Indian Food Demystified

Spiced -up and herbed-out, Indian food is a flavor explosion. Spices like ginger, garlic, and mint are nothing new. But what the hell is fenugreek and asafoetida? The tongue twister names of India's dishes further complicate your eating adventures. Get your bibs on, OTP is here to help you uncover the mysteries that lurk beneath all that curry.

We're not talking KFC here, rather, India's most popular non-vegetarian dish. Birthed in the 1950's at Moti Mahal, a restaurant in Peshawar before India's partition, butter chicken is marinated in yogurt and spices and then dunked into buttery tomato curry. After more than 60 years, legendary Moti Mahal in Delhi, is still the best place for the most authentic butter chicken.


If you want to do some side-by-side butter chicken comparisons, a collection of eating joints on Pandara Road serve great butter chicken and naan (oven-baked flat bread) and are open to feed your eating experiments until 3:30 a.m.



Synonymous with Indian street food, nothing hits the spot like chaat when you have a pregnant-sized craving for something unidentifiable. These little plates of savory snacks consist of fried dough discs ladled with boiled potatoes, a variety of sweet and sour chutneys and yogurt. Variations include: fried potato cutlets smeared with saunth (sour ginger and tamarind sauce, a.k.a aloo tikki), puffed rice with onions, tomato, coriander and tamarind sauce a.k.a. Bhel puri, fried round flour balls filled with jaljeera (a spicy concoction of lemonade and cumin) a.k.a gol gappa/pani puri/puchka, depending on the region. If you've fortified your stomach amply, go ravage through the little roadside chaat stalls. Otherwise, avoid the runs by sticking to Haldiram's, Nathu Sweets, or Bengali Sweet House.

Gujarati and Maharashtrian in origin, Pav Bhaji is a popular fast food all over, and particularly in western, India. 'Pav' is derived from Portuguese word pão (bread) and 'Bhaji' is a vegetable curry. The pav is usually slightly toasted and well-buttered, and the bhaji is potato-based, garnished with coriander and served with a side of green chilies, onions and lemon. Udipi restaurant chain is a safe bet for a good, solid bite.

Commonly referred to as Ma ki Dal (which means mother's lentils) this is the ultimate Punjabi feel-good food found at most local restaurants. So what did mama throw on your plate? Basically, a ton of cream and butter, tomatoes, chili and garam masala (a common Indian spice blend). Easily found anywhere, it's best accompanied by naan or tandoori roti, best washed down with a coke and best found at a dhaba (dirt cheap highway truck stops).

Green peas with cottage cheese in a spicy tomato based curry. Popularity wise, this is butter chicken's veggie counterpart and every single North Indian restaurant menu has a variation of this classic. Usually served with a garnish of coriander and/or cream, and pairs well with a rich red wine like pinot noir. So even if you're clueless about Indian food, get snobby and pretend like you know something about wine.


In its simplest form, a samosa is a savory pastry stuffed with spicy potatoes and peas. More complicated fillings include lentils, raisins and cashew nuts. Contemporary renditions stuffed it up with chicken, cottage cheese and noodles. Typically dipped into a tamarind sauce, samosas are the perfect, hand-held accompaniment to masala chai.

Chole is chickpea curry that can be eaten with rice, but universally served with a fried bread called 'bhatura'. If you need a heavy breakfast to absorb whatever is lingering, order these little protein bullets with a thick glass of lassi, a yogurt based drink that can be served sweet or salty. Punjabi in origin, chole bhature is now a staple in most metropolitan areas.

Great for healthy grass-munchers, dosa looks like a savory crepe and has many different stuffings, like potato, onion and cottage cheese. Dosa is made of a fermented batter of ground rice and lentils and is usually accompanied by sambar (vegetable stew), coconut chutney, yogurt, pickle, friend dry chilies or gunpower chutney (a spicey dal chutney). Wash down this healthy protein and carb packed meal with a fat glass of masala buttermilk.


Packed in tight with spices, yogurt, onions, saffron, lemon and meat (chicken, fish or mutton) or vegetables, variations of this rice-based dish can be found across Asia, the Middle East and northern Africa. The best known Indian version is Hyderabadi Biryani. This dish is a tasty blend of Telangana (a region in Andhra Pradesh) and Mughal cuisine. The rice is cooked separately before being layered with meticulously cooked meat or vegetable curry. Hyderabadi biryani is customarily served with raita.

If you haven't noticed, India is all about yogurt – it cools the palate and balances out all those fiery spices. Raita is yogurt with an attitude. While salt and cumin are raita staples, there are plenty of other mix-ins to choose from – boondi raita (tiny dried flour balls), vegetable raita (minced tomatoes, onions, cabbage or cucumber) and fruit raita (we're all about the pineapple). Let your kebab take a swim in some Raita to show everyone you've got Indian food all figured out.

Ironically, Chicken Tikka Masala, has little to do with authentic Indian cuisine. Rumor has it that back in the 1960s some guy bitched about his chicken tikka (spiced and marinated smokey bite -sized grilled chicken – the real Indian deal) being too dry, so the exasperated chef decided to throw in a can of Campbell's tomato soup with yogurt and spices to shut the old bastard up. Stick to our guide so you don't have to go looking for chicken tikka masala in India; there are better ways to give yourself the shits and giggles.