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Please educate me regarding Indian cuisine

Hi all,
I was raised by parents who dry a roast out in my honor when I come home. My husband was raised by very traditional Chinese parents. We are both now free wheeling foodies, but somehow our education has never included Indian cuisine. We will be in London in a couple of weeks and figure it is a good city for that education. We have copied your recs for Indian restaurants. However, we know that if a non-food-educated person goes into Chinese restaurant, he/she wouldn't know what the yummy food is. In fact, the first proper question, wouldn't even be asked - what type of Chinese cuisine are we talking about? We assume that an Indian restaurant would be similar. So, can you please educate us so that we can educate our palates? What are the different types of Indian cuisine and what are the yummy insider dishes for each area? We can do spicy (really).

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  1. those are all good questions.

    the word 'indian' cuisine is as much an anomaly as 'european' cuisine.

    let me know what restaurants are on your list and i'll tell you what to look for.

    1. I've found that reading good "indian" cookbooks has been helpful in explaining some aspects of the cuisine and has taught me how to order in restaurants. The cuisine is too vast for simple explanation here. But, particularly helpful is gaining an understanding of the regions---north vs south, the many different states (and even new countries) that are in the region and there are religious influences as well (great flavorful vegetarian dishes are an example). Also I took a cooking class and that was helpful in that the south indian teacher answered every question that our group had on the subject. The one thing that I have learned is that we don't get much variety here in the US--mainly northern is offered in restaurants, although this limitation is just now starting to change.

      I can't wait to be in London to get my fill of this cuisine. I especially want to try some Southern Indian restaurants. Howler--any in South Ken area?

      1. but lets try and get across the sheer diversity anyway.

        europe (ex russia) is 3.5 milliom square km. india is 3.2 million square km. india has 28 states, each one of which is like a seperate country with its own language/dialect, cuisine etc.

        and just as provencal cooking is very distinct from alsatian, it is entirely possible for a given state to possess myriad seperate styles.

        indian cuisine lives in peoples homes, not in restaurants. the recipes are passed on from mother to daughter-in-law over generations. indians go out to eat mainly as a break from routine, which is why the restaurants have nothing to do with regular food - they are meant to be something completely different. for better or worse, the restaurants that succeeded were those with pretensions to 'royal cuisine': the courts of delhi or hyderabad or lucknow. the upshot is the north indian restaurant we all know with all the rich, creamy stuff in it. NOTHING to do with how indians actually eat.

        indians are mainly vegetarians; even meat eaters will eat meat thrice a week at most. and vegetables are tough to cook - meat is easy. thats a tip for you: to see how good a cook is, see how he handles his vegetables. even the most stereo typical north indian restaurant should have alu gobi, dal, mutter paneer and roti on the menu. THATS the tough stuff, not the rogan josh.

        finally, sorry no tamilian/keralan restaurants in south ken. but quilon in buckingham gate is competent keralan.

        1 Reply
        1. re: howler

          I disagree with "even meat eaters will eat meat thrice a week at most". India has one of the largest Muslim populations in the world and most Muslim frinds I have grew up eating meat everyday. And it isnt just a Muslim thing....Bengalis, people along the south west coast of India (like Mangalore)eat meat and fish everyday of the week. Infact for most Mangaloreans, beakfast is often some kind of fish curry with appams, idlis or sannas. East Indians (the original catholic inhabitants of Bombay)have meat everyday - whether its pork, beef, chicken, etc.

        2. Do you already live in England? If you are from the US, it is worth noting that the Indian in the UK is very different than the Indian in the US. They have been tailored to the local tastes and raw materials, and have different qualities. If you find a fave dish in London, it may be very different when you get back to the states.


          1. It's as complicated as Chinese food, yes. Here's Wikipedia's summary outline of Indian and Pakistani regional cuisines:

            North India

            Punjabi – Mughlai – Rajasthani –
            Kashmiri – Bhojpuri – Benarasi – Bihari

            South India

            Kerala – Tamil – Andhra –

            East India

            Bengali – Assamese – Oriya –
            North Eastern

            West India

            Goa – Gujarati – Maharashtrian –
            Malvani – Parsi


            Overseas – Historical – Jain (Satvika) –
            Anglo-Indian – Chettinad – Fast food

            1. There are generally 2 types of indian restaurants in the US : north Indian and South Indian. I haven't really seen any other regions represented, at least here in SoCal. Hubby has cousins living in London, and they have told us that the indian food here is different than the food there. In London, the food is more traditional, like home cooking, whereas here it tends to be things the average Indian Mom doesn't make at home. They were surprised at all the cream based dishes we have here. Indian food in England is so common since there are so many Indians there (for example, Chicken Tikka Masala is a British invention!).

