Photo: Jennifer Causey

Navigating a menu in an unfamiliar cuisine can be a fun, delicious challenge. Here’s what to know when you go to an Indian restaurant.

July 20, 2017

5 Dishes to Avoid:

Biryani

All mains usually come with hot cooked basmati rice, so it’s not really necessary to order more. Biryanis aren’t unhealthy choices; it’ll just be overkill with the rice already coming with your meal. Skip this section of the menu if you plan to order a few other dishes.

Paneer or Malai

Paneer (fresh cheese) and malai (fresh cream) are made with full fat dairy. Opt for dishes without these ingredients if you’d like to spend your calories elsewhere. If you are a vegetarian and have fewer options, balance a paneer dish with an all-vegetable curry or chana masala (chickpea stew).

Butter Chicken

While traditional curries use a base of onion, spices, and crushed tomatoes, this chicken dish is simmered with gobs of butter and glugs of cream. Chicken tikka masala or chicken vindaloo will have a similar yogurt and curry-infused sauce without the butter and cream. If you're cooking at home, try our healthy version: Quick Chicken and Vegetable Curry with Garlic Naan.

Buttered Naan

This chewy, pillowy flatbread is baked right on the walls of the tandoor until bubbled and just slightly charred. Flavored naan like garlic and cilantro are usually dripping with added butter or ghee (clarified butter). The plain naan is perfectly delicious on its own.

Too Many Dishes

Smaller vessels and a higher ratio of sauce to meat or vegetables may make portions seem smaller than they are. But you don’t actually need that many: each main is rich and complex enough that you don’t need much, and that extra sauce is necessary for the included rice and naan. Start with one dish per person and share.

5 Dishes to Order:

Vegetable Dishes

Since so much of the country is vegetarian, you can bet that vegetable dishes will be very good. If you usually avoid certain vegetables like okra or eggplant, the preparation at an Indian restaurant may just change your mind. After you’ve chosen a meat dish, ask your server for the vegetarian favorites they recommend.    

Tandoori Dishes

Items on this section of the menu are all cooked in a tandoor, a cylindrical-shaped oven that produces fantastic charred flavor much like a grill. Tandoori dishes get their flavor from the fire, not extra fat or rich simmering sauces. Swap out a curry or stewed item for a tandoori kebab or meat dish.

Lentil and Chickpea Dishes

You’ll find fiber- and protein-rich lentils and chickpeas across the menu. Lentils feature in crispy, crepe-like dosas and dal, a mild lentil-based porridge (read: Indian comfort food). Chickpea flour is used in papadum, the tangy, wafer-thin chips that arrive at the beginning of the meal, and chana masala, a chickpea and tomato stew. All are delicious and usually gluten-free.

Water

Skip alcohol, sodas, teas, and lassis (yogurt drinks) and stick to water. You’ll be drinking much more than usual to counter the spice and heat on your plate; something that’s cold and refreshing (not sweet, tangy, or bubbly) is all you need. Servers know to keep your water glass filled to the rim at all times. Many places also serve water in copper cups to keep the liquid ice cold.

A Fresh Vegetable Dish

Salads or sliced fresh vegetables aren’t as common on Indian menus, but you’ll likely find them on an Indian buffet, usually a lunchtime offer. Salads at Indian restaurants favor satisfyingly crunchy lettuces and come with a light, tangy-sweet vinaigrette. If you see fresh orange wedges next to the vegetables, grab one for the end of the meal—it’s a perfect last bite.