How to Order in an Indian Restaurant

Tandoori Chicken
Sam+Yvonne / Getty Images

The naming of Indian foods is not nearly as complex as it looks or sounds! Foods are often named by the cooking process involved in preparing them - Tandoori Chicken is tandoor-roasted. They could also be derived from the place the food originated in (for example Fish Amritsari is from Amritsar in the Punjab), the culture it was adapted from (for example Mughlai Biryani which comes from the famous Mughal culture), the main ingredient in it (for example Chicken Saagwala which is made from fresh greens and chicken) or the texture or dominant flavor of the finished dish (for example Reshmi Kabab with its succulent bits of chicken, Malai Prawns with their creamy gravy or Achaari Murg with its pickle-style flavors).

Achaari

Made with spices similar to those that go into Indian pickles, Achaari dishes can be medium- to very hot and most often will have a tangy flavor. Expect spices like chili, fennel, mustard, carom seed (or Bishop's weed), cumin etc. These dishes will be on the drier side with minimal gravy so order them with a "wet" dish like Daal (soup-like lentils) or a Raita (yogurt preparation) to add textural variety and cut out some of the heat. Achaari-style foods go really well with bread like Chapatis (flatbread), Parathas (pan-fried flatbread) or Naans (leavened flatbread made baked in a tandoor or oven).

Try this recipe for Achaari Murg (chicken).

Bhuna, Bhoona or Fry

This means "to stir-fry or sauté". Many Indian dishes require spices to be lightly fried or Bhoono-ed to release their aroma and flavors and prevent them from having a 'raw' taste. Bhuna dishes can range from mild to hot. Expect spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, bay leaves, chilies, coriander and cumin and ingredients like onions and tomatoes. Bhuna dishes are characterized by the fact that the meat or vegetable used is cooked in its own liquids and no extra water is added. This makes for medium amounts of thick gravy that go well with both wet and dry dishes. Since each restaurant has its own heat level in Bhuna dishes, inquire about that before you order. Bhuna dishes like Achaaris, go well with bread like Chapatis (flatbread), Parathas (pan-fried flatbread) or Naans (leavened flatbread made baked in a tandoor or oven).

Bhurji

This word means scrambled. Bhurji dishes, like scrambled eggs, are stir-fried. They can range from mild to very hot and the main ingredient is usually accompanied by onions, tomatoes, ginger, garlic and a medley of spices like chilies, cumin, coriander, and turmeric. Bhurjis are dry dishes and as such, they go well with gravied ones. When ordering a Burji, ask how hot it will be and team accordingly with a mild or hotter gravy dish. Team Bhurjis with bread like Chapatis (flatbread), Parathas (pan-fried flatbread) or Naans (leavened flatbread made baked in a tandoor or oven).

Biryani/Biriyani

This is a truly one-dish meal! For Biryanis, which can range from medium to very hot, veggies, meat, chicken, fish or seafood is cooked into a curry (with medium gravy) in a variety of spices and then layered in a large dish with pre-cooked, fragrant, long-grained rice. A garnish (like caramelized onions or saffron) is then added and the dish is sealed. The contents are then slow-cooked (for several hours sometimes) in their own juices! The result is delicious. Biryanis are Mughlai in origin and made differently in different regions of India. Though Biryanis are, by nature, without much gravy, once cooked, the rice is saturated with the juices from the meat or veggies it is layered with. Expect fragrant spices like cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, pepper and saffron among others.

Try this recipe for Mughlai Biryani.

Dopiaza

This term means two (do) onions (piaza) or double onions. This Mughlai (Mughal style) dish is usually prepared with two lots of onions - one that makes up a thick gravy to which the main ingredient is added and the other that is added raw and cooked with the main ingredient or stir-fried till caramelized (onions contain high amounts of natural sugar that caramelize when they are fried!) and used as a garnish. Expect spices like whole cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and powdered spices like cumin, coriander, chili, and garam masala. Dopiazas are usually mild to medium hot and have a good amount of gravy. They go really well with rice pilafs (puloas) and breads like Chapatis (flatbread), Parathas (pan-fried flatbread) or Naans (leavened flatbread made baked in a tandoor or oven).