              If you want to start off with basics, here are my recommendations. (Keep in mind that I am Punjabi, so I'm more familiar with North Indian dishes, but I love South indian food as well).

              North Indian:
              Dal Makhani - black lentils cooked with kidney beans and butter
              Chicken Makhani - chicken in tomato/butter sauce
              Palak Paneer - Spinach with Indian cottage cheese
              Aloo Gobi - Potato and Cauliflower
              Bengan Bharta - mashed eggplant
              Raita - yogurt with cucumber (usually, could be other types as well)
              Saag Gosht - Lamb cooked in spinach
              Bhindi - okra/ladyfingers
              Malai Kofta - vegetable dumplings in cream sauce
              Shahi Paneer - Indian Cottage Cheese in a cream sauce
              Biriyani - Veggies, Chicken or Lamb slow cooked with basmati rice, onions, and sometimes nuts and raisins

              South Indian:
              Dosa - rice/lentil crepe
              Masala Dosa - Dosa stuffed with spiced potatoes
              Sambhar - lentils cooked with tamarind and veggies
              upma - semolina cooked with veggies
              uttapam - pancake type with tomatoes and onions
              rasam - tamarind water with spices (good for digestion)
              idli - steamed rice/lentil patties
              vada - fried rice/lentil donuts
              coconut chutney - served with dosa, idli and vadas

              1. Here in the San Francisco area we have Pakistani, South Indian, Gujarati, Fijian-Indian, chaat, Indo-Chinese, an upscale place that rotates various regional dishes, plus a couple of others I can't remember.

                Here's another site with info on regional cuisines:


                1. I envy you. It's always exciting to dive into a major cuisine that you haven't experienced before. I am by no means an expert on Indian food, but I love it. Having eaten quite a bit over the past 30 years or so, your query about regional cuisines is very much to the point. But there is nothing wrong with taking baby steps at first, and trying the items that most tempt your palate, or ones you've heard about.

                  A few things I admire about Indian cuisine, in general:

                  1. The rice. Basmati rice, so different from short-grain Chinese rice, is delicious,with a wonderful texture. I'm lucky enough to have access to homemade sun-dried pickle from India, made from the humblest ingredients, and a heaping plate of rice with a few tablespoons of the incendiary chili or lemon pickle is more than enough to make me happy. Biriani, a festival dish of sorts, is available at just about any Northern Indian restaurant and is a favorite when I'm introducing newbies to Indian food. Think of it as Indian paella, with a more complex spice palette, and frankly, more fat.

                  2. Every meal encompasses many different tastes. As Howler mentions, Indian cuisine is predominantly vegetarian, but it also is a condiment and side-dish nation. For example, dosas are a popular snack or light meal, and you can often choose to have these wonderful pancake/breads stuffed with various vegetables. But you get also get them plain or with rice flour instead of the more common lentil flour, or with spices. And the dosas usually are accompanied by sambar and a chutney (usually coconut). But dosa podi, a simple paste of ground chilies and clarified butter, is so good that I don't like to mess around with fillings in dosas. When I've eaten Indian in homes, the profusion of dishes (often simple in and of themselves, but dazzling in combination with other simple dishes with different flavor components) is exciting -- almost like an Indian equivalent of rijstaffel. I would guess that most Indians would look at a big slab of meat and a baked potato and not comprehend why we aren't bored.

                  3. Sauces and gravies are important, not an afterthought. Breads are important, not an afterthought.

                  There are a lot of *really* bad Indian restaurants out there, and unfortunately most folks associate Indian food with "curry powder." In fact, the variety of foods can be astonishing. I hope you report back on your adventures.

                  1. bingo, bulls eye!

                    fyi, 'basmati' literally means 'earth smell'. rice, dal and pickle is wonderful student/bachelor fare.

                    "When I've eaten Indian in homes, the profusion of dishes (often simple in and of themselves, but dazzling in combination with other simple dishes with different flavor components) is exciting -- almost like an Indian equivalent of rijstaffel. I would guess that most Indians would look at a big slab of meat and a baked potato and not comprehend why we aren't bored."

                    yes, yes, yes.

                    it took us indian students an enormously long time to appreciate steak - as you point out, we couldn't understand the point of eating a big slab of unflavoured meat. and i STILL despise baked potato.

                    1. I didn't try Indian food until my early 20's but I now eat Indian/Pakistani food at least 4 times a week (prob in no small part because I am married to a Punjabi).

