Since starting this blog, the most frequently asked email questions I get are almost always related to Indian food – easy dishes to make, what spices to use for particular dishes, and the best things to order at Indian restaurants.  It’s nice to read about people venturing out and trying Indian food, both at home and at restaurants.  Makes me happy!

While my knowledge is still pretty limited with regard to the first two categories (continuing to work on it!), I think I have a pretty good handle on the whole eating at Indian restaurants thing.  In fact, a while back, I wrote a guest post for Laura talking about this very topic.  Over the past few months, I’ve seen a growing interest in Indian cuisine and the art of Indian cooking (garam masala anyone?!).  So I thought I would resurrect that guest post and share it with my readers.  In my (very humble) opinion, it contains some pretty helpful nuggets of information!

When Vishnu and I first started dating, I found his stories about visiting South India really interesting.  Mainly because his experiences were so different from my own.  You see, depending on where you live/visit, the language, the food, and sometimes even the customs can vary.  Language and food being the biggest differentiators.

I’ve found that in the US, people equate Indian food with dishes from North India (for the most part).  While all the food is delicious, specialties from the North just seem to be more commonplace.  And I can totally see why – it’s Indian comfort food at its finest…creamy sauces, fluffy bread, etc.  So this post is about just that – a North Indian menu.

Dining at an Indian restaurant can be daunting… even for an Indian, so I’m going to do my best to walk you through some of the more common words you’ll find on most any menu.  After reading this post, you’ll be ready to take on any North Indian restaurant and have an awesome experience!

Let’s get started…


Murg/Murgh – Chicken
Aloo – Potato
Mutter – Peas
Palak – Spinach
Chole/Channa – Chickpeas
Malai – Cream
Ghee – Clarified butter
Paneer – Curd cheese (absolutely delicious)
Masala – A spice mix that can range from mild to extremely spicy
Garam masala – A popular spice blend that includes black and white peppercorn, cumin, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, and a bunch of other things.

Paneer (essentially, pressed cottage cheese) – YUM!


Naan – Soft, thick Indian bread
Chapati/Roti – Thin, tortilla like bread usually made with wheat flour
Bhatura – Large, soft, puffy deep fried bread usually eaten with Channa Masala (chickpeas in a spicy masala sauce).  The smaller version is called a puri.


What’s better than a warm, buttery piece of naan?  Nothing.


Pakoras – Vegetables (cauliflower, onion, potato, chilies) coated in a thick batter and deep fried until golden brown.
Tikka – Tikka means chunks.  For example, chicken tikka is chunks of chicken marinated in a yogurt sauce and cooked in the tandoor.  Paneer tikka is a great option for vegetarians.
Papad – A crunchy and spicy Indian tortilla generally eaten as an appetizer or alongside the main dish.
Tikkis – Cutlets made from mashed up vegetables.  My favorite way to eat tikkis is in a chickpea stew.


Kadai – A yogurt based curry that includes onions, tomatoes, and bell pepper.
Korma – A creamy yogurt based sauce made with cream, nuts, and coconut milk.
Saag – Leafy greens cooked in masalas.
Makhani – A sauce where tomatoes are the stars of the show and butter and cream are the sidekicks.
Malai – A cream based sauce also made with onions, garlic, ginger, and garam masala.
Jalfrezi – A sauce made by frying all the ingredients and using little cream to thicken everything up.
Vindaloo – A spicy sauce made with lots of red chilies, cinnamon, cumin, and vinegar.


My favorite dishes:

Paneer Makhani – Cheese cooked in a tomato, butter, and cream sauce.
Navratna Korma – Big patties made with nuts, cheese, and an assortment of veggies cooked in a korma cream sauce.
Palak Paneer – A mildly flavored dish made with a spinach sauce and cheese.

Paneer Makhani.  Order it.  You’ll be happy you did.

This post isn’t all inclusive, but I think it covers the main elements.  The next thing on my list…tackling the South, especially now that I’m an honorary South Indian (by marriage)!  My goal is to be able to make dosas (my favorite) at home!

Have a great Monday!

Indian food – love it, hate it, never tried it?  Favorite dish?

By Parita

34 thoughts on “Deciphering a North Indian Menu”
  1. I’m South Indian so I’m with Vishnu! Most of my family (both mom and dad’s side) are in HYD. My mom grew up in Delhi and her in-laws live there, so we have people in but AP and UP! I LOVE South Indian food. If I don’t have dosa, biryani, vada and coconut chutney at least a few times a month, I get severely homesick haha.