Dum

This is a style of cooking that originated in the North. Dum means pressure and implies that the dish is cooked to a certain stage and then the vessel sealed to pressurize the contents and cause them to slow-cook (for hours sometimes) in their own juices. Dum dishes can range from mild to hot and usually have a medium amount of gravy. This style of dish usually contains spices like Kashmiri red chilies, cumin, fennel, cardamom, cloves, and ingredients like fresh yogurt. They go really well with rice pilafs and all sorts of Indian breads.

Gosht

This word translates to meat and could mean either lamb or beef. Gosht dishes are made in a variety of methods such as Karahi (listed below), Bhuna (as above), Biryani (also above).  Try these delicious recipes for Gosht in different styles: Daal Gosht and Dahi Gosht.

Jalfreizi

This tasty style of cooking came about in the days of the British Raj in India. Jal (means hot and freizi (means fry) is stir-fry with a little gravy. Usually, a meat like chicken, lamb or beef is stir-fried with green chilies, bell peppers, onions, and tomatoes and then cooked in its own juices. Spices in a Jalfreizi include coriander, cumin, garam masala, ginger, etc. and they can be quite hot. Serve Jalfreizis with rice pilafs (puloas) and breads like Chapatis (flatbread), Parathas (pan-fried flatbread) or Naans (leavened flatbread made baked in a tandoor or oven). Add a leafy green salad as a side dish.

Karahi or Kadhai

This style of cooking gets its name from the wok-like dish or Karahi it is cooked in. In Karahi/Kadhai dishes the main ingredient is usually marinated in a yogurt and spice sauce and then stir-fried in a Karahi with sliced onions, bell peppers, ginger, garlic and chopped tomatoes. Karahi dishes range from medium to very hot and have medium amounts of gravy. Spices to expect are coriander, cumin, chili, and garam masala. Serve Kadhai dishes like this Kadhai Gosht, with breads such as Chapatis (flatbread), Parathas (pan-fried flatbread) or Naans (leavened flatbread made baked in a tandoor or oven).

Kashmiri

This style of cooking comes from Kashmir in North India and is characterized by rich, creamy gravies made up of spices, nuts and dried fruit teamed with milk and cream! The result is delicious mild dishes that beg to be savored all by themselves. Expect fragrant spices like cinnamon and cardamom. Kashmiri dishes taste great with rice pilafs and breads like Chapatis (flatbread) or Naans (leavened flatbread made baked in a tandoor or oven). Here's a recipe for Kashmiri Dum Aaloo.

Korma

There are Kormas and there are Kormas but this Mughlai dish from North India is typically made by marinating the main ingredient in yogurt and spices like ginger and garlic. It is then cooked in its own juices and a gravy made of onions, lots of tomatoes, green chilies, and whole spices like cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, coriander, cumin, etc. Kormas can range from mild to medium hot and taste nice with breads like Chapatis (flatbread), Parathas (pan-fried flatbread) or Naans (leavened flatbread made baked in a tandoor or oven).

Madras

Probably called Madras curries to identify them with their home in the south of India, these are really hot dishes. South India is the home of some of the best pepper in the world! Madras curries team lots of pepper and chili, with onion, tomato, curry leaves and mustard and have a good amount of gravy. They taste lovely served with piping hot plain boiled rice and even with typically North Indian breads like Chapatis (flatbread) and Naans (leavened flatbread made baked in a tandoor or oven). If you're being adventurous and ordering a Madras curry, add milder dishes like Daals (lentils) to tone down their heat.

Makhni

This name comes from the word Makkhan which means butter. These typically North Indian dishes are therefore cooked in butter and have substantial creamy gravy in which tomatoes play a predominant role. Makhni dishes are usually mild to medium hot and made with chicken, vegetables or lentils. Though they taste nice with rice dishes, Makhnis are best had with North Indian breads like Chapatis (flatbread) and Naans (leavened flatbread made baked in a tandoor or oven). Add a green salad and you're in business!

