I might not be all that familiar with Indian culture, but like many Americans, I know that I love Indian food. There is something fantastic about the combination of spices and sauce that just works so well together. Perhaps what I love the most is that there is so much more depth and richness to an Indian meal than there is in so many other dishes that I have tried.
Yet at the same time, most of us are pretty limited in just how much Indian food we have actually tried. Sure, there are the typical curries like butter chicken and chicken tikka, but there are so many other options and types of Indian food out there. Some of them are fairly easy to find in the United States, while others are much more difficult.
Easy or difficult, I dare you to try at least one new food from this list. You won’t regret it.
Table of Contents
- Aloo Gobi
- Beef Vindaloo
- Papri Chaat
- Butter Chicken Curry
- Chana Dal
- Chicken 65
- Chana Masala
- Dal Makhani
- Chicken Tikka
- Pani puri
- Carrot Halwa
- Gulab Jamun
- Firnee (Phirni)
- Lamb Kebab
- Malai Kofta
- Masala Chai
- Masala Dosa
- Mango Lassi
- Medu Vada
- Vada Curry
- Onion Pakoda
- Rajma (Red Bean Curry)
- Rogan Josh
- Saag Paneer
- Nethili Varuval
- Tandoori Chicken
- Ras Malai
- Jeera Aloo
- Chettinad Curry
Aloo gobi literally means potatoes (aloo) along with cauliflower (gobi), and looking at the dish, you can easily see why. This is a curry-based dish that uses a range of Indian spices to give it both color and depth of flavor. Specifically, the yellow color comes from the use of the spice turmeric. Other ingredients used in the dish include onion, cumin, tomato and peas. The name aloo gobi is used even when there are considerable variations in the dish.
In general, vindaloo is a type of curry dish that involves the meat being marinated in vinegar, ginger and spices overnight and cooked after that with additional spices. Beef vindaloo is the beef version of that dish. When served in Indian restaurants in American and in other parts of the world, vindaloo tends to be regarded as a spicy dish, but it isn’t the most spicy dish available. Personally, I like the fire of the dish, but not everyone agrees.
Papri chaat is considered to be a fast food from north India and from Pakistan. The term papri specifically refers to fried dough wafers. These are made from oil and white flour. Within papri chaat, additional ingredients are present, including chili, yogurt, chutney and boiled potatoes. The dish is an interesting example of the way that fast food in one country can be very different than fast food in another. For example, papri chaat looks very strange to anyone in the United States.
Butter Chicken Curry
Butter chicken is one of the milder curry dishes, but even then it has the complexity of other more spicy curry dishes. Because of this, butter chicken is a good choice for anyone getting into Indian food and it is one of the most common introductory dishes. The dish makes use of a mixture of yogurt and spices, and it can sometimes also contain cream, which gives it a rich texture and flavor.
The term chana dal refers to baby chickpeas that have been split and then polished. The end result is small kernels that look and taste like sweet corn. Chana dal is used in many different types of Indian dishes, including salads, curries and soups. The image shown here is one preparation of chana dal, and one that makes use of a curry-like preparation. As you can see, when cooked well the chana dal hold their shape well.
Chicken 65 is an unusually named spicy chicken Indian chicken dish. The chicken is deep fried and its intense flavors come from the use of red chili. The dish can be made with either boneless or boned chicken and it is typically served either as an entrée or as a snack. While the dish is often available in Indian restaurants, many people haven’t heard of it or haven’t tried it. That isn’t too surprising, as the name really doesn’t give any indication of what the dish actually is.
Kheema is a form of Indian ground spiced meat that is typically served with whole peas. It is also a dish that some people choose to make at home, partly because it can easily be made within a single pot. The ground meat can also be readily used in other dishes, both Indian dishes and American dishes that typically used ground meat. It is also very appealing on its own or served simply with naan bread.
Chana masala is another chickpea-based dish that is common both in Indian cuisine. In general, the dish is relatively dry and tends to be spicy with a sour note of citrus. The dish is very commonly sold as a snack, or sometimes as a form of street food. Some of the ingredients used in the dish include ginger, garlic, chili, onions and chopped tomatoes.
