Mixing sweet, savory, and spicy, the unique ingredients used in Indian food have become extremely popular in America. Although India is a vast country, with foods that vary from region to region, most food in American restaurants is based on the cuisine of Punjab, a state in northern India. Fresh, wholesome ingredients are enhanced by flavorful herbs and fascinating spices. Let’s take a walk through the menu at a typical Indian restaurant in America, exploring the spices, herbs, ingredients, and cooking methods that make up these flavorful dishes.
The Spices of Indian Cuisine
Indian food is known for the vibrant flavor of its spices, ingredients like cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, chilies, ginger, pepper, cumin, cloves, saffron, and coriander.
“Curry” is not a single spice but a mixture of spices that create a distinctive and popular flavor. “Masala” is the generic term for spices that have been combined into one powder or a paste. Basil, mint, dill, and bay leaves are savory herbs that are frequently used in cooking.
Traditional Indian Cooking Techniques
Cooking methods in Indian restaurants can be both traditional and modern. A “tandoor” is a deep cylindrical clay oven, used at high heat for baking. A “tava” is a cast iron flat griddle. A “karai” is similar to a wok with deep sides used for quick cooking. “Dum” means that a dish is prepared under high pressure in its own juices.
Popular Indian Dishes
Although India is primarily a vegetarian country, Indian food in America usually includes meat and seafood options such as chicken, lamb, shrimp and fish. Popular meat dishes include:
Kebabs: A lamb or chicken kebab is a skewer holding portions of meat which were marinated in spices and herbs and cooked in a tandoor.
Korma: Korma is a slow-cooked dish with marinated meat or vegetables that were seared over high heat, then cooked using moist heat with a minimal amount of added liquid for a long time at low temperature.
Biryani: Biryani is a rice-based dish with roasted meat or fish, spiced with saffron or turmeric. The ingredients are cooked separately and then layered for serving.
Tandoori Chicken or Lamb: Named after the cooking method used, tandoori meats are prepared with yogurt and spices and roasted over high heat.
Tikka Masala: One of the most popular dishes on American menus, tikka masala is a Westernized version of a traditional Indian food. For the US customer, this chicken dish is baked in a sweet, creamy tomato sauce. Tikka masala calls for naan (bread) for dipping.
Curry: In India, curry is not a dish but a blend of spices. However, it has come to mean a stew type of dish, served with meat, vegetables or cheese, in a thickened sauce.
“Chutney” means condiment and provides sweet, savory, spicy, or cooling flavors. Some flavors include mint with yogurt, spicy onion (chopped onion with red pepper), tamarind (a thin, dark, sweet sauce) and raita (yogurt based with grated cucumber, onion and mint).
Vegetarian Dishes From India
For vegetarians, Indian food provides multiple choices at a restaurant:
Dishes made with chickpeas, called chana, replace meat and are high in protein. The two types of chickpeas are desi and kabuli. Desi have small, dark seeds, while kabuli are large, with a smooth coat. Both have a buttery texture and nutty taste.
Daal are legumes, usually lentils, which are mashed and made into creamy dishes.
Saag are edible greens like spinach. Saag paneer is the best known saag dish, combining spinach, cheese and green chiles. It can be a very spicy dish!
A samosa is a fried, stuffed snack that is an authentic Indian option on American menus. The typical samosa is filled with potatoes, peas and onions and accompanied by a tasty chutney. It has been a favorite in India for centuries and is just as popular in American restaurants.
Popular vegetables include aloo (potato), gobhi (cauliflower) and bandh ghobi (cabbage).
Dairy foods used in Indian cooking include yogurt sauces, cream and paneer. Paneer is a fresh, dense cheese similar to cottage cheese. Richer than tofu, paneer is served like cottage cheese or in cubes. Very versatile, it is used in desserts, snacks or main courses.
Breads and basmati rice are a tasty part of Indian cuisine. Naan is an airy, light, fluffy flatbread traditionally baked in a tandoori oven. Indian restaurants in America serve naan with every meal. Puri is an unleavened, deep fried bread, while roti is a grilled flatbread.
From southern India comes a popular dish called vindaloo, a chicken or lamb dish in a hot and spicy sauce made with red wine vinegar, garlic and cumin. Other specialities from the region include dosa, a crepe or pancake made from rice batter and black lentils. A thicker pancake is called an iddly, while a medu vada is a donut shaped lentil dumpling.
Americans love chai tea and it is associated with all Indian restaurants. Tea is simmered with a variety of spices like cardamom, cinnamon, clove, fennel, ginger and pepper for flavor, then milk and sugar are added to make a delicious drink.
Drawing from authentic cooking methods, spices and ingredients and tailoring them to American tastes, the fascinating flavors of traditional Indian food are fast becoming a staple in the US dining experience.