Indian Food Primer

This is just a very basic Indian food primer for those interested.  We will always be around to answer questions and/or order for you, if you like.  We’ll most likely order a few dishes for the table since Indian food is best shared (and that way you get to try more!)

Also, at the end of the page, you can find a “translation” of what certain things on an Indian menu might mean—that is, when is a grilled cheese not a grilled cheese?  When you’re in India!


Intro dictionary

Dal: think of this like a lentil soup or stew, usually served with rice or a bread.  A staple in the Indian (and Nepali) diet.

A classic dal.

A classic dal.

Aloo: potato

Saag: spinach, but can also be used as a catch-all term for leafy greens

Gobhi / Gobi: cauliflower

Matar: peas

Korma:  rich, (lightly) cashew flavored creamy sauce

Masala: a blend of ground spices used in many savory dishes.  Masala simply means a spice blend.  (So, “chana masala” just means “spiced chickpeas [chana].”)

Ghee: Clarified butter (it’s made by boiling butter and separating the fats from the solids)  Delicious and omnipresent.  Did you know that India consumes almost half of the world’s butter?

Korma: a thick, mild creamy sauce

Pakora: fritter dipped in a batter and fried; can be made with vegetables, cheese, chicken or seafood. Onion pakora (aka, Indian onion rings) are fantastic!

Paneer: a young, delicate cheese, almost like a farmer’s cheese, usually cubed and fried.  You might think it’s tofu but it’s not!

Raita (Rye-tah): similar to a tzatziki sauce; a cooling yogurt sauce mixed with dill and onions, usually, to counter to heat of curries



Sambar: a spicy broth popular in southern India

Samosa: a flaky, pyramid-shaped pastry stuffed with potatoes or ground meat; a traditional Indian snack, loosely along the lines of a knish or empanada.

Tandoor: A deep, clay oven that has very high temperature; “tandoori” can refer to any dish cooked in a tandoor oven

Thali (TALL-ee): literally a large tray, but this refers to a meal that has a little bit of everything (to fill all the compartments in the large tray).  Think of it like a sampler platter!

 Vindaloo: a highly spiced and hot curry, traditionally from Goa.



Murghi / murg: chicken

Lamb / mutton: sheep

“Buff”: buffalo; for a long time I thought this was a typo for “beef”!



Roti (ROW-tee): basic flatbread (like a thin pita)



Chapati: more or less, a whole wheat roti.

Naan (pronounced “Non”): a popular bread in North India, traditionally  baked on the walls of a tandoor oven, brushed with a thin coating of oil or ghee and served hot. It can also be stuffed with cheese, vegetable curry or meat.

Pappadum or Papad: thin lentil-flour crackers, often spiced with asafoetida

Paratha: a bread, thicker than roti and often stuffed with something.

Poori: bread fried in hot oil, completed submerged so that it puffs up. A traditional breakfast.

Dosa:  like a very thin, crispy crepe. It may be served plain with side dishes or with a filling. This is a south Indian specialty, especially for breakfast.


Rice Dishes

Biryani or biriyani: a rice and vegetable, meat or seafood oven-cooked dish.

Pulao: an aromatic rice pilaf



Lassi: a yogurt drink, like a smoothie; mango lassis are classic!

Chai: “chai” means tea in Hindi, so you’re not guaranteed to get the kind of chai you would expect at home.  “Masala chai” is what you probably have in mind (remember, “masala” means spiced, so you’re asking for spiced tea).  “Milk tea” refers to a plain black tea with milk.

Water: when you’re asking for bottled water, it might help to ask for “mineral water”; it just leaves no room for misunderstanding that you want tap water.


Fan Favorites

Butter Chicken, and its vegetarian brother, Paneer Butter Masala:  a rich, creamy tomato sauce with cubes of tender chicken or paneer.

Dal makhani.

Dal makhani.

Dal Makhani: a black lentil dal; all you need to know is “makhani” means “with butter.”  Yum.

Matar paneer: creamy peas with cheese cubes

Saag paneer: creamy spinach with cheese cubes

Chana masala: chickpea curry

Malai kofta: paneer and vegetable dumplings in a creamy sauce



  •  “Pure veg” in India means no meat and no eggs, but DOES include dairy.
  •  Make sure that your utensils, plates, and cups are dry before using them. We don’t like to take any chances with stray drops of tap water!  Better safe than sorry, right?
  •  This page is a cool resource for looking up menu items and seeing real life pictures:
  •  Our rule of thumb is: peel it, cook it, or forget it.  Pathogenically speaking, cooked food is fine, and peeled raw fruits and vegetables are fine.  Otherwise, you don’t know if it’s been rinsed in tap water which may make you ill.  On that note, most meals are served with a side plate of raw vegetables, like onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers.  As much as we love these veggies, we can’t guarantee they weren’t rinsed in tap water, so we recommend NOT eating them.


What about American / Western food in India?

You can find a lot of pretty decent ‘Western’ food in India. They absolutely nail French fries, there are some pretty solid veggie burgers, and pasta is passable.  However, there are some things you need to know before you order American comfort food in India.

  • Cheese sandwich, or grilled cheese:  Expect a triple decker sandwich thick with shredded cheese, mayonnaise, and potentially raw vegetables (see “NOTES” above).  If you see grilled cheese on a menu, you’re most likely going to receive a piece of dry toast with that same shredded cheese/mayo combination.  In short, don’t get your cheese hopes up in India.
  • Pancakes or waffles:  The basics of these are usually pretty solid, but there’s nary a drop of maple syrup in India, so expect a side of honey with these guys. If you’re not int honey, skip it.
  • Mexican food: Just don’t.  Not from a safety perspective, just a taste perspective. You will most likely end up with a plate of curried kidney beans (which is fine unless you had your heart set on a real burrito!)
  • Cake: 99.8% of the time, just don’t do it (unless you’re in a German bakery).
  • Pizza: usually pretty good; thin crust, straightforward. We’ve had some pretty good pizza in India (but don’t even get us started on the pizza in Bali–amazing!!)


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