HOW TO ORDER AT AN INDIAN RESTAURANT
I am often asked this and my dear friend Jeannie suggested I include this here on my website and also in the cook book. She is a wonderful home cook and fabulous baker (in fact her cakes are the best I have ever had!) and she has a good knowledge of ingredients from other cultures and owns over 200 cook books…but take her out of the safe haven of her own kitchen and land her on a ruby red chair in the middle of our local Indian restaurant and she is clueless! Every time we eat out, she looks at me with a helpless, 'what shall we order' kind of look.
Firstly, I just want to say that food served in the restaurant trade is very different to home cooked Indian food like the recipes in this website and my cook book. Restaurants have to serve large quantities, very quickly and sometimes the quality is compromised. They often use the same curry sauce base for several dishes, which is why at times the dishes taste a bit 'samey.' You will probably not have authentic dishes unless you want pay to eat in a Michelin Star Indian restaurant, where all the dishes are freshly prepared and cooked to order.
Most of my non-Asian girlfriends say that they are not 100% sure what goes with what and because they are unsure, they end up ordering their usual dishes and don't tend to experiment or deviate. So, this quick guide to ordering in a restaurant is for those of you who want try something different and just haven't got the confidence. My first major tip has to be try and find a Indian restaurant that is frequented by Asians, then you know it will be authentic!
Get to know your waiter, ask for their name and what dishes they would suggest. Ask questions such as which dishes are freshly cooked that day or what the chef recommends. Remember, the waiter may not have tasted all of the dishes, but the chefs will have; they cooked them after all. Often, main dishes such as the curries will be cooked a day in advance and stored in the fridge. But, that's okay, we all know that curry tastes even better the day after it’s cooked!
ORDERING VEGETABLES DISHES
With vegetable dishes, again ask the waiter which vegetables are fresh that day. Many restaurants will use frozen and sometimes tinned. However, some tinned vegetables are still tasty when cooked. A chickpea masala for example is as flavoursome as the real thing, if not better! Also, some vegetables are quite acceptable frozen, i.e. Peas and sweet corn, but others like cauliflower (gobi) aubergine and courgettes really need to be fresh.
Do mix and match, this is very appropriate for Indian cuisine, which is designed to be shared. I know many people who do this and I think it really adds to the variety. But if some members of your party like it hot and you want to share the same dish; Order a mild curry and then ask the waiter for a hot sauce, this is usually in the form of a green chilli dip. Use the dip as an accompaniment; just add a teaspoon on the side of your own plate and that will give you the heat you need.
love popadoms but as an Asian housewife and private chef, I have never actually served them at my dinner parties. I make them as snacks at times. However, in Indian restaurants, they are designed to be served to help pass the time whilst your order is being made. The condiments accompanying popadoms are delicious but can be quite salty, which make you drink too much. Instead, just have a little and try and save yourself for the main meal.
THAT BLOATED FEELING
Don't fill up on naan bread! Naan is made with white flour and yeast; which tends to be quite filling, and you may leave the restaurant feeling a little bloated. I know where you are coming from though - as a hot buttered naan bread is addictive! A good alternative are chapattis, they contains no salt, yeast or butter.
SOME LIKE IT HOT or NOT!
If you don't like your food too spicy, then order plain boiled rice, this helps to soak up the spicy curry sauce, stay away from a Biryani which is made with chillies. And if it is really too hot and your mouth is on fire, don't be tempted to drink water, as all this does is disperse the chilli around the mouth and makes matters worse. Instead, have a few tablespoons of the cucumber raita or a minty youghurt sauce. These condiments are specifically designed to cool down the mouth; yoghurt is cooling; cucumber is cooling and mint is cooling, so it's a triple whammy on the senses!
When eating out, I often see people eating a curry just by itself, using a fork and eating it like a stew. Traditionally curry is meant to be about a quarter of the meal in terms of proportionality. Try balancing out your meal equally with curry, rice/ naan/chapattis, salad and yoghurt. Your senses will not be overwhelmed by spice this way.
SALAD - REALLY!
I think the most misunderstood category of food in Indian restaurants is salad. I know many of my friends will not bother with it. But salad is served with the dishes for a good reason. Again, it's to cool down the pallet and the freshness is in complete contrast to the deep rich spicy flavours of the curry. At home or at my dinner parties, I would not dream of serving a meal without a crispy fresh salad. Next time you are in an Indian restaurant, try the salad with the spicy food, it really compliments it.
VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF LIFE
I know the menu can be overwhelming when ordering your dishes, but if you read the ingredients of the dishes carefully, you will notice many will be similar. So order a variety; try and include white meat, red meat, some vegetables and pulses along with the usual suspects of naan and rice. For example, if you order a chicken dish for the starter, have a lamb dish for mains or vice versa, then add one vegetable or lentil curry.
VEGETARIANS AND VEGANS
Indian cuisine lends itself so well to vegetarianism and veganism. The only difference for vegans would be that they would not be able to eat the yoghurt dips or the paneer. Otherwise, there is a wide range of vegetable curries to choose from, the old favourites like aloo gobi, saag aloo, okra, daal, chickpeas etc, as well as vegetarian starters, like onion bhajis, vegetable samosas, spicy potato cakes etc.
If you have a wheat allergy, it can sometimes be difficult to find a dish you can safely eat. However, with Indian food, you have quite a wide range of dishes to choose from. All the rice dishes and all the curries will be gluten free, as flour is not usually used as thickener. But take care when ordering the starters, any bhaji or pakora will be safe as they are made with chickpea flour. Also a quick bit of trivia about bhajis and pakoras, they are the same thing, just different dialects. Bhaji is a Hindi word and Pakora is the Punjabi name for a Bhaji. Just be careful with samosas as the pastry will be made with wheat flour. However, be careful of having a tandoori chicken starter as flour may be used to coat the chicken. But, if unsure, just ask your waiter.
DISHES THAT WORK WELL TOGETHER
Use the menu planner (click link) to help you order dishes that work well together. Whether you are cooking recipes from this website, the cook book or eating out, the same principle applies.