Over the years, and more recently by e-mail, many people have asked me for some simple advice as to what to choose for a first visit to an Indian restaurant. Here in the UK, most folk of my generation, or younger, have a pretty good working knowledge of the Indian menu, but in mainland Europe, the United States and elsewhere (except Bombay) there are still plenty of curry novices waiting to get hooked, but confused as to where to begin. So, in answer to the question…….
In this day and age, it's hard to imagine that anyone could be completely unfamiliar with "curry", if not with the subtle variety of Indian cuisine.
Wherever we look, the supermarket shelves are filled with ever-more interesting and seductive homage to the world of spice and chile pepper madness. Thai, Indian and spicy Chinese ready meals and menu dishes are the norm where once reigned supreme the chicken-nugget, meat loaf and shepherd's pie.
If you live in the UK or in any major US or European city, you will find in your local yellow pages the address of at least one or, perhaps, many Indian restaurants --- both eat-in and take-away.
There are currently around 8000 Indian restaurants in the UK making one such eatery for every 6000, or so, of our total population. Given the demographic and geographic realities of this fact, there is almost sure to be an Indian Restaurant in every British small town or large village of 2000 or more inhabitants. Over two million people eat each week at Indian restaurants with another three million households cooking at home some form of Indian food, purchased at their local supermarket.
No wonder, then, that the Indian meal has superceded the Sunday roast and the Fish 'n Chip shop in representing the new (and some might suggest improved) national dish of our once great land.
The Indians (and Bangladeshis, who are often actually the owners and operators of "Indian" restaurants) have always proved most industrious in bringing their culture and hard-working efforts to foreign shores -- whether in the culinary trades or perhaps at the village shop (now, thankfully, probably open 24 hours a day).
From New York to Brisbane, the robust delights of the Indian food revolution are now to be sampled and savoured. But if you are a novice in the ordering stakes and the roulette wheel of gastric disorder threatens, what to ask for? Where to pin-stick the carry-out menu?
In the real or imagined world of romantic dinners for two, your dream-babe companion sits opposite and inquires as to your preference for onion bhajee or, perhaps, the prawn puree. Option anxiety mingled with tummy-terror fills your muddled head.
O.K., curry babes-and-buddies, help is forthcoming.
We all know a good chicken when we run over it, or merely pluck it insensitively from the dutiful Sunday barbecue.
We may have experienced a King Prawn or two in our maritime excesses and might fancy we know of the health advantage to be gained from a windy pulse, fiber-endowed veggie or plain staple rice.
Take your seat for dinner: napkin politely on knee and pretended perusal of the wine list. First, play for time. Sit back, look confident and ascertain from the waiter if there is an imported and suitably chilled Indian lager beer to be found in the house. This should be a Lal Toofal, Cobra, Taj Mahal, or, best of all (but not if brewed under license in the UK) the Kingfisher.
Otherwise, it may be prudent to stall a little longer with the Bud, Harp, Millers Lite or whatever passes for a slurpy sip. Or maybe just passes……
First of all: meat, fish or vegetable as a main course? Let's get the big and scary bit out of the way. Dry or in a sauce? Spicy-hot or mild and creamy?
The great thing about Indian cuisine is the availability of vegetarian options. Lentils, greens, roots and branches, are all conjured up to please, titillate and satisfy. Perhaps in the form of an integrated and complete Vegetarian Thali, attractively served in a "silver" dish of that name, the chance to sample several small vegetable portions will be found. No longer the poor cousin of the carnivorous night-out nibbler, you may indulge yourself with glee, ghee (purified butter) and total satisfaction in your descent to the ultimate in Vegan gluttony. Whoops, forgot about the butter……
A BASIC, QUICK GUIDE
Let's first consider the mild: Korma, Passanda and Muglai are the words to watch for. Liberal in their creamy mildness, these dishes, from different areas of the Indian sub-continent, will be face and bowel-savers when the chips are down.
For those who favour the dryer, purer and not-too-hot taste of the source meat or fish, try the Tikka or Tandoori versions.
Really spicy hot stuff will be tackled head-on in the Madras or Vindaloo variations on the theme. Brave but occasionally foolish forkers, like me, will feel compelled to go for the Phal or Tindaloo, those macho show-off botty-crippling dishes which we become strangely ever-addicted to. Nothing disrupts a band sound-check like the pervasive after-effects of the Tarka Dhal (lentils and garlic).
More acceptably rich and medium in their saucy tastefulness are the so-called Massalas -- chicken, prawn, shrimp, beef, lamb or whatever. These might be described as the ultimate safe bet for the first or second timer.
The CTM (or Chicken Tikka Massala) is the somewhat overly-acclaimed replacement for Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding, at least where I come from.
The touchy and sensitive palate might prefer the delicate chicken or lamb Korma which is cooked in a thick creamy yoghurt-based sauce. Bhajee usually refers to a side vegetable dish as an accompaniment
Pilau is, broadly speaking, a fried rice with additions such as prawn or vegetable but might just be the simple patna long-grained rice fried in spices, then boiled with chicken stock to fluff it out, as an accompaniment to a main dish.
Kebabs are a sausage-like starter and could be lamb or beef.
The Persian-origin (but delicious) Dhansak should be medium-hot, sweet and sour and lentil-based.
The Pathia is usually a dryer version of the same.
Birianis are the safe haven for the Risotto aficionado, being a rice-plus sort of dish, often served with a wet vegetable curry on the side.