Dal makhani is a vegetarian Indian dish, which makes it appealing for anyone who does not eat meat. Its main ingredients are red kidney beans, black lentils, cream and butter. The dish is a particularly popular example of an Indian meal and it is served throughout the world. One of the advantages of the dish is that it can be effectively served as a meal on its own, especially as it is high in protein. At the same time, it can act as a side to other Indian dishes.
Chicken tikka is one of the more widely recognized Indian dishes. Traditionally, the dish is created using small pieces of boneless chicken that have been baked in an oven on skewers. Like butter chicken, the chicken pieces have been marinated in yogurt and in spices beforehand. The dish is often served with onion. While sauce may sometimes be present the dish is also often served without the sauce. Either way, the dish is a treat.
Pani puri (sometimes spelled panipuri) is a common street food in India and a few other regions. It is a dish of many names and what it is called varies depending on the region. For example, one other name for the food is gol gappe, which is common in Delhi and a number of other regions. The dish involves a puri, which is a type of deep-fried bread common in India. In the pani puri, this bread is filled with a mixture that includes potato, chickpeas, water, and onion. That mixture is known as the pani.
Kheer is a form of rice pudding and it is very popular throughout South Asia, including India. The dish can be served as a dessert or as part of a meal. Like many other Indian dishes, kheer tends to have more flavor and be more heavily spiced than American variants. For example, kheer often uses cardamom and saffron as part of the flavoring for the dish. Kheer is something worth trying even if you do not particularly like rice pudding, because it is very different than anything you may have tried previously.
It might look odd to us, but jalebi is an interesting and quite appealing sweet. It is made from a wheat flower batter that is formed into circular shapes or sometimes into pretzel shapes. That batter is then deep fried and is then soaked in sugar syrup. The end result is a chewy snack and you can find them cold or warm. Even though the recipe is pretty simple, there are still variations. Often these involve adding other things to the sugar syrup, such as lime juice or rose water.
Carrot halwa also sometimes goes by the name gajar ka halwa, but either way, it is the same dessert. This one is a bit of an unusual dessert by American standards, but it basically involves cooking grated carrot in a pot along with milk, sugar and water. The dessert is famous throughout India and is a common dessert as part of India’s festivals. The dish is especially popular because it is vegetarian and because of its low calorie content.
As the appearance suggests, kulfi is a type of frozen dairy dessert. It can be considered an Indian substitute to ice cream. However, there are some key differences. For one thing, kulfi tends to be more creamy and dense than ice cream. Another difference is that kulfi isn’t whipped, which adds to its density and results in a different texture for kulfi compared to ice cream. Like ice cream kulfi come in many different flavors like pistachio, saffron and cardamom.
Gulab jamun is another example of an Indian dessert. It’s also one that looks almost entirely unfamiliar to Western audiences. The dessert is made up of spongy balls that have been soaked in a syrup. The balls are created from milk solids and have also been deep fried. The syrup that they are soaked in varies in flavor, and that syrup gives the dish much of its flavor. One common example is using a rose water syrup, while another example is saffron syrup.
Dhokla is an especially versatile dish that is eaten as a snack, a side dish or as breakfast. The food is made from rice and split chickpeas, in a roughly 4:1 ratio. These are soaked overnight, ground into a paste and then fermented. As you can expect with Indian dishes, a number of spices are added to give it a depth of flavor. Typically, the dish is served as a number of small cakes, which might be round or square. Dhokla can be tasty dish that takes much of its flavor from the rice and the rest from the various spices used.
In the United States, chapatti is more commonly known by the name roti, but either way, the food is the same. This is a type of flatbread and is a staple ingredient throughout India and South Asia in general. As a flatbread, chapatti can be used in many ways. For example, it can be rolled and stuffed, much like Mexican tortillas. It pairs especially well with curry, as the bread can be used to soak up the sauce of the curry.
