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Feb 13, 2008 02:21 PM

Indian Food for Dummies[Cary,NC] [moved from South board]

It seems I am in one of the best places to enjoy Indian food, Cary, North Carolina. However I know nothing about it. I read here, and on triangle.dining about heat levels for spices, and it scares me to death. I know I am missing out. Where, How, What should I do to learn how to enjoy this food? I don't even know any Indians to ask to go to eat a meal with. I am a cultural Infidel.

"One more Cheese Burger please, and yes fries would be good. Sure plenty of salt."

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  1. The first thing I thought of was the old Time Life book series, "Foods of the World". I haven't read the book about India but have a couple of the others and they are a wonderful intro and overview of foods of different countries. They make a great read and you will learn.

    Check the library if you don't want to buy it.

    1. are you asking how to ramp up to more authentic indian spice level/dishes? or have you not ever eaten indian food? either's cool - just would give different answers...

      1. If you like chicken, start with chicken tikka masala, butter chicken or a chicken korma and ask that it be prepared mild. Have it with naan and rice. I took some reluctant friends to an Indian restaurant in New York (Dawat, which is heavenly) and they ordered these dishes and fell in love with the cuisine. One of my friends doesn't even like Chinese food (she's that picky). Also, start with samosas. I'm no expert on Indian food but these dishes are pure comfort food that will appeal to everyone.

        15 Replies
        1. re: JaneWinston

          Family hails from South Asia and the suggestions Jane makes are what I'd recommend to someone who has never had [Indian] food and is not yet comfortable with spice-complex foods. (Great suggestions, Jane!) The majority of Indian restaurants in the States offer north Indian food unless they specify otherwise and you will find chicken tikka masala, butter (or makhani, makhani meaning butter) chicken, and chicken korma on their menus. The sauces in these dishes are dairy-based and tend to be rich (not common home fare), so by nature they aren't going to blow your tastebuds with the varying heat levels you can get at different restaurants. Do try them out and then venture from there.

          About samosas - fried dumplings stuffed with potatoes, sometimes peas, the dominant spice is usually cumin seeds. Sometimes mildly spicy, sometimes not - you should ask. These are one of my favorite things.

          The South Asian subcontinent including India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh has several different regions and ethnic groups within and each has their own style of cooking. A really great book to check out is "Taste of India" by Madhur Jaffrey which offers an explanation of the different regions and then offers a handful of recipes from each. I'm first-generation American and my mom lives far away, so learning to cook home food was a bit challenging for me and this book really helped me.

          Happy eating!! :o)

          1. re: adrienne156

            ho ho! over a year later!

            but...chicken tikka masala doesn't have a dairy-based sauce, but tomato:

            and there are several websites that discuss regional indian foods.

            1. re: alkapal

              That is a version I have never seen before. Ever. The popular version that you will find at any run-of-the-mill [Indian] restaurant featuring mainly North Indian fair will be made out of tomato and cream and various spices. There are several local chains in the SF bay area where you can't even tell they've used the tomato.

              1. re: adrienne156

                the recipe i listed on march 21 is adapted from madhur jaffrey. try making that version. see how it compares with the ones you've tried that are calling themselves ctm.

                on another site there are a couple of recipes for the ctm, and for butter chicken. (that dish with the cream is butter chicken, or murgh makhani.
                compare with the ctm recipe from the same site: ).

                however, i think both of these recipes have been conflated, with varying amounts of cream and butter in each. i have to go get my indian cookbooks out, now. but one thing is certain, ctm is not dairy-based. if san fran indian restos are doing that, it is perhaps an american adaptation.

                madhur jaffrey is usually pretty good -- or julie sahni. i myself have used the bombay palace cookbook's recipe for butter chicken. it was da bomb.

                you're from bangladesh, right? i'd like to get some of your mom's recipes here on chowhound.

