I never had an experience quite like my first Indian dinner. When I went to visit my (now) fiancé in England, he introduced me to Indian cuisine for the first time. I was lucky to have help navigating the menu that had so many different dishes from what I was used to. I was surprised to find out that not all Indian cuisine is painfully spicy. This article will describe the typical courses you can expect to find when you eat out. I hope you find the experience less intimidating, and enjoy the food as much as I did!
Sweet or Spicy
When most people think of Indian cuisine, they think of hot, spicy curries. You can, in fact, order hot dishes that feature chilies, or in quality (as opposed to fast food chain) restaurants they will make your meal to order. Just ask for it to be served “mild.” Menus will usually indicate the typical intensity (or heat) of the dish. Vindaloo is one of the hottest, and korma is completely mild. If you want to stay away from curries with any heat look for dishes that contain fruits like mango, coconut or lychees. These dishes are sweet, and completely safe for those of us with acid reflux!
Meats and Vegetarian Options
The typical meats you will find in Indian restaurants are lamb and chicken. Fish and shrimp (or prawns in the U.K.) are also used used in Indian cuisine, although sometimes to a lesser degree. Beef and pork are not eaten in India, so they are not traditionally part of Indian cuisine, although some Indian restaurants in America do cater to their clientele and create dishes with these meats. On the other hand, if you are vegetarian or simply looking for some variation, Indian restaurants are typically more vegetarian friendly than your typical American, Chinese, or Italian places. A large part of the population in India are vegetarian for religious and/or economic reasons, so nearly every dish has a vegetarian version along with a lamb version and a chicken version.
There is a wide variety of appetizers that range from heavy, fried foods to lighter fare. You can select samosas (lamb or vegetarian) that are turnovers, chaat that is almost like a cross between a salsa and a salad, fried foods (such as battered vegetables or cheese, which is called paneer), and soup (such as hearty lentil or creamy tomato with coconut milk). Indian restaraunts in America have appetizers that are sized to share, whereas in England you can safely each select your own appetizer.
Notice the waiter does not bring bread while you wait; he brings poppadoms. The poppadoms are like large thin crackers. They are served with a few different (usually 3) dipping sauces called chutneys. Be aware that usually one of them (usually red-orange in color due to the amount of chilis) is very hot and spicy, so be careful! One of them is usually sweet because it may be flavored with mango. The last one varies by region, such as cucumber, mint and yogurt.
Main Course: Rice, Saucy Meat, and Bread
Order drinks, meat, rice (or vegetables) and bread. When you look at the main courses, you are basically ordering a saucy meat (or vegetarian) dish. It may come with rice (usually white, basmati rice that is more fragrant than standard white rice; although basmati brown rice does exist), or there may be separate flavored rices you can order such as garlic or coconut flavored. Typically you would order a bread at this time also. The breads are round, flat, soft, and baked fresh and have a variety of flavors, such as garlic or peshawari (coconut and raisin in the US, coconut and sultana in the UK). Pour the saucy meat over the rice, and soak up some of the excess sauce with the bread. Yum!
Have dessert. In my experience, if you order all of the above, you will be given either a complimentary dessert or drink. If you are not brought one after the meal, however, go on and splurge! Usually desserts are designed to be cool and refreshing after all that spicy food. The most common dessert is ice cream, in flavors such as pistachio, mango or coconut. There are other refreshing desserts such as rice pudding, iced noodles, and donuts soaked in honey.
• Not ALL Indian dishes are saucy meat/vegetables to be eaten with rice. Biriyani, for example, is a rice dish with meat and seasonings that is a meal unto itself.
• I used to think all Indian food was all about the curry and hot spices. It's not! There's a nice variety of flavors so if you like curry or hot, spicy food you can certainly order that, but if you don't there's plenty of other tasty dishes to enjoy.