Firnee is a traditional dessert made with rice and milk that has a lot of similarities to rice pudding. The dessert originally came from Persia, but since then it has become a delicacy in India, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Once made, the dessert is often creamy and mild, which makes it a good palate cleanser after the strong and intense flavors of other Indian dishes. Sometimes rose water is also used as a part of the recipe, which creates a more distinctive flavor.
Ladoos are another ball-shaped treat from India. The basic ingredients for the dish are simply flour, milk and sugar, although there are many specific types of flour that can be used. Flavorings are sometimes added to create a more distinct taste, but even without added flavors, ladoo is a sweet and appealing treat. The balls are also relatively easy to make, and there are many recipes out there that allow home cooks to try their hand at these treats.
Lamb kebabs are something that you find in very many cultures. Despite this, taking an Indian approach to lamb kebabs does result in a distinctive dish. As with many Indian dishes, the key component of this approach is the use of spices, including cumin, garlic and chili peppers. The lamb pieces are marinated in a mixture of the spices and yogurt for as long as 24 hours. The end result is that the lamb has a complex flavor from the different spices. However, this flavor doesn’t tend to be overpowering.
Vegetarian curries are especially appealing dishes. After all, many of us are only familiar with the meat-based dishes, which kind of leaves the vegetarians out of the loop. Malai kofta is a cream focused dish, where dumplings are served in a type of tomato gravy. The dumplings are essentially mashed potato balls (the kofta), although they can contain other ingredients, like dried fruit or nuts. In the final dish, the outside of these balls are crisp, while the interior remains soft, which creates a very appealing change in texture.
Peda is thought to originate in the state of Uttar Pradesh, although the dish is now common throughout India. Peda is a sweet that relies on koha. Koha is a dairy product made from milk. It resembles cheeses like ricotta, although it typically has a lower moisture content. As well as koha, peda makes use of sugar and common Indian flavors, such as saffron and cardamom. The color of the dessert often varies, ranging from creamy white, to bright yellow, to a caramel color. The color tends to come from the specific spices that are part of the sweet, so the flavor will tend to change along with the color.
Masala chai is a type of chai tea with its roots strongly in India. The name alone sums up the drink well, as the term ‘masala’ refers to a blend of spices, while ‘chai’ simply means tea. So, masala chai is simply a type of spiced tea. The traditional preparation of the tea involved the use of ginger, black peppercorn, cinnamon, cardamom and black tea, and the tea was prepared through decoction. In the modern day, preparation and ingredients for the tea varies considerably, although it still retains many of the traditional elements of its flavor.
Masala dosa is another interesting Indian dish that you probably haven’t heard of. The dosa part of the dish refers to a fermented crepe. This is produced from black lentils and rice batter and is surprisingly delicious. The masala component of the dish refers to the way that the dosa is stuffed with a mixture of cooked potatoes, spices, green chili and onion. It is commonly served as a breakfast food, and it’s easy to see why. Masala dosa is typically served with chutney, although other types of sauces can sometimes be used.
Churma can be pretty unappealing visually and is also high in calories, but despite this it is a popular delicacy. The dish is made using ground wheat that is cooked with sugar and ghee (clarified butter). Additional taste can be added by using cardamom powder, dried nuts and coconut as part of the recipe, resulting in a sweet and tasty dessert. Churma can often be served as the balls, but in many cases those balls are also broken down to form crumbs.
Lassi itself is a traditional yogurt drink. The most basic approach to lassi is blending yogurt with water and then adding spices and sugar to taste. This results in a mildly sweet drink. Other versions of the drink add in different ingredients to change the flavor. Mango lassi is one of the most common examples of this and this form of the drink has become the most popular outside of India. This version uses mango pulp in addition to yogurt and water, which gives it a mango taste and distinctive color. In some cases extra sugar may be added, but not all of the time.
At first glance, meda vada kind of look like donuts because of the way that they are shaped. While there are some similarities between meda vada and donuts, you would still get a pretty big shock if you bit into one expecting a donut. Meda vada comes from a larger family of food just called vada, which refers to a range of fritter-like snacks that are made from lentils along with onions and a range of spices. Once the meda vada have been shaped from the batter they are deep fried. This results in a crispy exterior and fluffy interior.
