An Introduction to Indian Cuisine

If you’re interested in Indian food then this is something for you. Indian cuisine is quite extensive and this will just scratch the surface, but should still be somewhat informative. You might want to check out the spices glossary as well.

The basics

The staples of Indian cuisine include, but are not limited to: paneer, gravy, rice, roti, onions, ghee and spices, such as cumin (jeera), garlic, capsicum and coriander.

Many meals come in veg or non-veg variants. The non-veg is usually chicken but it can be mutton too. Fish isn’t that popular, except for some parts of the country (Goa, Kerala). Beef or pork is usually served only in tourist resorts and almost always in non-Indian meals.

In the restaurant

When ordering food you usually have to combine different dishes; not all items on the menu are complete meals by themselves. If eating in company it is customary that everyone gets a little of everything, and this is how the waiter will serve the food, unless told otherwise. A basic paneer and rice meal is enough for two.

The serving dishes are, after the initial portioning, placed on the table. In some restaurants a waiter will hover by the table and eagerly put some more food on your plate when it starts looking empty. If they’re awkward with the portioning – many are – it gets awkward for everyone, kind of like being with a stranger in an elevator that is half the size it should be; you don’t know if you should look at the plate, the waiter, the ceiling or your phone. Oh look I got a message! Ah, no I didn’t. Remember to be silent and not to breathe, otherwise they might take offense. I might be exaggerating a bit.

If you have a meal which can be eaten without cutlery, remember to use your right hand, since the left is generally associated with something else than eating. Once done with the meal, you’ll be served a so called finger bowl; it’s a cup with warm water and a piece of lemon in it. Don’t drink it – it’s not dessert tea! Clean your fingers in it and press the lemon for some added citric freshness.

You should also get a bowl filled with different colored tiny bits. Those are jeera seeds – some coated with caramel, some with mint and some just plain. There might also be a few chunks of sugar in the mix. These are breath fresheners and are meant to round off the whole culinary experience. Put some in your right hand – not the left one – and flip the whole load in your mouth. Enjoy – and don’t forget to pay the bill. Tipping is optional but it’s always nicer for everyone if there’s a little extra.

What’s for breakfast?

A kind of dry porridge from roasted semolina, shaped to a mound. Spiced with mustard seeds, capsicum, onions etc. Garnished with grated coconut, cilantro leaves and lemon juice. A slightly spicy but good, basic breakfast.

A sweet dish which is shaped, like the upma, to a mound. Also made from semolina, spiced with raisins, saffron and cardamom.

Molded rice cake. In its simplest form it’s just a clump of steamed rice, shaped to a throwing discus (food fights anyone?) and dried up a bit.

Dahi Idli
A couple of idlis in curd. Think rice cakes submerged in yoghurt. Not too bad actually.

Fry Idli
Slices of idli, deep-fried. One can eat a few before noticing that the left arm is starting to go tingle from blocked blood flow, caused by the sudden, massive intake of cholesterol. Served with ketchup.

Donuts without any of the stuff that makes donuts good. Simple dough in a torus, usually coupled with something more exciting to dip it in. Sometimes floating in it. Commonly eaten as breakfast or street food.

A very thin pancake or crepe, fried to a crispy goodness. These come in various shapes and sizes, usually folded or rolled. Within the cavity that is formed in that shape lies a clump of something good, usually a mash of potatoes, onion and herbs. Squish the dosa and start tearing off pieces, which you use to scoop some of that mash or optionally dip into any chutney possibly provided. One of the largest variations of the dosa is the Paper Masala Dosa, also known as the bread bazooka.

This is a round bread-like dish. The dough, made from curd and semolina, is soft and easy to tear. More substance than the dosa but less flair. Usually topped with chopped onion, coriander and tomatoes.

Main course

Similar to cottage cheese, it’s a mild cheese that is included in all gravies called paneer something – the last part of the name signifies the combination of spices or the originating geographic location for that variety. Paneer can also be found on shish kebabs and pretty much anything else. When ordering paneer off a menu, it’s usually just the cheese in a gravy, so you’re going to need something to go along with it. Most common option is to just go with rice or roti.

Gravy is the sauce that paneer or meat comes in. They come in different colors: the red/brown one is the most common and features a varying level of spiciness. There is also white gravy, which is sweet and just not good with anything. It’s like sweet porridge. Palak gravy is green, since it’s made from spinach.

One of the pillars of Indian cuisine. Comes as basic steamed rice, coriander rice, butter garlic rice and fried rice, just to name a few. The most common form however is jeera rice, which is basmati rice with some cumin seeds thrown in for additional flavour. About basmati rice: the longer the grains are the better the quality. They should be about one centimeter – which leads me to believe the stuff Uncle Ben is selling in Finland isn’t very good at all.

Rice mixed with stuff. The stuff can be paneer, meat, herbs, vegetables and gravy. These come in dozens of variations since many of the major cities and towns have their own version – much like the paneer gravies. So a Biryani Hyderabadi is from Hyderabadi and is made according to that particular recipe. Note: biryanis are almost always meals by themselves. Sure you can combine them with gravy if you want to, but since they already include a lot of stuff they don’t need it per se.

This one is like biryani but with the spiciness switched to sweet ingredients, such as dried fruits. Otherwise the setup is quite same, a good option if you want a biryani but don’t want the burning sensation.

A thali is a meal consisting of several small dishes. It’s served on a sizeable plate and the different dishes are in their own cups along the edge. In the center you usually have rice, roti and/or paratas. It’s up to you which cups you want to dip in or scoop out of, and whether you do it with a spoon or the bread. Basic thalis come with three cups, the more festive ones with up to 12.

Want some bread with that?

The basic bread, kind of like a light version of the traditional naan. Made usually from stoneground wholemeal flour. Often found in combination with a gravy or something else you can’t eat with hand alone. If your meal is served with this, you can use it to scoop up the good stuff instead of using a fork or spoon. Just tear off a bit and improvise, you’ll get the hang of it quickly.

Familiar to those who have visited a so called Nepalese restaurant in Finland, sort of like a greasier version of the roti. Baked in a tandoor oven by smashing the dough clump on the inside wall. It drops a bit before hardening, thus giving it its recognizable squash racket -like shape. Comes also with garlic coating, yum.

A type of bread, deep fried and a bit ballooned. Usually found in breakfasts, snack meals and at street stalls. Can be stuffed with goodies.

Something I call the greasy roti, it’s like a roti that hasn’t been in the oven long enough. A bit greasy, but easier to tear since it isn’t as crispy as a roti.

Pao Banji
These I call oily buns. They’re like short hot dog buns soaked in fat. If they weren’t so soft you could squeeze them and send them flying across the room. They’re usually split in half and sometimes come with filling, other times with a small bowl of gravy for additional soaking. Good as snack or a light meal.

A small, hard bread, often served as an appetizer or snack. Often served with some fennel chutney. Texture is like styrofoam and sometimes the taste too.

Something for the sweet tooth

Gulab jamun
These brown balls are one of the most common types of dessert here. The milk-based dough is first shaped into balls, then deep-fried and lastly saturated with mild syrup. Good with ice cream or as such, nevertheless these small delicacies are diabetes bombs.