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Culinary Lesson #17 - Indian Cuisine Terminology

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Indian cuisine has always been something that I've enjoyed, but is also something I wish I knew a lot more about.  Unfortunately, it's not something you can just read a book about and be an expert on.  India is made up of various states and territories, various religions, a wide range of climates, and various cultures - all of which combine to create an extensive list of regional cuisines.  And then to add to this list, let's not forget about the culinary fusions that exist out of India.  One of my favorite Indian dishes (Chicken Tikka Masala) doesn't even have roots in India, but rather is identified as a British-Indian dish.  To say that you understand Indian food and culture after experiencing one food outing or one trip to an Indian-influenced city would be far from the truth.

Despite being so diverse, one of my culinary goals is to better understand the various types of cuisine that either originates in India or has Indian influences.

Below is a small step in the right direction.  After recently eating out at an Indian restaurant with a good friend of mine, we noticed that various terms showed up on  the menu quite a bit.  It seemed as though if you knew the meaning behind a lot of the key words, you could piece together an educated guess of what the dish was.  The first half of terms I have listed are ones that many people are already familiar with, whereas words from the second half of the list were new to me.


Curry is one of the most general terms out there, but is essentially a spicy sauce cooked with meat or vegetables and served with rice.  It's similar in vagueness to the term 'casserole' in the States.

Naan is an oblong shaped flat bread that is similar to pita bread.  It is baked in a tandoor (see tandoori for definition) and is typically brushed with ghee (clarified butter) and baked with cilantro.

Masala is another general term used in many countries that translates into 'a mixture of spices'.  Masala can either be wet (a paste) or dry, and is the source of key flavors for most sauces.

Tikka [TEE-kah] roughly translates into a large dice, or a rough cut of meat.  So in Chicken Tikka Masala, for example, you know to expect large dices of chicken in a spicy (hence masala) sauce.

Tandoori is a term that is typically associated with tandoori chicken, which is a bright red roasted chicken that gets its color and flavor from spices such as cayenne pepper, red chili powder, paprika and turmeric.  It gets its name from the fact that it is cooked in a tandoor, which is a clay oven that reaches temperatures up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit!

Saag is general term for a green vegetarian dish that is often made by combining cooked spinach with fresh and dry herbs and spices, such as garlic, cumin, turmeric, red chili powder, and coriander.  Sometimes the spinach (or similar green) is pureed, while other times it is left in its wilted state after being cooked down.

Vindaloo [VIN-deh-loo] is a very hot curry that gets its heat from red Kashmiri chillies.  In the states, there's usually potatoes in the dish, despite the fact that traditional vindaloo does not contain potatoes.

Kadahi - similar to Tandoori - refers to the type of dish that is used to cook an item.  Like a wok, a kadahi is a thick cast iron dish with a rounded bottom.

Aloo translates to potato, and is usually similar in size to tikka.

Paneer is a type of cheese that's most similar to queso fresco or cottage cheese, and is typically cubed.


[What's your favorite Indian dish?  Have you tried any Indian cooking at home?  What other words do you think would be good additions to this initial list?]

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