Every time I check it seems like Indian food is only growing in popularity! Those that have tried it are hooked by its exotic and intricate flavors and those that haven't are eager to sample them. The question uppermost in the minds of most first-timers is "What shall I order when I get to the restaurant?". This is only natural since names are unfamiliar and you can end up ordering too much or getting stuff that is simply more than you bargained for! People are also keen to know how they can tell a good restaurant from a bad one, how spicy should they order their food, what those seemingly elaborate names mean and what goes with what.
Let's begin with some tips on spotting a good Indian restaurant:
Is the price right?
Indian food cooked like it should be, is a labor of love. This is not to say that every dish is work-intensive, but there are few I have come across that can just "be thrown together". The saying, "you get what you pay for" is definitely true in relation to food and eating out (with any cuisine), so don't be put off by prices that are on the higher side. Most of the time they mean you can be sure you are getting fresher ingredients and your food is made with quality produce. It is traditionally done that way, so a good Indian restaurant will make its gravies, pastes and masalas from scratch and with fresh ingredients. This is simply because the end result (when prepared this way) tastes much better!
The delicate balance of spices
There is a common misconception that all Indian food is drowned in spices and every dish contains at least 8-10 of them. This is not true! Thousands of delicious Indian dishes are subtly flavored with just one or two key spices that are meant to enhance the main ingredient. Some fine (and very popular) examples are Baingan Ka Bharta, Baigun Bhaja, Lehsuni Daal, Upma....
Curry, curry and some more curry?
Another misconception about Indian food is that it all tastes the same and every dish is cooked with the magic "curry powder"! This couldn't be further from the truth! In North India chillies, saffron, milk, yoghurt, cottage cheese and ghee (clarified butter) are hot favorites while in the South, folks love pepper, tamarind and coconut and will often even cook in coconut oil. Those in the East love all things mustard and fish while the extremely cosmopolitan West Indians have so adopted western ingredients that their style can quite easily be called fusion.
The all-important "curry powder" is just one of a plethora of spices used artfully in Indian cooking! It is a mix of spices collectively known as Garam Masala and is added to dishes along with other spices to enhance their flavor and aroma. While the basic ingredients used are the same, each household has its own proportions so that the end result will often differ from home to home. This is the same with restaurants. A good one will make its own spice mixes so Butter Chicken at one restaurant may taste different from that at another but the quality will always be good and the flavors distinct.
What's in a name?
Be careful of so called "Indian restaurants" where most of the gravied dishes have seriously exotic names but taste the same! The gravies probably came out of a bottle or tin!
Getting a helping hand
If you're a real newbie (or even an experienced hand) you will truly appreciate the value of a restaurant with staff that is friendly and eager to explain what the names mean and suggest combinations to suit your palate. This will ensure you are not walking in the dark and that you get the meal you wanted. I have often been to places that expect you to know or have staff that haven't a clue about the food they are serving you!