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Biryani. Vindaloo. Tikka masala. We crave curry. But in Indian cuisine, “curry” has many different meanings. It all depends on the spices and ingredients thrown into the pot.
And don’t forget the side-dishes, whose Indian food names are also foreign to our Western brains!
Because we’re staying close to home these days (watching lots of travel shows on Netflix), we’re ordering delivery or take-out.
So what are some popular Indian dishes to try? Which are the best Indian dishes to order?
If you love curry and the fragrant flavors of Indian food, but don’t know your dal from your dosa, here’s a quick primer.
Popular Indian dishes
A vast country, India has up to 36 distinct cuisines.
But for the sake of absolute simplicity, you can break down the food preferences into two regions: North Indian food and South Indian food.
Best Indian dishes to try
Ok, let’s now check out the 20 best Indian dishes.
You can read about them in detail below. Or see the following “short-and-spicy” 45-second video on 10 of our favorite Indian dishes!
Brought from Persia to India by the Mughals, biryani is a classic Indian dish.
Rice and meat or vegetables are prepared separately, then combined and slow-cooked in the oven to create this aromatic “dry dish” (there’s no creamy gravy-like sauce). Basmati rice is typically used, and the meat (goat, chicken or mutton) is usually marinated first in yogurt. Spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom add a delicate flavor.
You can’t go wrong ordering biryani!
2) Butter chicken
Butter chicken (or murgh makhani) is one of the most popular Indian curries. Typically a mild curry, it combines onions, butter and cream in a velvety smooth tomato sauce with chicken chunks.
Butter chicken is our go-to curry; we never tire of it! If you want something lightly spiced and easy on the heat, then this is one of the best Indian food dishes to try.
Originating in the north of India, chaat is an Indian street-food snack. The word “chaat” means “to lick” – and chaat is finger-licking delicious.
There are many types of chaat, but all have a starch base (like a samosa or puffed rice), vegetables and chutney. One of the most popular is papri chaat, made with a samosa-style crust, boiled potatoes and chickpeas, topped with tamarind chutney and crunchy bits of deep-fried noodles.
A thin pancake, dosa is crepe-like and slightly sweeter than naan (#9 below). Coming from the southern part of India, it’s usually made from rice and lentils.
You usually eat dosas hot, dipped in various chutneys, as an accompaniment to a curry meal. But sometimes dosas are stuffed with veggies and eaten as snacks (popular as street food in India). Masala dosa, for example, is filled with spiced potatoes.
5) Gulab Jamun
Of course, you need something deliciously sweet to finish off your Indian meal.
Enter gulab jamun. This popular Indian dessert is based on two flavors – gulab (which means rose) and jamun (which refers to purple jamun berries, similar to blueberries). Using milk solids and flour, the dessert consists of small doughy balls soaked in rose water and green cardamom.
Think of it like Indian doughnuts dipped in mouth-watering syrup! (But, sorry, ordinary doughnuts won’t ever taste as good again after you’ve tried gulab jamuns.)
Korma is another one of the best Indian dishes to hail from northern India.
Braised meat (maybe chicken or beef) and vegetables are slow cooked in a thick mild curry sauce made with cream, coconut milk or yogurt and sometimes almonds. It’s delicately spiced with coriander, saffron, ginger, cardamom and black peppercorn.
7) Madras Curry
From the south of India, Madras curry is commonly made with chicken – so is known as “Chicken Madras” or “Madras Chicken.” No matter what you call it though, it’s an intensely flavorful Indian chicken curry (a fairly hot curry).
Like roghan josh (#12 below), it’s a rich dark red in color – the color comes from the chilis used. And it’s less creamy than butter chicken and tikka masala (#14 below).
8) Mutter Paneer
This one’s for the vegetarian in you.
Mutter paneer is a north Indian curry made with cubes of paneer (a soft fresh cheese like cottage cheese). It’s mixed with peas and a tomato-and-onion based sauce. Slurp it up with naan or chapatis.
As part of your Indian curry feast, you need naan. A type of pillowy flatbread traditionally baked in a clay oven (called a tandoor), naan is perfect for mopping up all that delicious curry sauce. It’s best served warm and fresh from the oven.
One of our favorite Indian dishes to order as a starter is a serving of papadums. We love breaking the large thin crispy wafer apart – hearing that satisfying crackle. A little peppery, papadums often come with coriander mint chutney.
Raita is a must! A side dish made from yogurt and cucumber, raita is used to cool the spicy heat from curries. Try putting a little on each forkful. You can also dip your naan into it.
Raita is so creamy and delicious, though, that you might just want to lap it up on its own!
12) Roghan Josh
Deep red in color, rogan josh is an aromatic lamb or beef curry dish, made from chili peppers. Thought to be Persian in origin, it’s now a dish associated with Kashmir, the most northern region of India.
The meat is first browned then slowly stewed in a thick gravy of garlic, onions, ginger, chili pepper and spices. Roghan josh is usually eaten with plain basmati rice and/or naan.
The most popular Indian food in the world? Samosas are right up there!
Eaten as an appetizer, a samosa is a fried or baked pastry filled with spiced potatoes, peas and onions. Meat varieties have ground lamb, beef or chicken too. They often come with mint sauce or tamarind chutney on the side.
They’re such a hit that you can usually find frozen pre-made samosas in your grocery store. But they won’t compare to what you can get from a good Indian restaurant. Or you can try making your own – here’s a great recipe for making the perfect samosas.
14) Tikka masala
Marinate chunks of chicken (typically) in yogurt and spices like turmeric, fresh ginger, garlic and coriander. Roast over charcoal in a tandoor oven. Mix with a creamy, orange-colored sauce made from tomatoes, paprika and chili. Say hello to chicken tikka masala!
One of the most popular Indian dishes, tikka masala is a good choice if you don’t like hot food, as it’s a mild curry.
Okay, but it looks similar to butter chicken. So what’s the difference between tikka masala and butter chicken? Butter chicken is usually less tomatoey and creamier than chicken tikka masala. Also, butter chicken comes from Delhi. Chicken tikka masala, on the other hand, is supposedly an Indian food dish invented in Britain in the 1960s.
Not sure what to choose? Go with butter chicken.
Bring on the heat! Vindaloo is a classic hot curry, made with diced chicken or lamb, garlic, hot chilis and wine or vinegar.
When Portuguese explorers made it to Goa in the 15th century, they brought the dish with them. The word vindaloo is a mispronunciation of a Portuguese dish of meat marinated in wine-vinegar and garlic. Franciscan priests then adapted the dish – they couldn’t get wine-vinegar in India so they got inventive and made their own from palm wine.
Like Madras curry, vindaloo is one of the hottest Indian curries. (Don’t say we didn’t warn you!)
So now your know your dal from your dosa, your Madras from your masala… Okay, you get the picture!
Lead image courtesy Sizzling Tandoor, Victoria, BC