Indian restaurant 101: From samosas to vindaloo, here's what to order as a beginner

Curious what to order at an Indian restaurant? A chef and restaurant owner explains the menu. (Photos: Rasa; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Curious what to order at an Indian restaurant? A chef and restaurant owner explains the menu. (Photos: Rasa; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

Rahul Vinod and Sahil Rahman grew up helping their fathers run Indian restaurants, yet when they invited friends to eat Indian food, they were often immediately rejected.

Their non-Indian friends thought Indian food involved heavy curry flavors or would be too spicy. "We were confused by this because that was not our experience with Indian food," says Vinod. While curry powder lives in most spice racks, at Indian restaurants, curry simply means sauce. In fact, Indian food offers a wide variety of flavors, some of it mild and sweet ... without a hint of spice.

When Vinod and Rahman were able to get friends to their fathers' restaurants — sometimes by putting them in the car and driving them there themselves — their friends almost universally loved what they ate. "They said, 'Oh my god I had no idea Indian food was like this,'" Vinod tells Yahoo Life.

Born and raised in the U.S., Vinod and Rahman say they're now able to understand why Indian food seems inaccessible for many. Growing up, they say most Indian restaurants were owned by immigrants and were located in out-of-the-way locations. Each replicated a traditional Indian atmosphere and had overwhelmingly large menus. On top of that, nearly all Indian restaurants were full-service, meaning visiting one was time-consuming and could be expensive.

A collection of Indian dishes served at Rasa. (Photo: Rasa)
A collection of Indian dishes served at Rasa. (Photo: Rasa) (REY LOPEZ)

Vinod and Rahman set out to change that when they opened Rasa, a fast-casual Indian restaurant with locations throughout the Washington, D.C. area. They hope to introduce Indian food to others in the same way they were able to get their friends to try it — by making it fun and approachable. And, Vinod and Rahman see other more approachable Indian restaurants being opened through the country, meaning there's never been a better time to try Indian food or revisit the cuisine.

Go with what you know

The Rasa owners note that Indian spices have already made their way into American foods. At Starbucks, customers can grab a chai tea. Turmeric and cardamom are used commonly in American cooking. Other familiar spices, including black pepper and cinnamon, originated in India. If you already like some of these flavors, you should easily be able to find something you like on any Indian menu.

What to eat

Rahman says the first step in deciding what to order is to think about your food preferences. Do you like fish? Chicken? Vegetarian dishes? "Once you start focusing in, you will cut down the options on the menu by at least half," he says. Next, he recommends deciding whether or not you want to try something spicy. He also advices you simply "listen to your tummy" and try something that sounds good. "Don't go in with fear," he adds. "Be curious."

Rahman thinks it's good to ask your server for questions, but urges caution when asking about "the best" thing on the menu, since you'll be getting just one person's opinion. He says no one should feel compelled to take anyone's recommendation or try a house specialty if those items don't appeal to you. "Don't overthink it," he says, "If it's something that sounds good, roll with it."

Samosas and a mango lassi at Rasa. (Photo: Rasa)
Samosas and a mango lassi at Rasa. (Photo: Rasa)

Rahman recommends asking more questions when the food comes out: If you like a particular flavor but aren't sure what it is, ask your server for help. Going through that process will pinpoint what you love about Indian food and put you in a good position to branch out on your next visit.

What to order

Once you've narrowed things down, Vinod says to look at six different categories of food. "Indian food is best enjoyed family-style," he says. If you go out to eat with family or friends, it's possible to try several different types of Indian food at the same meal. To get a real taste of everything, Vinod suggests ordering one item from each category and sharing.

  1. Chatt: This category of appetizer is made up of Indian-style street snacks that are salty, sweet and crunchy. There are many different types of chatt, from pakora (ingredients like veggies or Indian cheese battered and fried) to panipuri (fried hollow flatbread filled with vegetables, chickpeas or potatoes).

  2. Tandoor: Many Indian restaurants have a clay oven called a tandoor. Food cooked in a tandoori oven has a unique smoky flavor. Paneer (Indian cheese) or chicken tikka (proteins marinated in yogurt and Indian spices) cooked in a tandoor are popular choices.

  3. Biryani: Biryani is a rice dish Vinod describes as a type of Indian paella. It's made with aromatic rice and a protein or vegetable. "It has layers-upon-layers of flavor and is absolutely delicious," Vinod says.

  4. Curry: Curry is a staple of Indian cooking. Almost anything can be cooked in a curry, so simply chose what you like the most for a base — whether it's fish, chicken, lamb or vegetables — along with a curry flavor that sounds appealing.

  5. Vegetable: Indian food has a much larger variety of vegetarian and vegan options than most other cuisines. Beans thoran (a coconut-based vegetable curry made with green beans), baingan bharta (mashed roasted eggplant) and saag paneer (Indian cheese in a spinach curry) are all good places to start.

