A Beginner's Guide To Indian Restaurant Menus

A Beginner’s Guide to Indian Restaurant Menus

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. 


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. 

Chana Masala

Chana masala means "spiced chickpeas," and is a mixture of chickpeas, garam masala, and, typically, onion, tomatoes, coriander, garlic, ginger, and chiles. It's delicious and filling, and one of the most popular vegetarian dishes on earth. 

Chicken Tikka Masala

Truly authentic Indian cuisine doesn't actually involve the rich, heavy sauces that you'll find in dishes like chicken tikka masala, the most famous of all "Indian" dishes, but when the British ruled India they brought with them their taste for sauce. Tikka masala wasn't actually invented in India; it most likely first appeared in the U.K. and is today ordered so often there that it is considered the British national dish. It starts with chunks of chicken that have been cooked in the tandoor, and is served doused with a tomato-based sauce that usually also includes cream or yogurt and a spice blend that varies from restaurant to restaurant. It's rich and comforting, and just about impossible to dislike (unless you're lactose intolerant). 


Another British invention, mulligatawny is the most commonly found soup on Indian restaurant menus. It's a thickened yellow soup that's heavily spiced, and traditionally contains lentils, curry powder, nutmeg, vegetables, and, occasionally, nuts and rice. 


Pakoras are, essentially, fritters, of a type found throughout South Asia. They're generally made with onion, potato, chicken, eggplant, shredded mixed vegetables, or cauliflower that's been dipped in chickpea flour and deep fried. They're a popular appetizer and snack. Occasionally, you'll see them under their South Indian name, bajji


Roti is the Hindi word for bread, and there are several types of breads that you'll most likely find on Indian restaurant menus. Naan is the most popular; it's cooked in the tandoor and is similar to pita but fluffier. Paratha is a denser, layered flatbread fried in butter. Poori is a puffy flatbread that's been fried in oil. They're all good for mopping up sauce from your tikka masala. 

Saag Paneer

Usually synonymous with palak paneer, saag paneer consists of chunks of paneer, or fresh cheese, in a creamy mixture of finely chopped spinach, spices, ghee (clarified butter, a staple of Indian cooking), and occasionally other greens. You'll find plenty of other proteins and vegetables served in saag (sometimes called saagwala) as well, including chana saag (with chickpeas), saag aloo (with potatoes), and saag gosht (with meat, usually lamb). 


Another appetizer and snack that's extremely popular throughout much of South and Southeast Asia and the Middle East, samosas are fried turnovers with any number of fillings. You'll most likely find two varieties on menus: vegetable samosas are usually filled with potatoes, onions, lentils, and peas; and meat samosas contain ground beef or lamb with onions and plenty of spices. 

Tandoori Chicken

Any time you see the word tandoori on a menu, it means that the menu item has been cooked in a traditional cylindrical clay tandoor oven (or at least in that style if the restaurant doesn't have one): hot, fast, and over direct heat. Chicken (or other proteins, including shrimp, lamb, or paneer) is marinated in yogurt and a spice blend that includes chili powder, turmeric, and paprika; skewered; and lowered into the tandoor. It's served as-is (without sauce), usually on a smoking plate, à la fajitas, with sliced onions. 


Vindaloo is a curry dish that's incredibly popular in British "curry houses" and can also be found on most Indian menus stateside. In the United States, the word vindaloo is basically synonymous with "spicy," and oftentimes the spiciest dish on the menu will be a vindaloo. It's essentially the traditional house curry, made with your choice of protein, potatoes, and a whole lot of chile powder, and it's not for the faint of heart. It can also appear on menus as "phall," and while some Indian restaurants might not list it on their menu, they'll often prepare it for you if you ask.