The Indian Restaurant Menu Explained
There is a lot of mumbo jumbo spoken about the Indian restaurant menu. We are led to believe that each dish is lovingly prepared to some secret recipe, known only to that particular chef. Read the menu and it will describe the virtues of any particular dish in a most evocative style. But there is one thing you can be sure of, most dishes in the typical Indian restaurant don’t vary much at all, other than in heat and the most prominent ingredients, such as the type of meat, fish or vegetable and possibly whether the sauce is lentil or cream based. This is not to say that the dishes are not enjoyable, but to cater in almost the ‘fast food’ market, that is the way they have to be.
So, every Indian restaurant will have its basic ‘curry gravy’ and every dish served will be a derivative of that sauce. The Indian restaurant chef is the master of exploiting that base to give us what we know as our favourite dish.
We have tried to demystify the Indian restaurant menu by explaining what individual items are and how they vary from each other. It is worth bearing in mind that spellings are not definitive as all the translations into the English language and alphabet have been done phonetically. So we might see Dhansak or Dansak, for instance.
Balti is a style of cooking that developed in Birmingham twenty or thirty years ago. There are a number of theories on the origin of the term Balti, some say Balti describes the cooking pot and others say it refers to a style of cooking that evolved in Baltistan, somewhere on the North West frontier no doubt. I can’t actually say, but I’m willing to bet that what is served in a restaurant today, described as Balti, would be unrecognisable on the Indian sub-continent.
So in a ‘traditional’ Balti restaurant, everything is a Balti, and probably reasonably priced. In a normal Indian restaurant, anything described a Balti is usually on a separate section of the menu and a couple of quid more expensive. And that’s the main difference.
In a ‘traditional’ balti restaurant, the dish is served in a large balti pot and eaten with Indian breads, such as Nans, Chappatis and Parathas.
In some Indian restaurants, the term Karahi or Korai is encountered. This refers to the serving dish, which is made of cast iron on a wooden base and pre-heated, so that the curry sizzles in the serving dish when it is brought to the table. Don’t touch the Karahi or you will get your fingers char grilled.
A Bhuna is a fairly dry fried curry containing onions and spices. It tends to be medium hot and fairly palatable to the uninitiated. Like Dopiaza, but less onions.
Biryani is a rice dish, cooked together with whatever meat or vegetable it is ordered with. The meat and vegetables are pre-cooked and then mixed with the pillau rice. It is usually served with a separate bowl of curry sauce. I suspect the origins of this dish lie in using up leftovers, although it may have evolved into a more splendid affair for banquets and feast in times gone by.
Chapattis are a simple circular unleavened bread. They are simply made from flour and water and then cooked on agriddle on both sides. They are then subjected to a naked flame for a few seconds to complete the process.
Dhansak has its origins in a Parsee (Middle Eastern, Persia) dish and was probably a very special dish presented at a feast. The dish served in Indian restaurants today is based on the addition of a lentil puree to cooking process. It is described as a sweet and sour curry with a lentil sauce. The serving varies from restaurant to restaurant, but often expect a pineapple ring to be included in the curry for added sweetness and contrast. The strength depends on the chef or restauranteurs interpretation, so you need to take the advice from the menu. I have seen it described as mild, medium and hot. In my own local restaurant it is described as “hot, sweet and sour”.
Do means “two” and Dopiaza means something like “double onions”. Typically this is a fairly basic Indian restaurant curry, prepared as a Bhuna or Bhoona but with the addition of extra onions probably both in the cooking and as a garnish. It is also the same strength as a Bhuna which is medium, so not in the Madras league.
JALFREZI, JALFRAZI, JHALL FRYZY, ZALl FREZI etc, etc.
Jalfrezi is ‘hot’ dish given additional heat by being cooked with fresh green chillis. It usually also contains visible onion, tomato and capsicum. It is the addition of the green chillis and probably addition of extra chilli powder that sets this dish apart from other typical curries on the menu. It is generally served as hot as a Madras or Vindaloo depending on the chef’s interpretation or mood.
Korma is the definitive mild curry on the Indian restaurant menu. It is typically prepared with butter and thickened with single cream and coconut milk to give a very, very mild creamy sauce. Spicing would be more subtle, and there would be more use of aromatic spices such as cardomom, clove and cinnamon rather than the more robust spices such as chilli, cumin, black pepper etc.
If you ever have the misfortune to have to drag somebody to an Indian restaurant because they ‘hate’ spicy food, then this is the dish to steer them towards.
Madras is a city in Southern India. In an Indian restaurant, Madras means a ‘hot dish’. I doubt if the dish owes its origins to Madras at all, other than its name was chosen wayback in the mists of time to signify a fiery hot dish, just as the city of Madras sizzles in the fiery hot Sun.
NAN, NAAN BREAD
Nan bread is a leavened bread traditionally baked in the Tandoor Oven. It is baked from a dough containing flour (usually Chapatti flour or wholemeal), yogurt, milk, sugar, yeast and ghee (clarified butter). They obtain a distinctive teardrop shape from being stuck to the side of the Tandoor and baking whilst gravity is stretching them. They are served piping hot, often spread lightly with melted butter or ghee and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Phaal, sometimes spelt as phal, phall or paal, is an Indian curry dish, red to red-orange in colour, although sometimes can appear very dark red in colour, almost purple in some cases. It is widely reputed to be one of the hottest forms of curry available, even hotter than the Vindaloo, with at least 10 or 12 ground chillies included in a standard portion.