  6. Dahl: Each region of India has its own type of lentils, called dahl. Vinod recommends trying at least one type of this ubiquitous Indian dish at your first Indian meal.

A side of saag (spinach) served at Rasa. (Photo: Rasa)
A side of saag (spinach) served at Rasa. (Photo: Rasa)

If this looks like too much work, order a thali, a bento box-style offering that comes with a variety of foods and will allow you to "taste the rainbow," according to Vinod.


Vinod says Indian food tastes best with several accompaniments. Rice, for example, is served with many Indian dishes, and should be eaten with your entrée. Bread is another staple of Indian meals, so Vinod recommends starting with garlic naan (a flavorful flatbread), saying "you can't go wrong" with this classic choice.

Mango and mint chutneys, a type of condiment, are the most popular at Indian restaurants. Many restaurants will put green cilantro and brown tamarind chutneys on each table. Rahman recommends mixing these savory and sweet flavors and using them as a dip for bread.

Raita is a yogurt-based condiment eaten with spicier meals to cool everything down. Some restaurants put their own spin on raita and serve it with add-ins like cucumbers or beets, seasonally. If you like spicy foods, try achaar with your meal — it's a type of pickled vegetable Rahman describes as a "really nice" flavor addition.

Rasa owners Rahul Vinod and Sahil Rahman. (Photo: Rasa)
Rasa owners Rahul Vinod and Sahil Rahman. (Photo: Rasa) (REY LOPEZ)

How to eat Indian food

Rahman describes eating Indian food as a "choose your own adventure" experience. Most Americans eat Indian food with forks and spoons, but in some places in India people eat it with their hands. "I wouldn't recommend doing that," Vinod says, "but I'll support you if you try." Rahman says he likes using bread to pick up his food. "There is no wrong way to eat [Indian food]," he adds.

What to drink with Indian food

Both Vinod and Rahman recommend nimbu pani — a fresh lemon water — because it's not filling and it's refreshing. Mango lassis are another drink found on most Indian menus. The yogurt smoothie-like drink can be great for cooling your palette after eating spicy foods, but it's very filling and can be hard to drink along with a full meal. For that reason, Vinod and Rahman recommend sharing one.

Chai, a spiced tea steeped in milk and water, is a nice way to end a meal.

Indian desserts

If you still have room after a full meal, try an Indian dessert. Kulfi is an Indian ice cream made from condensed milk and sugar, but you won't find vanilla or chocolate on most Indian menus. Instead, kulfi may be flavored with saffron, cardamom, mango or pistachio.

Rice pudding is another popular Indian dessert. Types of rice pudding vary widely by region, but may include Indian spices like cardamom or saffron. Some may have almonds or dried fruit. Ras malai, a classic Indian dessert, is a milk cake served in cream sauce. It's another great way to end a meal.

How to choose an Indian restaurant

Indian cuisine is incredibly varied. "If you go 10 miles in India the food is different," explains Vinod. "There may be a different language and culture." This means what you like at one Indian restaurant may taste different at another restaurant ... or not be on the menu at all.

Most Indian restaurants in the U.S. serve Northern Indian cuisine. However, some dishes from Southern India are becoming more popular. One of them is dosas, a type of Indian crepe often eaten with dahl. If you have your heart set on a particular dish, check to be sure the restaurant you are visiting serves what you want to try.

Rahman says it's important to be "really open minded" when visiting an Indian restaurant, and says not to write off Indian food if you don't like that first meal. "Try at least three or four restaurants," he advises, noting there are so many ways of preparing Indian food that you may not find something you really love right away.

Chicken tikka masala is a popular and well-loved Indian dish. (Photo: Rasa)
Chicken tikka masala is a popular and well-loved Indian dish. (Photo: Rasa)

What's the deal with Indian buffets?

Many Indian restaurants offer lunch buffets as a way to draw in new customers with low prices and a lot of variety. Still, both Vinod and Rahman advise staying away from buffets since it's hard to tell if the food is well-prepared or what types of ingredients were used. Food may also lose texture and taste if it sits around too long.

5 best items to order as a beginner:

Still not sure what to order off the menu? Vinod and Rahman recommend going with the following items, which should be found on any menu, for the best first-time experience.

Samosas: Almost every culture has a type of fried dumpling, and in Indian cuisine it's the samosa, a pastry filled with meat or potatoes. Almost everyone who tries samosas likes them, so they're a good appetizer to try on your first visit to an Indian restaurant.

Curry: Curries are a classic part of Indian cooking. Try butter chicken or fish curry, both of which are very popular.

Lamb vindaloo: This is a good choice for those who like spicy, tangy food. (And potatoes.)

Dahl: Depending on the restaurant, this dish may be made with yellow or black lentils. Either way, most people like dahl and it pairs with many other Indian dishes, especially naan.

Saag paneer: This vegetarian dish is made with sautéed spinach and Indian cheese.

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