Indian breads are simple and simply delicious. Nan, cooked in the Tandoor clay oven, unleavened and doughy, is a delight to be dipped. The fried Paratha, perhaps with enclosed vegetable filling, is fattening but fulfilling. The Chapati is a pancake-like thin excuse for a diet-conscious excursion into a dhal (lentil) sauce. Purees are deep-fried puffy and crisp pastry enclosures for fish, veg. or whatever.
The ubiquitous Poppadom resembles a giant potato chip, but is made from lentil flour, not potato. Massala (spicy) poppadoms or plain (boring) poppadoms are the perfect time-killer while you think about ordering any of the rest of these dishes. Often served with dips of a mild or spicy nature, they allow for cogitation, deliberation, and excitation before the moment of truth (and consequences).
Should you happen upon a restaurant specializing in regional, rather than generic Indian cooking, rejoice.
South Indian food, perhaps from the state of Kerala, is rich in vegetarian and seafood options as well as being famous for rice flour "breads" and pancakes such as Idlis and Dosas served with the ubiquitous Sambhar, a lentil-based soupy sauce for dipping and accompanying most meals, including breakfast. From the muslim north, come mild, smooth and creamy Mughlai and Passanda lamb and chicken curries or, from the Kashmir region, fruity mild dishes or the rich tomato flavoured lamb dish Rogan Josh which might be the preferred and more cautious way to go. If all the tasty hot spices prove to be your undoing, then have immediate recourse to the cooling cucumber and yoghurt Raita. Best order some anyway as a side dish if in doubt. Plain water rather than beer or wine will help still the raging result of any rash tasting of your companion's pork Vindaloo. Monica, pleeeease……
Starters could be a small portion of Tandoori chicken (on the bone), chicken Tikka (cubed pieces), or the always-popular Samosa, a triangular meat or vegetable-filled pastry parcel.
Soups are, typically, Dhal soup or the rather Anglicised invention of the days of the Raj, the Mulligatawny soup -- chicken and rice and not a million miles from the way your Jewish mother-in-law might have wished it.
There are, of course many, many regional dishes, especially snacks, which are to be best found and appreciated in their natural habitat of the sub-continent, but for now, the standard Indian restaurant menu must remain as our sometimes pedantic but forever pragmatic model of culinary adventure. Not exactly fast food, but tasty chow in a bit of a hurry.
So, here follows the attempt to condense in simple terms, a few selections of menu choice according to some basic preferences and tastes.
For those who prefer the
MILD and DRY
Starter: Vegetable Samosa or Chicken Tikka. Plain Poppadoms.
Main course: Lamb Tikka or Tandoori King prawn.
Cauliflower or spinach (Sag) Bhajee.
MILD and WET (saucy)
Starter: Dhal or Mulligatawny soup, Nan or Roti bread.
Main course: Chicken or Lamb Korma, Passanda, or Mughlai.
Brinjal Bhajee (Aubergine) or Aloo Chana (potato and chick pea).
MEDIUM SPICED DRY
Starter: Prawn puree or Sheek kebab.
Main course: Prawn Pathia or Chicken Bhuna.
Vegetable Biriani, Tarka Dhal (wet lentil/garlic sauce).
MEDIUM SPICED WET
Starter: Soup or Prawn Puree.
Main course: Rogan Josh (lamb), Chicken Tikka Massala Chicken or Prawn Dhansak.
Plain or Pilau rice.
Sag Aloo (Spinach and potato), Mutter Paneer (chick peas and cheese).
THE HOT STUFF
Main course: Beef Madras (hot), Prawn Vindaloo (very hot). Chicken Phal (extremely hot).
Best with plain rice.
Dhal Samba (spicy vegetables in lentil sauce). Most restaurants will happily "spice up" any vegetable dish on request, although this may merely mean an extra spoonful of curry powder.
All of the above recommendations are based on the typical, average preparations you will most likely encounter. But you can never account for some differences in "interpretation" as to heat strength. I once ordered a simple Tandoori Chicken for everyone in an infamous so-called Indian restaurant in Sydney, Australia, only to find that the new chef (who was probably from Alice Springs) had mistakenly used neat red Chile powder instead of the dry and mild Tandoori marinade. My wife, Shona took to Australian Lager in a big way that lunch time in a vain attempt to put out the fire.
Your idea of a really hot curry may be quite at variance with mine. However, there is no point in indulging in the silly Macho tendency to consume the most incendiary plate on the planet. If it is so hot that you can't taste the subtlety of the juicy (and expensive) King Prawn or the delicate flavourings of the many spices which make up even the most unpretentious curry powder or paste which, sadly, most restaurants feel obliged to use, then it becomes a mere burn-fest. The good folks of Mother India know full well that the balancing of herbs, spices, chiles, vegetable, fish and fowl, appropriate to each individual dish, requires a delicate touch.
You may be fortunate enough to stumble upon a more up-scale Indian restaurant which uses freshly ground spices and makes up sauces from scratch, rather than using the pre-prepared stuff, necessarily typical of industrialised food preparation everywhere. Go for it. Pay for it. Thank the Pantheon of Hindu Gods for it. And tip the waiter.
Wagner, Beethoven and Hendrix might have chanced the Vindaloo but Mozart, Debussy and John Denver were probably Korma or, perhaps, Dhansak guys on a daring night. Got the picture? See you in Curry Heaven.