only spicy food, so think about that.

I've tried to find non-spicy Indian food and the only dish that ever came close was chicken tandoori, and it was still spicy ... even some of the indian desserts have hot spice in them!

Stick with the Middle Eastern options, you'll have plenty of choices.
posted by Kruger5 at 12:50 PM on June 30, 2011

I just wanted to mention, as a non-spice tolerate at basically the same level as you, in my experience, that asking the restaurant or requesting "mild" doesn't work. It still comes back spicy. The problem is that someone who's been eating and enjoying spicy food for a lifetime has a totally different perception of "spicy". At a certain level what you consider mind-blowing is almost imperceptible to them. Sometimes I complain that something is spicy that wasn't marked as such and the response is "That is not spicy."

Trial and error and slow acclimation has been all I can do in a spicy world.
posted by bleep at 1:16 PM on June 30, 2011

My fave Indian place here makes tandoori chicken that's actually very spicey. There's a bite to the butter chicken as well. The things on the menu that aren't spicy are mostly veg dishes, including anything and everything with paneer. I've also found biryanis to be almost always mild, Kruger5.

Middle Eastern food isn't inherently spicy. You can certainly MAKE it spicy with harissa, hot peppers, some places even use sriracha on they sfeehas and shawarmas, but you have to REQUEST that and it's spiced up (in my experience, in middle-eastern restos in Canada) ONLY if you agree to it. So that would be a safer choice than Indian for you.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 3:51 PM on June 30, 2011

posted by dougrayrankin at 4:04 PM on June 30, 2011

About the spices in Indian food:
some dishes have chili-like hotness, but some have a ginger-based "bite", which some people call "spicy" and others don't. Indian restaurants vary in how much ginger they use, so if you found a place that has dishes it calls "mild" that still feel too spicy, you might be responding to the ginger or some other "bitey" ingredient.

The term "gravy" is used to mean "creamy sauce" in some Indian restaurants. These sauces are usually made with ghee (clarified butter) and other ingredients like tomato or nuts; they aren't meat-based gravies of the type you would find in a gravy boat in US cuisine.

I agree with the suggestion to try out an Indian lunch buffet. Usually there will be ten or so dishes that you can sample for a reasonable price. Get a plate, get some rice, and then take a dainty spoonful of each dish. (Or, ask the staff to point out the mild dishes.) Get a mango lassi (yogurt-based milkshake that will cut any spiciness), and get some raita (a yogurt-based sauce, nice and cool), and take small bites to start with - use these anti-spice weapons to cut any spiciness.

There is a common starter called papadum: large flat thin crisp cracker, beige with dark spots. It's made of lentil flour and has bits of black pepper in it. It's tasty but sort of similar to salt and pepper potato chips. Typically you might break it into pieces, and put a bit of brown (tamarind) chutney on a bit-size piece of it to eat.

You will often see three jam-like condiments on the table at an Indian restaurant in the US:
brown: tamarind sauce, sweet and mild
bright green: mint, cilantro, may be spicy
red/orange: onion or mango, may be hot

I'd suggest trying a bit of the tamarind on your first try and see if you like it.

If you like carrots, there is a lovely carrot-based dessert that you sometimes get at buffets too - shredded carrots with condensed milk and honey(?), super-sweet. The rice pudding is also yummy. (Be aware that Indian desserts are typically VERY sweet, so you only want a little to start with)

Among vegetarian dishes:
Many people have mentioned mutter paneer (tomato-based creamy sauce over small chunks of cheese and green peas), which is a good fallback.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:17 PM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, you say "how about starch based dishes". The way most Indian food works is you put a pile of rice on your plate, and then several spoonfuls of your sauce-based dish over the rice. Then each forkful you eat is part rice and part your sauce-based dish. (There are some exceptions to this - tandoori chicken is just a chicken, it doesn't come as chicken-plus-sauce.) You can also do this with naan, which is a lovely buttery flat bread.

In most Indian restaurants, rice comes automatically as part of your meal. In some you'll have to order it separately. It should say on the menu or you can ask. ("Does this come with rice?")

Pakoras are fried appetizers, they can include fried veggies or fried meats or fried cheese (paneer) - typically these are non-spicy and I would eat them with some of the condiments I mentioned above.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:25 PM on June 30, 2011

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