A Beginner’s Guide To Indian Cuisine Terms

So, you’re interested in learning how to cook Indian food, but you’re possibly so confused by the ingredients, the names of the dishes, and the regional differences, that you don’t know where to start? That’s all understandable — for those who don’t have a familiarity with the food itself or the language, it can be difficult to know where to start as a fledgling Indian-style chef.

Have no fear! The fine chefs at The Cooking Studio are here to help you with your first foray into Indian cuisine. In today’s blog, we’ll go over many of the terms you’ll need to know in order to prepare for your very own Indian cooking experience. Read on and learn!

Curry And Curry Powder: What’s The Difference?

“Curry” and “curry powder” are not exactly the same thing, though you would certainly be forgiven for thinking so. When someone in the know says “curry,” they’re referring to either:

  • Any number of curry-based dishes, a wide variety of gravy-based meals that contain a mix of ingredients with the primary one being curry powder;
  • Or, the curry leaf, which is cultivated from the murraya koenigii, a citrus tree that grows in India and has been used as a spice source for thousands of years.

You can blame the British for the fact that most of us have made a habit of referring to almost any spicy Indian dish as “curry” — after colonising the continent of India, the Brits were enamored by the absolutely massive variety of dishes available there, and in true imperialist fashion, they needed some simple terminology to describe all of these foods. Not realizing that the Tamil word kari was used in India to describe a very particular dish, they just went with it and decided to call any kind of sauced-based concoction a curry (a clear adulteration of the original word.)

What is curry powder, then? Simply put, any powder with the curry moniker is a complex mix of traditional Indian spices like cinnamon, cumin, pepper, mustard, turmeric, ginger, and coriander (among others). As with the misuse of the word kari, the British are responsible for the now-ubiquitous worldwide popularity of the term “curry powder,” despite the fact that it has never been used in India — during the early days of the British occupation, English entrepreneurs returning home began manufacturing all of these spices into a mixture that they then sold to their fellow countrymen. They marketed it as curry powder, and the name stuck.

Naan

We’ve never met a person who didn’t like the taste of naan! Flat and fluffy, naan is India’s version of pita bread, only much, much better. It is usually served with a sauce like chutney or raita, but it’s also perfect as a side that goes well with virtually every Indian dish. It is generally made using yeast, but sometimes a recipe will call for yogurt instead.

Naan is a flatbread meant to be enjoyed as not only an appetizer, but also as a staple throughout an entire meal. It’s a perfect food-dipping accessory, much like our basic western bread.

Roti

Roti is a staple in Indian homes, well-loved for its taste and for the simple fact that it is extremely easy to make. Made with whole wheat flour, kneaded into a soft dough, and then flattened into small circles and cooked on a skillet, roti is a great alternative to the popular but slightly more complex naan.

Paratha

A layered flatbread made of wheat flour and fried in a pan, paratha is most often served as a stuffed dish that can contain spicy potato bits, cauliflower filling, or a mix of other vegetables. Think of paratha as a vegetable-filled burrito and you’ll get the idea.

Poori

A comfort food popular in northern India, poori is simply wheat dough that has been flattened into small circles and deep-fried in oil or ghee, and typically comes served with stir-fried potatoes.

Samosa

A Samosa is a triangle-shaped pastry made of flour that can be baked or fried, and usually contains a mix of lightly spiced vegetables such as peas, potatoes, and onions. Meat can also be added for additional texture and taste. Samosas are deep-fried until they are perfectly crispy and flaky.

An extremely popular “pocket food” throughout South Asia, samosas are usually served as plain appetizers before a big meal can be crafted with a little extra spiciness if that’s what you’re guests prefer.

Chutney

Chutney is comparable to salsa in the West and is the standard sauce in India that can be made from any number of curry spices, vegetables, and fruit. There are two kinds — red and green. The red version, called tamarind, is both sweet and sour. The green version contains generally either coriander or mint and offers a taste quite different from its red counterpart. Both go well with a number of Indian dishes and make a great dipping sauce for naan bread.

Raita

A complementary dip or dressing that is traditionally paired with spicy main courses, raita is a smooth, saucy comdiment made from yogurt, cucumber, and mild herbs. Raita does a fantastic job of cooling your mouth off after partaking of some of the more daring Indian dishes.

Masala

Masala dishes are an extremely common menu item to find in Indian restaurants, only because the word is a general catch-all that roughly translates to “spice mixture.” Any masala dish, whether it’s vegetable- or meat-based, will have a generous amount of spices mixed in, usually consisting of pepper, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Two examples of popular masala dishes are chana (chickpea) masala and tikka masala.

Tikka

This word means “small chunks” in Hindi. A tikka dish usually contains bits of chicken or lamb that are cooked in a heavy tomato-based concoction. When you order “tikka masala” in an Indian restaurant, for example, you’re ordering a bowl of marinated, grilled chicken that has been cooked in a heavily-spiced, thick gravy that is reminiscent of a stew.

Tikka dishes go best with rice or bread that will allow you to soak up the sauce.

Dal

The hindi word for lentils, “dal” dishes are a range of soups that contain water, tumeric, and salt, mixed with a liberal amount of lentils and cooked over a fire. Varieties include dal makhni, which contains several kinds of lentils cooked with cream or butter, and tadka, a soup containing whole spices such as cumin seeds and mustard seeds.

Biryani

The Indian equivalent of a crock pot meal, biryani consists of a meat choice (usually chicken or seafood) and vegetables that are cooked in a heady broth of pepper, cinnamon and cardamom, which is then layered over a dish of rice and garnished with onions. After slow-cooking for several hours, the dish is then ready to enjoy.

Learn How To Cook Indian Food At The Cooking Studio In Fort Collins

If you’d love to cook your own Indian dishes but are still unsure of your ability, why not take a class at The Cooking Studio? Not only do we offer courses on Indian cuisine, but we cover many other ethnic foods such as Thai, Italian, French, and Middle Eastern.

In addition to regularly scheduled adult classes, The Cooking Studio also provides team building activities, cooking classes for teens and kids, and corporate classes for you and your workmates.

For more information on our classes, contact us online today. We look forward to teaching you how to cook!