    North Indian food is the norm in most Indian restaurants in the US though! It’s also a lot easier to make (I think?) But I’m so glad there are several places in Ann Arbor that offer both North and South Indian foods on their menus! My fav North Indian dishes are: chole batura, or just channa masala, navaratan korma, paneer tikka masala. om nom!

    My tip? Whenever my friends or coworkers want to get Indian food, I ALWAYS suggest we go during lunch buffet. True, it will likely be all North Indian food, but it’s the best way for people new to the cuisine to try a little bit of everything!

    1. Actually, I think lunch buffets ruin the Indian food experience unless you happen to get there early. As the food sits out, it tends to lose freshness and flavor. I also think that it begins to look less appetizing as time passes.

      1. I would have to agree. I’ve only had one good buffet experience in my life. I’d much rather order a few different dishes and just share. But I see your point, Par, about trying different things. If you know of a restaurant that does a good buffet, than this prob would be the best option. I need to find one of those!

  2. You know my sentiment towards Indian food as a whole but I do enjoy the occasional chicken/fish tikka with romali roti and/or channa masala! You did a fab job outlining North Indian food and I’m feeling rather smug that I was aware of everything listed ;)!

  3. Paneer Makhani is one of my favorites as well!! I agree with you, most restaurants people consider Indian are North Indian dishes where I live as well. I usually have to travel to Raleigh NC (over an hour) to get good South Indian food but I’m slowly learning how to make it at home! I just had a post for homemade Raasam (my all time favorite)- here’s the link if you’re interested and it’s really easy to make:

  4. I like Indian food – there are so many options in Dallas for all Indian food but I enjoy vegetarian -south indian, snack- chat, panui puris more than gravy/curries. But at the same time I never say no to really delicious, chicken tikka masala with fresh warm nan bread 🙂 this is such a great list. Waiting for home-made dosa recipe soon!

  5. Oh dear – daunting is definitely right! To be completely honest with you, I’ve never eaten true Indian food before. I’ve had naan, but that hardly counts. I think the thing that always frightened me most about Indian food was the spices. My stomach doesn’t take kindly to hot foods, or even foods with too many flavors, so I’m always a little leery when it comes to trying exotic dishes.

    1. You should totally experiment at home! That way you control exactly what goes into your food. And really, with Indian food, there’s no precise way to go about cooking it – a little bit of this and a little bit of that is the way it works (in our house at least)!

  6. Despite being Chinese, I surely must’ve been Indian in one of my previous lives. I’m born and bred in Mauritius and Indo-Mauritians have ancestors from Delhi, Calcutta, Madras and Chennai. The local Indian food is a-ma-zing! I’ve always been rather intrigued as to the origins of two of our national dishes (and my absolute faves). One is called dhall pourri (which is translated as dholl puri for tourists) which is basically a puri made from dhall beans (possibly mung beans in English?) and eaten with ‘satini’ (tomato, flat coriander and onion chutney), ‘carri gros pois’ (butter bean curry, literally big bean curry), and sometimes with coconut and mint chutney with loads of green chillis. The other is more of a snack called gateau piment (literally chilli cakes) made from dhall, chillis and salt, and is deep-fried. My Indo-Mauritian friends have told me that both dhall pourri and gateau piment are both Mauritian inventions and don’t exist in India. Try googling the terms and perhaps you could enlighten me?

    1. All of that food sounds delicious…and vaguely familiar. A lot of the different regions make some similar dishes. Have you ever had chaat?

  7. I do like Indian food, but as an Indian sometimes I get sick of it. I do venture out to Indian restaurants in NYC, but not as much. Favorite dishes… chicken tikka masala, madrasi chicken, baingan da bharta, saag paneer, chole, malai kofta… i’m Punjabi, I like all the fatty stuff. 🙁

  8. I love learning more about indian food, its one of my favorites, but sometimes when eating out, I’m just not sure what to get since everything sounds delicious. This definitely broke it down a little more for me!! 😀

    <3 Kelly

  9. I love Indian food and have had several dishes, however, there were a few descriptions I was still a bit fuzzy on. I Love your explanations! Great!

  10. My favorite in North Indian food is Chicken Biryani made with distinct flavors and spices.

    Paneer Butter Masala is also the dish I would always love to have.

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