The phaal has achieved a certain degree of notoriety as the hottest generally available dish from Indian restaurants, so much so that many of them do not actually list it on their menus and will only cook it if specifically requested.
Puris are Indian fried breads. They are served as an accompaniment or sometimes as the base for a starter, such a Bhuna Prawn on Puri.
Rice is the staple diet on the Indian sub-continenent and its influence has extended to it being the traditional accompaniment for Indian dishes in restaurants. The very best rice is Basmati rice (from the snow drenched foothills of the Himalaya’s according to the front of the packet). Basmati rice is generally used in the preparation of rice dishes in the Indian restaurant. Never confuse the quality of Basmati for normal long grain (such as Patna) rice, as Basmati is far superior.
Rice is served as either plain boiled or Pilau. Pilau rice is pre-boiled to an al dente texture, fried with aromatics such as cardamom, clove, cinnamon and coloured and flavoured with saffron (or turmeric if the restaurant owner or chef is a cheapskate). Then there are all of the variations of Pilau rice such as fried with pre-cooked vegetables or mushrooms or mince or eggs or peas.
Rice tends not to be eaten with a Tandoori meal and lends itself better to curries, where there is a sauce to absorb.
Rogan Josh used to be a Kashmiri lamb stew before Indian restaurants commercialised it in the UK. It most almost certainly still exists as a traditional dish in Northern India and Kashmir but that is where the resemblance stops. Now in Indian restaurant parlance it means cooked with tomatoes and onions and probably capsicum for good measure. It is generally presented as a medium strength curry, not as hot as a Madras.
Samber is a bit similar to Dhansak, in as much as it is prepared with a lentil base. It is less common on the Indian menu than Dhansak but it can also appear as well as. It is hard to give guidance on the difference between the two dishes as often it is only the interpretation of the chef that classifies them one way or the other. I would personally, expect the Samber to be presented as a sour curry, with the addition of lemon juice, but read the menu, don’t take my word for it.
Shami Kebabs are small round patties of minced lamb and lentils, cooked in a Tandoor oven. Sometimes they are exactly the same as the Sheek Kebab, but formed into a flat pattie rather than formed onto a skewer like a sausage. Better restaurants differentiate between the preparation of the two types of kebab. Usually served with a small side salad and Yoghurt and Mint Sauce.
SHEEK KEBAB, SHEIK KEBAB
Sheek Kebabs consists of minced lamb mixed with lemon juice, coriander, onion, garlic and green chilli. The meat is shaped onto a skewer, like a sausage, and cooked in the Tandoor Oven (or failing a Tandoor oven, sometimes on a charcoal barbeque). Usually served with a small side salad and Yoghurt and Mint Sauce.
Tandoori dishes derive their name from the Tandoor oven that they are cooked in. Tandoor ovens are traditionally clay ovens fuelled by charcoal in the bottom. Today, in the Indian restaurant, they are a little more high-tech, and can be fuelled by charcoal, gas or electricity. It is probably the heat generated in the Tandoor that give Tandoori dishes their unique taste, rather than the particular fuel used to fire them. Meat, kebabs and breads are cooked in the Tandoor. Meats are lowered into the oven on skewers and bread is stuck to the side with the aid of a good slap and asbestos fingers.
I suppose most things can be ‘Tandooried’, but the preparation is to marinate the meat in a marinade of yoghurt and spices. In the Indian restaurant, red food dye is often added, giving a rather radioactive red to the colour of the dish. This is not traditional and is only done for presentation.
Tandoori dishes do not have a reputation for being too spicy and are often recommended as being subtle and especially good for anybody wanting a more gentle introduction to the Indian menu. They are usually served as starter with a small side Salad and a Yoghurt and Mint Sauce, or with a Salad and Naan bread as a main course.
Tikka is prepared in a similar way to a Tandoori dish. However it is usually a piece of fillet meat, chicken or fish that is cooked on a skewer, whereas Tandoori dishes are usually a whole portion of meat such as a Chicken quarter or half.
Tikka Massala is Britains No. 1 favourite dish, allegedly. It is so popular that they even make it in India now. It is also the answer that you will get if you ask any Indian waiter what they recommend. I think they are all programmed to respond with “Chicken Tikka Massala”.
The Tikka Massala curry is made with Tikka meat. That is, meat that has been marinated and cooked on skewers in a Tandoor before being used in the curry preparation. The Massala is the curry sauce that the Tikka is served in. It is a creamy mild and colourful dish, often appearing day-glow red due to the addition of the red food colouring either in the Tikka process or in the Massala or both. It is prepared in the same way as a basic curry dish but with the addition of possibly yoghurt and just before serving, single cream.
The widespread belief is that Vindaloo owes its origins to Portugese colonial India, where it was traditionally a Potato, Pork and Vinegar curry from Goa. I suspect Vin related to Wine or Vinegar and Aloo is Indian for Potato. In Indian restaurants today, the term Vindaloo is really indicative of the strength or heat of the curry. It usually has diced potatoes in the sauce along with the chosen meat or chicken. However, I can’t ever remember seeing pork as an option. I wonder why? Vindaloo is ‘hotter’ than a Madras.
However, more informed opinion shared with me states tha Vindaloo originated from Vindalho which is derived from vinho or wine (vin is French so that is not the right word) and alho which is garlic. Not aloo as no one spoke Hindi in Goa during the Portuguese regime. Potatoes are added to alleviate the piquancy of the dish. A lot of vinegar was used so people say the VIN could have come from vinagre. But even so the local wine or feni is still added in a good vindalho which is always made of Pork. Other vindalhos appeared on the scene because Hindu and Muslims do not eat pork.