Malai

This word means cream. Malai dishes have a good amount of creamy, cream-based gravy. This gravy is mild and usually made with onions, tomatoes, ginger, and garlic to which spices like coriander, cumin, garam masala etc are added. The cream is added to the dish as a finishing touch. Expect the dish to be mild and team it with a hotter, relatively drier side dish. Team with Chapatis (flatbread) and Naans (leavened flatbread made baked in a tandoor or oven). Try these recipes for Malai Prawns and Malai Kofta.

Masala

This word typically means spice mix so recipes for Masala dishes can be as varied as the chefs that cook them! They can, therefore, range from medium to really hot but will usually have a thick, not very substantial gravy. Order "wetter" dishes like Daals and rice pilafs (pulaos) to go with a Masala dish.

Mughlai

Mughlai cuisine is a result of the Mughal rule in India. Food was rich and cooked with aromatic spices, nuts, and dried fruits. Most Indian restaurants interpret this as mild to medium-hot cream and nut-based gravies, rice dishes with lots of nuts and dried fruits and rich creamy desserts. Expect (in a good restaurant) spices like saffron, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg etc. Gravies are usually abundant in Mughlai dishes so they go well with rice dishes and breads alike.

Saag

The word Saag is mostly used in connection with leafy greens like spinach, fenugreek, mustard greens and dill. In India, Saag is not just cooked by itself but often combined with great success with all kinds of meat, fish and vegetarian ingredients. The greens in these dishes may be chopped fine and cooked or cooked and creamed. Spices used in Saag dishes include cinnamon, cloves, ginger, chili, coriander and cumin among others. Saag dishes are mostly mild with a medium amount of gravy. They go really well with breads like Chapatis (flatbread) and Naans (leavened flatbread made baked in a tandoor or oven). Daals (lentils) are the perfect side dish to order with Saag-based foods. Try these recipes for Sarson Ka Saag and Chicken Saagwala.

Shahi

This means royal. Shahi dishes are similar to Mughlai ones in that they have mildly-flavored, rich, creamy gravies that might contain nuts and dried fruits. Shahi-style foods go well with rice dishes and all kinds of Indian breads.

Tandoori

Tandoori Chicken, Tandoori Fish, Tandoori Paneer, all get their name from the Tandoor (clay oven) they are cooked in. Tandoori dishes are marinated in a spice mix and then cooked in the tandoor. Spices include cumin, coriander, cinnamon, mace, ginger, and garlic. Tandoori dishes are medium to hot and without gravy. Order dishes like Kaali Daal (black lentils) and Naans (leavened flatbread made baked in a tandoor or oven) with Tandoori foods.

Tarka/Tadka/Baghaara

All these words mean tempering which is a process used for flavoring certain dishes. To temper a dish, oil is heated and spices like cumin, coriander, mustard, fenugreek seeds, curry leaves, red chilies, and garlic are added to it and fried. This spice-flavored oil is then added to the dish as a final touch. Tadka dishes usually have lots of gravy and are mild to medium-hot. Order a rice dish or Indian bread to go with Tadka foods.

Tikka Masala

Tikka means bits or chunks while Masala means spice mix. Tikka dishes consist of chunks of marinated, grilled meat cooked in thick tomato-based gravy. Tikka dishes are mild to medium-hot with plenty of gravy. They go perfectly with Naans (leavened flatbread made baked in a tandoor or oven) and a green salad. Try this recipe for Chicken Tikka Masala.

Thali

More a style of eating than a dish, Thali gets its name from the dish it is served in - a Thali or platter. The Thali is set with a number of small bowls (katoris in Hindi) containing all sorts of vegetarian and non-vegetarian foods. Rice, bread (like chapatis), pickles, chutneys and a dessert are also usually included. This is a whole meal in one plate! The only downside is the dishes in a Thali are usually set so you don’t get to choose the ones you want.

Vindaloo

Seriously hot, Vindaloo dishes have their home in coastal Goa in western India. Vindaloo spice mix is made by grinding lots of dry red chilies, and whole spices like cinnamon, cloves, and cumin in vinegar. Vindaloos have plenty of gravy and are usually made with pork but can also be cooked using beef, chicken, fish, or lamb. Order rice dishes and a veggie to go with Vindaloo style foods. Here's a recipe for Pork Vindaloo.