A Guide to Ordering Indian Food: Indian Menu Terms & Dishes (Part-I)

guide to indian food

In my previous post- A Guide to Ordering Indian Food: What You Need to Know Before You Order I started you off with the basics of Ordering from an Indian Menu, the components of an Indian Meal and how it’s served to access how much to order. In this post I’ll cover roughly what some of the names you may come across on an Indian Menu and their meanings which will help you decide what you’d like to Order the next time your at an Indian restaurant.

The Names of Indian Dishes

The naming of Indian foods is not nearly as complex as it looks or sounds!

The dishes are often named by the cooking process involved in preparing them (like Tandoori Chicken), or from the place the food originated from (like Kashmiri Aloo from the Kashmir region), or the culture it was adapted from (like Mughlai Biryani which comes from the famous Mughal culture), or the main ingredient in it (like Chicken Adraki which is made with mainly ginger and chicken)or the texture or dominant flavor of the finished dish (for example Reshmi Kabab with literally means Silken or smooth referring to the succulent bits of chicken or Achaari Murg with its pickle-style flavors).

Indian Menus generally list dishes as two word options, usually the first word telling you what is cooked, the second word describing how it is cooked or any of the above references.

General Terms Translated

Murg or Murgh: is the Hindi word for Chicken
Gosht or Gosh: is the Urdu word for meat mainly lamb, beef or mutton (which is goats meat…more commonly used across Indian instead of lamb). In India with it’s vast majority of Hindu’s that don’t eat beef it is usually means mutton or lamb.
Keema/Kheema: is the Hindi word for mince (it could be mice chicken, mutton, lamb or beef)
Aloo: is the Hindi word for Potato
Mutter: is the Hindi word for Peas
Palak: is the Hindi word for Spinach
Chole or Channa: is the Hindi word for Chickpeas.
Malai: is the Hindi word for Cream. It signifies a dish thickened or enriched with fresh Cream.
Ghee: is the Hindi word a type Clarified Butter
Chai: is the Hindi word for Tea with milk

Common Dishes on Indian Menu’s

Appitizers or Starters

Indian Appetizers or starters as they are known are usually dry dishes that come in bite sized portions on a platter. The following dishes are often found on Indian Menu’s under Starters.

Tandoori Kebabs

These are marinated meat pieces cooked on metal skewers in an Indian clay oven called tandoor, which is where the word tandoori comes from. The secret of the marinade is the use of yogurt which binds the spices to the meat and acts as a tenderizer. The most popular Tandoori dish is the Tandoori Chicken. Other tandoori dishes you’ll find on the menu include Malai Kebab (creamy kebab), Reshmi Kebab(meaning succulent kebab) and Sheekh Kebab(spiced mince meat kebab).

Tikka

Tikka means bits or chunks. A marinade made with spices and yogurt, often used on cubes of chicken or paneer (Indian cottage cheese), Tikkas are often mild due to the yogurt. The pieces marinated in a Tikka Masala(spice mix) are also cooked in a tandoor.

Pakoras or Pakodas

Crunchy batter fried fritters of various vegetables like cauliflower, Spinach, potato, eggplant, capsicum or whole chillies, onion or paneer (Indian cottage cheese). The batter is usually made of besan (gram flour) and a few spices. The vegetables are dipped in the batter to coat them completely and then deep fried. It’s served with a chutney or ketchup.

Papad

The Papad or Papadum as it’s also known can best be described as a type of Tortilla. Typically it is made from lentil, chickpea, black gram or rice flour. The dough of a Papad is shaped into a thin, round flat breads and then dried (traditionally in the sun) and can be cooked by deep-frying, roasting over an open flame, toasting, or microwaving, depending on the desired texture. It can be served plain as a crunchy snack or is sometimes topped with a kind of salsa of tomato, onion, coriander and chilli which is called Masala Papad.

Tikkis

Not to be mistaken with tikkas, Tikkis are small cutlets or patties made from mashed or diced vegetables and bound with potato and bread. Sometimes they are coated with egg or bread crumbs or just plain deep fried or pan pried. The result is small sized cutlet which is served with different chutneys. Popular Tikkis you’ll most likely find on the menu include Paneer Tikki made from Cottage cheese and potato, Aloo Tikki made with potato other veggies like carrots peas, beans and spices. Hara Bara Kebaba popular starter dish is actually a Tikki though it’s called Kebab. It’s made of green vegetables and peas.

Main Dishes

As mentioned above the names of Indian dishes mainly come from cooking process involved in preparing them or the the main ingredient in it or the region it comes from. So here’s what some of the names you may come across on a menu mean:

Masala

This word typically means spice mix so recipes for Masala dishes can be as varied as the chefs that cook them! They can therefore range from medium to really hot but will usually have a thick, not very substantial gravy.

Karahi or Kadhai/Kadai

This style of cooking gets its name from the wok-like dish known as Karahi it is cooked in. In Karahi/ Kadhai dishes the main ingredient is usually marinated in a yogurt and spice sauce and then stir-fried in a Karahi with sliced onions, bell peppers, ginger, garlic and chopped tomatoes. Karahi dishes range from medium to very hot and have medium amounts of gravy. Spices to expect are coriander, cumin, chilli and garam masala.

