A Beginner’s Guide to Indian Restaurant Menus

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Don't know your murgh from your masala? Never fear. All is explained here
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Saag paneer is chunks of soft cheese (paneer) in a mixture of spiced and chopped spinach and greens (saag). 

Indian restaurants have made their way all across the country, but if you’ve never been to one before (or if you have, but the menu left you scratching your head), the experience of dining in one can be a little daunting. If you feel like there’s more for you to learn about Indian cuisine, read on to become a little more of an expert.

A Beginner’s Guide to Indian Restaurant Menus (Slideshow)

Like the cuisine of any huge country, “Indian food” is an incredibly broad and imprecise term. However, you’ll find that the menus at most Indian restaurants in the United States are relatively similar, just as  the menus at Chinese-American restaurants tend to not vary much from one to the next. For today’s purposes, we’ll focus mostly on the most ubiquitous dishes (incidentally, the majority of them trace their origins to northern India). And just as you won’t find sesame chicken in China, there are several extremely popular Indian restaurant staples that you won’t find in India — but we’ll get to those later.

The first step to mastering Indian restaurant menus is to learn a little bit of the native tongues, principally Hindi and Urdu, from which most common Indian menu terms come. Once you’ve learned just a handful of words, you’ll be able to navigate your way around the menu much better. Masala means “spice mixture” (the commonly-used garam masala blend usually includes pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom); saag is spinach and other greens with added spices; paneer is a fresh cheese similar to queso fresco; aloo translates to potato, and chana to chickpeas. Tikka usually refers to cutlets of marinated meat, and chicken translates to murghCurry (an Anglicism that derives from a Tamil word) can be any of a wide range of dishes, but always consists of meat, seafood, vegetables, or some combination of them in sauce. And a tandoor is a deep, hot vertical oven that’s used to cook breads and marinated meats, so anything that’s listed as tandoori comes from that.

Once you get the hang of the basics of Indian restaurant menus, they’re actually not as complicated as you may think. The managers and servers are probably more than willing to help you out if you’re confused about what’s in a dish — whether it has cream or is spicy, what its components are — so don’t be afraid to ask. Read on to learn about 12 of the most popular dishes that you’ll find in most Indian restaurants.

Biryani

Popular all across India, biryani is composed of long-grain rice, spices, and meat and/or vegetables.

Butter Chicken

Invented in Delhi in the 1970s, butter chicken is chunks of chicken that are marinated in a yogurt and spice mixture, roasted in a tandoor, and served in a rich tomato-based sauce that also contains garlic, cardamom, a whole bunch of spices, and (of course) butter. 

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