Aside from curries, naan is probably the most widely recognized Indian food in the United States. This form of flatbread is easily found and many American grocery stores even stock their own versions of it. However, there is nothing better than warm naan served along with authentic Indian curry. The bread is sometimes served stuffed, but it is often used as a way to scoop other foods, like curries. Naan can also be flavored (tandoori and garlic versions are commonly seen in America), and it can also be served with various topics, such as meats and cheeses.
The word korma is a reference to the cooking technique of braising. Korma typically makes use of yogurt or cream, along with water and spices in order to braise either meat or vegetables. There are many different versions of the dish, and it can range all the way from mild spice to a fiery dish. Navratan korma is a vegetarian variation of this dish that is made with vegetables along with nuts and/or a type of Indian cheese. In many cases the dish will have nine different types of vegetables, as the word navratan roughly translates to nine gems.
Bhelpuri is a fairly common type of snack and is sometimes sold as a street food. When sold as a street food, the dish is often sold in paper cones. The dish is made of puffed rice along with vegetables and a tamarind sauce (tamarind is also known as ‘Indian date’). Another common ingredient is sev, which is a fried food with a shape like thin noodles. Overall, the dish has a good balance of sweet and spicy flavors, although this varies somewhat depending on the specific ingredients chosen for a given dish.
Vada curry is a combination of two types of dishes. The vada part of the term refers to a fritter-like snack, similar to the meda vada that we talked about earlier. The vada curry dish uses dumpling-shaped vadas along with vegetables in a curry-like sauce. The finished dish can resemble a curry or a soup, depending on the size of the vadas and the consistency of the curry.
Papadums can be considered a type of flat bread or a type of cracker made from lentils. Typically they are served as appetizers or to accompany a meal. They work well as a type of chip that can be dipped. There is also a lot of variation in flavorings. For example, the ones in the image are fairly simple, but a lot of different ingredients can be added to papadums to give them more flavor, such as garlic, chili and black pepper.
Pulao also has a more common name of pilaf. This is an especially common rice-based dish. The name basically just refers to rice booked in a broth with seasonings. As you can imagine, this means that there are large differences in ingredients and in taste between different preparations of the dish.
Pakods are a type of fried food where the main ingredient is dipped in a batter and then deep fried. The main ingredient can be easily found through the name of the dish, which is onion in this case. In onion pakoda, the onions are mixed in a mixture of flour and spiced before they are deep fried. This gives the deep fried onions are distinctly Indian taste.
Raita is a side dish that is made with yogurt along with vegetables (or, on rare occasions, fruit). The dish is unusual compared to what Western culture typically has to offer, but the best estimate is that it is kind of like a cooked salad or a dip, kind of like spinach dip. Raita has a cooking effect, which makes it especially appealing for Indian food as many people find the spice in Indian food a little challenging.
Biryani is another example of an Indian rice dish. I find this type of rice dish quite appealing. It does not have the same richness of a curry, but it still has the complexity of flavor that you find in many Indian dishes. Biryani is often compared to pilaf as the two dishes are similar and both have a large number of variations. The biggest difference is generally that biryani has a much strong taste of curry and spice than pilaf does.
Rajma (Red Bean Curry)
Rajma is another good example of a vegetarian Indian dish. It makes use of a thick gravy along with the red beans, and the gravy is spiced with a range of Indian spices. The dish is typically either brown or red in coloring depending on the actual spices that were chosen. Most of the time it is served with some type of rice, such as white rice or roti.
Idli looks a bit like bread, but it is actually more complex than this. Instead, it is a type of savory cake, often served as a breakfast. It is made from rice and fermented black lentils, and it is typically served hot with sauces or chutney, like the image above. The cakes have a pretty plain taste, which is why the sauces are served with them.