                1. re: alkapal

                  I always thought it was a British dish in general? As I’ve always understood CTM at restaurants, it starts with a masala, tomato is added and cooked down for a bit, then finished with a healthy dose of cream. The sauce is ladled into a separate pan, the chicken tikka is added, and the whole thing is heated to order. When good, the sauce is akin to a spicy rose sauce where the tomato is discernable; when bad, it can get as bad as peppery Campbell’s tomato soup and watery melted Velveeta. It really does taste almost cheesey. The very few home renditions I’ve tried (at the homes of other first generationer’s* for fun) the protein was parcooked by a quick toss on the grill (for the smokey flavor), simmered in the spicy tomato sauce, then finished with the cream or greek yogurt. I’m a huge fan of Madhur Jaffrey (she did a fine job standing in for my mum when I had a craving) and I would be absolutely ecstatic to find her version of CTM at a restaurant.

                  I'm actually first-generation Bangladeshi-American*, born and raised in the bay area with a one-year stint in the Toronto area. I've posted a couple of recipes -- a simple veggie sabzi and a gulab jamun recipe -- but there hasn't been much interest in Bengali food on CH in the last few years and the only mentions I've read recently haven't been positive so I haven't posted. One poster who is quite outspoken about South Asian food and whom I used to regard quite highly called Bangladesh a particularly dark place for "Indian" food, which I of course disagree with but then again since Bengali food isn’t familiar to most, maybe that poster was right it won’t be well received. It’s a complex cuisine with strong regional variations and some uncommon ingredients, but has also been heavily influenced by mughal cuisine and Islam. My parents come from opposite ends of the country, from different groups that don’t usually intermarry, and even I have preferences for the same dish coming from one place over the other. Yet, similar and familiar Mughal versions of biryani and tandoori chicken would be found at either family’s social gathering. When we have things catered, we usually order Pakistani food as it is very close to the food we are used to eating. It’s all very confusing. …As for the uncommon ingredients, the first one I can think of off the top of my head is mustard oil which is quite pungent and has a similar effect to wasabi on your sinuses. The bottles that are available at every South Asian store say “not for consumption” but those in the know eat it anyway.

                  The other issue with my not posting more recipes is that my mum and I live on opposite ends of the state, so I don't have easy access to the recipes and what I do know how to cook, I've been shown and tweak while cooking until I get the flavor I’m after. The recipes I’ve posted are ones that I have gotten specific requests for and worked on. That being said, if you have any specific requests I'm actually heading down this weekend to SoCal to visit (and harass my mom some more about her wonderful biryani), so please feel free to ask.

                  1. re: adrienne156

                    adrienne, thanks for your response. i'm interested in bengali food, and also its regional variations and geographic/people group origins. i can't say i've ever eaten bengali cuisine -- but maybe i have. i love cabbage subzi, made with fresh curry leaves and mustard seeds. i'm interested to explore and learn more. is the wiki article accurate? it is extensive in its explanation of the culinary landscape.
                    it's funny, because just yesterday, mr. alka (who is from sri lanka) and i were talking about the dravidians and aryans, as he was explaining the roots of the conflict in sri lanka. and those groups feature also in the wiki article's introduction to the history of the bengali peoples and cuisine.

                    thanks for the info about mustard oil -- because we've had threads on the topic, and i've looked specifically at the labels of mustard oil in every indian and mid-east grocery i've gone to since reading that thread. is it used as a finishing oil, typically, or to begin cooking? also, from the wiki article, i see date molasses is used quite a bit in sweets. do you have any ideas for my bottle of date molasses? ;-).

                    i'm interested in the variations of tandoori chicken and biryani -- what are the main differences in your parents' two versions of each dish. for example, does one tandoori chicken recipe have lots more of one spice or another? or the biryani -- a different style of starting the rice, or the typical meat involved, spice blends, etc.?

                    have a great time with your mother, and a good cooking experience (soak up her knowledge ;-). best wishes.

                    1. re: alkapal

                      Alright Alka, are you ready for this? I wrote you a novel. :o)

                      The wiki article is very interesting except the inferences made in the “Traditional Bengali Food” section about Bangladesh are inaccurate as far as the light spicing, simple cooking techniques, and parboiled rice (although socio-economic class may have something to do this). Example: the every day chicken and potato curry I make has cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne pepper, paprika, which is added to caramelized onions and garlic-ginger paste, fried until fragrant, the protein is added, fried in the spices until some water is released (bhuna stage), garam masala (cinnamon, bay leaves, cloves, cardamom) is added, some more water is added and simmered for 20 minutes, potatoes are added in the last 10 minutes, and is finished with some chopped tomato, some green chilies, a bit of sugar and a dollop of yogurt for balance which then break down from the heat. You wouldn’t serve this at a dinner party because it is considered too simple. (Hah!) Otherwise, the other descriptions are exactly what I grew up eating and it is correct that beef is eaten in Bdesh, although all dishes are usually served at once and the veggies/dal are eaten first, then fish (if it’s there), then meat.

