As an American, I must say my knowledge of Indian food was finite before coming to Asia. My only experience with the cuisine came from a few special occasions at the fancy “Bombay Exotic Cuisine” restaurant in San Diego and a rare trip to a hole in the wall take-out shop where I chose items just by pointing.
Though I enjoyed it, I had no idea what anything was called, and no idea if what I was eating was actually authentic.
After arriving in Korea, I frequented “Everest”, an Indian and Nepalese Restaurant in Seoul, with Simon and the many Brits I was friends with. When they couldn’t find decent fish and chips, Indian food was second in terms of “home comfort food.” It was there that I was exposed to a few more curries and dishes. Still, this only gave me a brief introduction to what I’d be getting myself into upon arrival on the Subcontinent this past February.
‘Aloo gobi’, ‘bhindi’ and ‘dal’ were all just words. Eating in India meant learning a language– a complex, extensive and diverse one at that. It took six weeks in the country for me to finally get a small grasp on “How to Speak Indian Food.” For someone to be fluent, I’m sure it would take years.
Though sometimes difficult, and other times painful (stomach cramps became frequent for me), experiencing Indian food at its source was an immersion in new flavors. Never have I said, “this is the best meal I’ve ever had” so many times. Never have I thought being a vegetarian was actually possible for me.
Below are the most common terms I came across while in the country. The terms for different meats (chicken/pork/mutton) always seemed to be in English, but everything else takes some memorization. Combining the words below should enable any fellow backpacker be able to order many popular curries in India and know what’s coming.
The Beginner’s Glossary
Aloo (Alu or Aaloo) : Potato.
Baingan Bhurta: Roasted eggplant.
Bhaji: From the south of India, these are fried battered vegetables often eaten as a starter. “Onion bhaji” is popular.
Bhindi: Okra, otherwise known as ‘ladyfingers’.
Biryani/biriyani: A basmati spiced rice based dish with either chicken, mutton, fish, eggs or vegetables. Similar to pulao, except all the ingredients are not typically cooked together but ‘layered’.
Chapatti/chapati : An unleavened flatbread. In different parts of India, it is often called “roti”.
Dal: A lentil curry, which is a staple for many people. ‘Dal baht’ refers to a lentil curry and rice, sometimes accompanied by a few side dishes.
Do piaza: A Mughal style curry meaning ‘double onions’.
Dosa: An Indian style pancake which is usually stuffed. A ‘masala dosa’ has a spiced potato filling.
Gulab jaman: A sweet desert of spongy milk balls soaked in a rose flavored syrup.
Kheer: A rice pudding made from milk, spices and nuts.
Kofta: A type of meatball mixed with spices and/or onions. “Malai Kofta” is the vegetarian version made from paneer and covered in creamy tomato gravy.
Korma: A mild curry characterized by a creamy yogurt based gravy.
Lassi/Lhassi: A yogurt based drink which can be sweet or tart.
Makhani: The term for a “butter” curry such as ‘butter masala’.
Masala: A combination of dried spices, or a paste made from spices and other ingredients such as onions, garlic and chili. A popular base for many curries.
Matar (or matta): Green peas.
Mewa: Dried fruits.
Naan: A leavened oven baked flatbread.
Pakora: From the north of India, pakora is similar to bhaji. This fried battered snack is usually made with vegetables but also sometimes paneer.
Paneer: Indian style cheese that is mild in flavor and usually cut into chunks to add to curry. Similar in texture and taste to queso fresco/blanco. It can also be compared texture-wise to tofu.
Papad/popadom: A thin, crispy snack, usually salty and disc-shaped. Accompanies a main dish.
Paratha/parantha: A pan fried unleavened flatbread, usually stuffed with different fillings such as potatoes and/or paneer.
Pilau/Pulao: A rice based dish similar to biryani, except all the ingredients are cooked together.
Samosa: Fried pastry typically stuffed with potatoes, spices and other vegetables. Sold frequently as street food or at road-side rest stops.
Tandoori: The way of cooking meat in a tandoori clay oven with spices and/or yogurt.
Thali: An Indian “menu of the day” usually including of 2-3 small sized curries, rice, pickled vegetables, yogurt and flatbread. Many times one curry will be dal, the next mixed vegetables and the last something more extravagant, such as paneer butter masala. Thali is usually a very cheap way to fill up.
Vindaloo/Vindalho: A popular Goan curry typically made with vinegar, spices and most often pork. Although vindaloo is coined as the spiciest curry in Western countries, in India it is not characterized by its heat but rather the tangy sauce.
- Anything with fresh paneer. This includes paneer butter masala and palak paneer.
- Aloo matar masala. You thought peas were boring, until you try these little green spheres cooked perfectly and blanketed in a warm savory sauce.
- Thali: When you can’t decide on a particular curry, order the thali. You’ll be able to try a few things, along with tart yogurt and pickled vegetables. If you can finish it, you can ask for more. Most places will refill your bowls.
- Garlic cheese naan: Nothing is better than scooping up a masala with a cheese filled doughy flatbread.
While in India, try as much as you can. Even though some of the vegetarian curries sound boring, they are far from that. Soon you’ll be describing vegetables with adjectives you only thought pertained to meat. Try as many new dishes as you can and I’m sure you’ll stumble upon something you won’t want to live without.
Have you been to India? Have I missed any words you think I should add?