Rogan josh is another curry-like Indian dish that is relatively common. The term refers to being cooked under intense heat or simply to the red color of the dish. The dish typically involves lamb chunks cooked in a gravy that includes yogurt, garlic and ginger. That produces a creamy sauce that is relatively thick and intense. On some occasions the dish involves a light sauce, but still has the same intense flavoring both for the sauce and for the lamb.
Saag paneer is an Indian spinach and cheese dish. The dish defies many Western expectations of what Indian food is or should taste like. It isn’t even the only dish of its type, as saag itself is a leaf-based dish that can be made with different types of greens. Coconut milk or cream is used as a way to thicken the dish. This creates a dish that is hearty and can be quite filling. Besides, as many of us know, the combination of spinach and cheese is an especially good culinary pairing.
Okay, nethili varuval is one meal that probably won’t appeal to everyone. Simply put, the dish consists of deep fried anchovies. On the plus side, the anchovies end up being crunchy and the large number of spices helps to bury much of the taste of the anchovies themselves. If you like anchovies then nethili varuval is certainly a dish to try and it is even relatively easy to prepare at home.
The best way to look at sambar is as a vegetable stew that relies strongly on lentils. The dish is created from sambar powder, which is made from a number of different spices. The exact combination of spices is subject to considerable regional variation – making the sambar taste quite different depending on the region that it is made in. A number of different vegetables can also be used, like pumpkin, carrot and tomatoes, and you might find multiple different vegetables used in a single dish.
A samosa is another type of Indian food that you might recognize. The dish involves either a baked or a fried pastry that is filled with a savory mixture. Often the interior of the pastry includes onions, spiced potatoes or lentils, although different combinations exist. While samosas from some cultures include minced meat as one of their ingredients, Indian samosas are typically vegetarian. They tend to be served with a chutney or sometimes with a mint sauce.
Tandoori chicken gets its bright red coloring from being marinated in a spice mixture that includes red chili pepper or some other bright red color. When a larger amount of turmeric is used in the dish, it takes on a more orange-like color. The chicken is typically marinated in yogurt before being seasoned with the spices. Milder versions of the dish also exist, where either food coloring or paprika is used to achieve the same bright flavor without so much spice. Likewise, greater amounts of turmeric also contribute to a milder taste.
Ras malai is one of those meals that typically does not look appealing, especially if you have never seen it before. Appearances aside, this dish can be a rich and appealing dessert. One way of describing the dish is that it tastes much like a cheesecake, with a similar texture, even though there is no crust and it is not structured like a cheesecake. Instead, the dish is made with flattened chhena balls (a type of cheese) and a rich sauce.
In many ways, uttapam resembles a pancake (a rather thick pancake at that). However, it is made using black lentils and rice, both of which are ground and then fermented. Another interesting thing with this dish is that the toppings are actually basked into it, rather than being adding onto the top after cooking. The toppings are typically vegetable based, such as onion, tomatoes or capsicum. In some places instant mixes for uttappam are available, although they probably do not have the same flavor and texture as traditional uttapam.
Jalfrezi is a little bit like Chinese stir-fry, although it uses Indian spices. It is a curry that makes use of marinated meat that is fried. It can also be made with fish or vegetables and sometimes a combination of those ingredients. The heat of the dish can vary considerably. At the low end, the dish may have a medium heat, but it can also end up being a very hot dish – so it is worth finding out before you order it at a restaurant.
Jeera aloo tends to be served as a side dish, composed largely of cubes of potatoes. The dish also heavily relies on spices, including cumin seeds (which give it a nutty flavor) and turmeric (which produces some of the dish’s coloring). The flavor of the potatoes is much more appealing than meals like mashed potatoes, and honestly jeera aloo would work well as a side dish to American meals as well as Indian dishes.
It seems fitting to end our list with a curry. Most people strongly associated Indian food with curries, but as you have seen, there are many other examples of Indian dishes. The name for Chettinad curry comes from the region that it is associated with and the same dish is sometimes called chicken Chettinad. This is a chicken-based chili that uses coconut, poppy seeds, fennel seeds and garlic as part of its ingredients. The dish also tends to rely on yogurt and cream, and tends to be a rich dish because of this.