                      I will admit that I don’t know a lot about the history of the different ethnicities by district/region in Bdesh, but did do some research for a family tree in college and have some theories about what little Bengali food there is available out there. My father is from Sylhet which is a district in the north-eastern part of the country which is kind of infamous amongst Bangladeshis. They are known for having a very distinct dialect (I can somewhat understand it) and are just culturally a bit different. I’ve heard from many elders that pre-modern Sylhet had more in common with Assam culturally than with other Bangladeshis as the people are descendents of early 14th century Islamic missionaries, but was grouped in with Bangladesh upon partition for its predominantly Muslim population. Sylhet has tried – without luck – to secede from the rest of the country (this is now kind of a running joke). Interfamily marriage (yes, cousin to cousin) was (/is in some circles) very common and as such, there hasn’t been a lot of mixing with the other ethnic groups. (I get mistaken for Persian more often than Indian). Within my own family, we have traced our heritage back to two brothers who emigrated from Saudi Arabia at the end of the 14th century, Arabic and Sylheti are spoken at home, and the food is a mixture of Bengali dishes with regional & traditionally Arab ingredients (lots of lamb, cilantro, mint, preserved bitter lemon, dorset naga pepper, yogurt, garbanzos, eggplant, cucumbers) using slightly different preps that effect taste. (I prefer my maternal side’s prep from Khulna in the South… near Sundarbon) My theory is that as Syhletis are the largest group of Bangladeshi emigrants and many own restaurants, perhaps much of the Bengali food that is available out there may be in the Sylheti style.

                      Mustard oil is used for finishing like sesame oil. I love curry leaves as well, but discovered them only recently through cookbooks. As for the tandoori and biryani – they are actually more alike than other dishes, although my stepmother (who is Sylheti) does a version of biryani that is not particularly rich, uses a much smaller grain of rice (my mother uses the traditional basmati), chicken, and is simpler in spicing. I think it may be what is referred to as tehri biryani. My mom’s is kacchi biryani using sindhi-like spicing, chicken or lamb or mutton.

                      I have not used date molasses but would think that it would be the liquid form of gur (aka jaggery)? If so, it is an absolutely fantastic addition to sondesh. After you make and drain the cheese, you would add it to the food processor along with the cheese and adjust with sugar or not depending on what flavor you were after. The only thing I’d be worried about is thinning the cheese too much. Would be a great addition to rice pudding as well.

                      1. re: adrienne156

                        adrienne, thank you so very much. your info is great, however, i need a little time to digest it. ;-). i'd like to carry on our dialogue, because i am anxious to learn much more about bengali cuisine. maybe i/you/we should start another thread, so others can be "reading" your great info. please give me a bit of time, and DO have a wonderful time with your mom.

                        1. re: alkapal

                          You are totally right and thanks for the warm wishes. :o)

                          ETA: AND, I would love for the other Bengalis on CH to chime in.. There are a few.

                        2. re: adrienne156

                          "My theory is that as Syhletis are the largest group of Bangladeshi emigrants and many own restaurants, perhaps much of the Bengali food that is available out there may be in the Sylheti style."

                          Certainly most "Indian" restaurants in the UK are owned (at least originally, were owned) by Syhletis. That said, as with most successful immigrant cuisine, it has heavily adapted to our local tastes so I suspect that there's not too much authenticity around.

                      2. re: adrienne156

                        Chicken tikka masala is certainly claimed to have been invented here. The urban myth is that it was a Glasgow chef who came up with a quick sauce fro a customer wanting a sauce with his chicken tikka.

                        It's a bland creamy concoction but one that's almost certainly our favourite "Indian" dish. I hate it.