Korma or Quorma

Korma is a creamy mild sauce, usually made with yogurt, cream and occasionally nuts and coconut milk. It is Mughlai dish from North India is typically made by marinating the main ingredient in yoghurt and spices like ginger and garlic. It is then cooked in its own juices and a gravy made of onions, lots of tomatoes, green chillies and whole spices like cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, coriander, cumin, etc. Kormas can range from mild to medium hot.

Bhuna, Bhoona or Fry

This means “to stir-fry or sauté”. Many Indian dishes require spices to be lightly fried or Bhoono-ed to release their aroma and flavors and prevent them from having a ‘raw’ taste. Bhuna dishes can range from mild to hot. Bhuna dishes are characterized by the fact that the meat or vegetable used is cooked in its own liquids and no extra water is added. This makes for medium amounts of thick gravy that go well with both wet and dry dishes.

Saag

The word Saag is mostly used in connection with leafy greens like spinach, fenugreek, mustard greens and dill. In India, Saag is not just cooked by itself but often combined with great success with all kinds of meat, fish and vegetarian ingredients. The greens in these dishes may be chopped fine and cooked or cooked and creamed. Saag dishes are mostly mild with a medium amount of gravy. They’re not the most aesthetically pleasing to look at with it’s green color but it’s healthy and most of the time you wouldn’t believe their green leafy vegetables.

Achaari

Made with spices similar to those that go into Indian pickles, Achaari dishes can be medium- to very hot and most often will have a tangy flavor. Expect spices like chilli, fennel, mustard, carom seed (or Bishop’s weed), cumin etc. These dishes will be on the drier side with minimal gravy so it’s best to make you second main dish a gravy dish.

Makhani/Makhni

This name comes from the word Makkhan which means butter! These typically North Indian dishes are therefore cooked in butter and have substantial creamy gravy in which tomatoes play a predominant role. Makhni dishes are usually mild to medium hot and made with chicken, vegetables or lentils. Butter Chicken also known as Murgh Makhani is probably the most well known makhani dish of all times.

Malai

This word means cream. Malai dishes have a good amount of creamy, cream-based gravy. This gravy is mild and usually made with onions, tomatoes, ginger and garlic to which spices like coriander, cumin, garam masala etc are added. Cream is added to the dish as a finishing touch. Expect the dish to be mild and team it with a hotter, relatively drier main dish.

Kashmiri

This style of cooking comes from Kashmir in North India and is characterized by rich, creamy gravies made up of spices, nuts and dried fruit teamed with milk and cream! The result is delicious mild dishes that go well with rice preparations. Expect fragrant spices like cinnamon and cardamom. The gravy is often mildly sweet as sometimes sugar is added to the dish or the raisins and dry fruits tend to sweeten the dish.

Jalfrezi

This tasty style of cooking came about in the days of the British in India. ‘Jal’ means hot and ‘frezi’ means fry, so it essentially a stir-fry with little gravy. Usually a meat like chicken, lamb or beef, or vegetables is stir-fried with green chillies, bell peppers, onions and tomatoes and then cooked in its own juices.

Dopiaza/ Dopyaza

This term means two (do) onions (piaza) or double onions. This Mughlai (Mughal style) dish is usually prepared with lots of onions – pureed onions that makes up a thick gravy to which the main ingredient is added and the other that is added raw and cooked with the main ingredient or stir-fried till caramelized. As onions contain high amounts of natural sugar they caramelize when they are fried and render a slight sweetness to the dish. Onions are also used as a garnish.

Mughlai

Mughlai cuisine is a result of the Mughal rule in India. Food was rich and cooked with aromatic spices, nuts and dried fruits. Most Indian restaurants interpret this as mild to medium-hot cream and nut based gravies, rice dishes with lots of nuts and dried fruits. Saffron is a key ingredient used to flavor these dishes along with whole spices.

Vindaloo

Hot Vindaloo dishes have their home in coastal Goa in western India. The Vindaloo spice mix is made by grinding lots of dry red chillies and whole spices like cinnamon, cloves and cumin in vinegar. Vindaloos have plenty of gravy and are usually made with pork but can also be cooked using beef, chicken fish or lamb. The result is a tangy and spicy dish that goes well with bread.

Dum

This is a style of cooking that originated in the North. Dum means pressure and implies that the dish is cooked to a certain stage and then the vessel sealed to pressurize the contents and cause them to slow-cook (for hours sometimes) in their own juices. Dum dishes can range from mild to hot and usually have a medium amount of gravy. This method of cooking is used to prepare rice dishes as well.

Madras

Probably called Madras curries to identify them with their home in the south of India, these are really hot curry dishes. Madras curries team lots of pepper and chilli with onion, tomato, curry leaves and mustard and have a good amount of gravy which is why they go well with plain boiled rice.