                      I wasn't too impressed with my first Indian food outing. The flavors were so different than anything I was used to. Perhaps I ordered the wrong thing right out of the gate or perhaps the restaurant I went to wasn't the best. My 2nd Indian food experience was much better and since then I've been addicted.

                      One thing I've learned from my husband and friends is eating food with bread. They use the bread as a utensil of sorts... my husband doesn't use any silverware at all while eating his aloo ghobi. He takes a piece of bread and scoops up some food and places the bread and food in his mouth.

                      1. cutlery is not an indian convenience.

                        we eat everything with our right hand. and believe it or not, there are different styles for doing so. us maharastrians would think it highly uncouth if someone got up from the table with more than the tips of their fingers soiled. on the other hand, tamilians are known to slurp the milk that makes it to the side of their hands from milk'n rice (this might be urban legend, but we all grew up SURE that tamilians eat like that).

                        the only people who use cutlery by convention are parsis.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: howler

                          Years ago I tried this at a very elegant restaurant in Bombay, thinking to impress everyone with my sophistication, and was met instead with looks of horror. Later I was the guest at an ultramodern house near Delhi, and when I saw the complete place setting at everyone's plate I didn't even try the hand thing.

                        2. No one's yet mentioned that many Westerners have to get over the shock of seeing food that colour. Indian food uses a LOT of turmeric, which makes things a lurid yellow colour -- add tomato paste and you've got violently orange food; add lots of masala (spice) powder and it turns virulent brown. I didn't eat North Indian food for years because I couldn't get past the idea of who-knows-what swimming in a tub of thick, bubbling, strangely-coloured goo.

                          Now that I've got past that, I love North Indian food.

                          I have to say this: having been introduced to Indian food (both Northern and Southern) by a family of vegetarians, I remain to this day convinced that meat is superfluous in Indian food. I've never had an Indian meat dish that made me want to order it again.

                          As howler said, the test of an Indian cook is how they make their vegetables. Different combinations of vegetarian food, even cooked similarly in the same sauce, will taste hugely different... sag aloo (spinach and potatoes, one of my favourites) is dry-cooked the same way as sag panir (spinach and cheese), but they're totally different dishes. When my wife and I go out with two friends, one of whom insists on meat, we get one meat dish to shut him up, and the rest are vegetables.

                          One thing that is starting to spread here in Los Angeles is tandoori panir, blocks of spiced cheese baked in the same high-temperature clay oven as, say, the more common tandoori chicken. Because the cheese is wetter than the meat to start, it comes out crusty on the outside and runny on the inside, like the perfect mozzarella stick sent to Mumbai, whereas meat tends to dry out even under the most competent of hands.

                          Definitely try a dosa, which will impress you, they're typically rolls about three feet long. I love masala dosa, which contains spiced potatoes in the centre, but just plain dosa with condiments can be a revelation -- and a light meal when it's 110 degrees outside.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: Das Ubergeek

                            I dunno, D.U. I've had some awfully fine Indian dishes that feature goat, lamb, mutton, and chicken.

                            1. re: Das Ubergeek

                              Wow, Das, you've never had a really good tandoori chicken with some fresh garlic naan on the side? Or a nicely spiced chicken pakora with some mint chutney? As a North Indianer, I must say I'm a bit surprised.

                              Can you tell me which restaurants are starting to serve tandoori paneer (I think you're in LA, as am I)? We go to a lot of indian parties (which are almost always catered) but I don't think I've ever had tandoori paneer at any of them. Paneer Pakoras are a standard appetizer, but I don't think I've ever seen the Tandoori style served. I'd be curious to see how it's served and how it tastes.

                            2. tandoori paneer has been on north indian restaurant menus for donkeys years ... my suspicion is it got there to allow vegetarians to experience a tandoori appetizer.

                              1. may I be so bold as to recommend a book? "curry: a tale of cooks and conquerors" by lizzie collingham is a GREAT fun read that will give you a sense of the history of modern indian food (especially in relation to the UK). i read this a few months ago, and feel I understand my husnand's family's south indian brahmin cuisine sooooo much better!

                                ps: i chime in for south indian dosas and sambar, iddlys, and uppma -- bit only from SOUTH INDIAN restaurants. typical homemade dosas aren't gigantic -- you'll only find that in restaurants-- but consider trying a masala dosa and sambar. can you say heaven? and north indian dal mahkni is an all time fave. a good biryani (rice with nuts, meat, etc) is terrific. and make sure to try chaat too: a kinda "salad" of fried bits and tamarind and spicy thingies. yum!