                        1. re: Harters

                          harters, after reading what you consider the typical british restaurant's version of ctm, i can't blame you for hating it.

                          1. re: alkapal

                            Actually the "stock" sauce that I give a recipe for does pretty much replicate the "stock" sauce that forms the basis for most takeaway dishes. No surprise seeing as I nicked it from a book telling you how to make takeaway dishes at home. It's generally pretty good and I certainly use it for other takeaway style food - adding spices here and there - so I can come up with say a lamb dopiaza that tastes and looks veyr like the dish I buy at the village takeaway (the village actually has three "Indian" takeaways as well as two Indian restaurants which also do takeaway)

                            1. re: Harters

                              Harters, what's the name of your book? A very close British friend of mine has one about restaurant cooking that she bought over from the UK that I absolutely love (fantastic recipe for onion bhajis in there). I'll try to get the name of her's.

                              1. re: adrienne156

                                "The Curry Secret - Indian Restaurant cookery at home" - by Kris Dhillon.


            2. Or better yet, find a reputable Indian place with a buffet. That way you'll be able to sample a variety of different dishes.

              7 Replies
              1. re: Suzy Q

                Indian food is so diverse and sophisticated. I adore Southern Indian food & usually cook dishes from Kerala. Let me give you some tips to help.
                hmm buffets' have kind of bleah food...
                here is a link for you:
                start with Northern Indian food as it is creamy and usually mild. And when ordering just tell the waiters. They totally understand. So don't worry.
                This should get you going, if you wan't more info just ask...

                1. re: Suzy Q

                  Sorry, I can't agree with the buffet suggestion if you're completely unfamiliar with Indian food. Most buffets (Indian, Chinese, whatever) offer subprime versions of that restaurant's offerings. Some foods can sit out better than others but no food in creation is improved by sitting out under a heat lamp. Buffets seem to me more "fill the belly cheaply" food rather than an exciting foray into a new cuisine. I couldn't recommend Suchi's buffet either. My recent trip left me vowing once again to never eat off an Indian buffet. It was..nothing, just eh.

                  Reading up seems to be your best bet. Try pulling up some Indian restaurant menus on the Internet. It doesn't have to be local menus, just something so you get an idea of what dishes are called and what goes into them. Just like true Mexican food or authentic Thai food, Indian is not defined by how many chilies the chef can throw into a dish. There's a spice level for every palate.

                  1. re: rockycat

                    Trying Indian Buffets is what helped me along. I mean, reading is great - but you never know how it tastes until, well, you taste it! And you get a chance to taste several different things in one setting. Maybe I've just been lucky at the Indian Buffets I've been to (London, Glasgow, Cary).

                    1. re: cackalackie

                      Me as well, cackalackie, which is why I suggested that. To me it's pretty daunting to order off a menu with an unfamiliar cuisine.

                    2. re: rockycat

                      I'm usually not a buffet fan for many of the reasons you mention. My experience at Suchi has been that they bring out small portions frequently, so nothing is really sitting out like most buffets. I stand by the idea that a buffet is a good way to get a feel for a new cuisine. It is a starting point. Once the OP learns if the food has appeal, then exploring the menu at various places can begin in earnest.

                      1. re: meatn3

                        I have to disagree with you, not about the buffet, but about Suchi's being good, it is not. We had diner there a few weeks ago and it has to be one of the worst indian places I have been too. Try the buffet at Udupi the food is good and they have both mild and spicy food. This why they can try good indian.

                        1. re: chazzer

                          I read else where that there had been a change in ownership - perhaps thats what is going on. I haven't been there that recently, but (IMO) it had been good those times.

                  2. SuzyQ's suggestion of going to a buffet is your best bet. Suchi, on Chatham has a pretty good one, well flavored but not too hot for most folks. Plus the buffet has labels so you can learn the names of what you like or don't like! If you sit in the area by the cash register, the owner/manager? & often times chef come by & are always happy to explain the style food to interested guests. Lonely Planets World Food Series has an India book. It has a lot of info packed into a small package. Another helpful book (but more ingredient oriented) is The Indian Grocery Store Demystified. While it explains ingredients, understanding them helps with menu understanding. Enjoy your quest!