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Feature Fri Feb 22 2008

Eating on Devon: Translate that Menu Without Ordering Something by Accident

Three years ago I moved to "Little India," the neighborhood along Devon Avenue extending from Damen to California. Almost all of the restaurants and grocery stores along this strip are Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Afghani, etc. It's been wonderful, but its also been intimidating. All those menu items, all the vague and short translations, all the potential that I'd never remember the name of things I really liked.

So I began to break down the names of the dishes, to try to understand what I was getting when I walked into a new restaurant. And since we're all about sharing our love of food here at Drive-Thru, I thought I might create a translation primer that you could print out and take with you when you head to my neighborhood, or one of the other Indian restaurants popping up around the city. Buffets are usually easiest, since you can see what you're getting. But the quality and taste of food made to order is going to be so much better than anything you can find in a hot pan over a water bath. And hopefully with this list, you'll be better able to find something you're looking for.

Samosas: Meat or vegetables, that are usually spicy, and wrapped in a dough that is deep fried. They're often spicy and are served with three sauces. A white sauce (raita or pachadi made from yogurt, cilantro or mint, and other spices, often with cucumber or raw onions mixed in and often used to calm the spice of dishes), a green sauce, and a purply-red sauce.

Pakora (or pakoda): Bits of vegetables that are deep fried in a puffy dough. Cauliflower, onion, potato, eggplant, lentils, spinach, and sometimes meat. The items vary from region to region and restaurant to restaurant and may even change seasonally so don't be afraid to ask what they're serving.

Papadam: Very thin, very crispy dough that is fried. Occasionally it is flavored with seeds, but often it is served with salt and pepper.

Aloo Tikki: Aloo means potato. These are like spicy potato pancakes that are fried on a griddle in just a little oil.

Paneer Pakoda: Paneer is a fresh milk cheese that is often very bland and a bit salty. It is usually dipped in masala and flour batter and then deep fried in oil.

Shami Kebab: These are small round patties of lamb and lentils that are cooked in the tandoor.

Sheek Kebab: These are made from meat ground with spices and flavorings and then shaped onto a skewer before being cooked in the tandoor as well. The main difference between these two is the shape and that this one doesn't usually contain lentils.

Breads are a huge part of an Indian meal and consequently there are a variety of types and styles. They type varies by region of India but many restaurants are likely to have several different varieties on the menu.

Dosa: Probably the most unusual. This is a whisper-thin panacake or crepe. But it's crispy, a golden color, and often 2 feet in diameter. It's rolled so the seam is on the bottom of the plate and hidden in the middle of the dosa is your entree. These are most likely served in Southern restaurants that are vegetarian so you're more likely to find a pile of lentils or potatoes than you are chicken or beef inside. Often times there are lightly cooked onions or bell peppers in the dough.

Chapati: Also known as Indian flatbread. This is vegan bread made from flour, salt, oil, and water. Since there is no leavener, it is very flat and almost tortilla like. It tends to puff up when cooking.

Roti: Similar to chapati since it is cooked on a griddle and contains no animal products or leaveners. But this bread is made from durum or whole wheat flour. It is also occasionally served puffy.

Naan: Thicker than chapati, but not as thick as a pita. There are generally large air bubble pockets that are great for scooping up food with. This is a yeast-risen bread that is chewy. Naan is served unbuttered.

Paratha: Yet another pan-fried bread. This is almost always served buttery on the outside. It is usually made with whole-wheat flour and stuffed with vegetables, potatoes, or cheese. Paratha is harder and more expensive to make so it is typically more of a special occasion bread or made for guests in the home. But in restaurants it should be easy to find.

Like many cuisines, most Indian food is traditionally served to large families in the house so there are several dishes made and rarely is one the main course. However, since we are in America and people are used to eating a main dish, I'll describe a variety of the entries you'll find. For most of them you'll want to order rice to go with it. Some are thick enough to eat with a bread alone, but many are soupy enough that you'll want to soak up as much of the sauce as possible with rice. How the rice is made varies from restaurant to restaurant. Saffron is common, as is allspice or cloves or even cinnamon sticks. Occasionally the rice will be served plain, but I've found this be very rare.

The regions of Indian food will determine the type of food you'll likely find in a restaurant that caters to that region. North Indian cuisine uses a lot of dairy products. Milk, paneer (fresh-milk cheese), ghee (clarified butter) and yogurt. The tandoor, round oven that is usually wood-fired, is also common in Northern India. And lentils are very common in this region. Kababs, chunks of grilled meat cooked on a stick over a flame, are also common in this region. Since Pakistan used to be part of Northern India, Pakistani cuisine is fairly similar to Northern Indian cuisine. Bread is more common to this region than rice.

Eastern India is most famous for its desserts and common use of poppy seeds. Since there are huge parts of this region of the country with coasts, seafood and fish is common in restaurants focusing on this region. A Bangladeshi restaurant will also serve cuisine common to this region.

Southern Indians eat a lot more rice than bread and coconut is common. Restaurants catering to this region are most likely to be vegetarian. There are 4 distinct regions in this area and they each have different dishes. Lentils are very common and spices tend to be milder. The main difference in regions is the level of spiciness you'll find with Andhra being the spiciest and Karnataka being the mildest. Hyderbad is in Andhra and considered by many to be the region best known for its cuisine.

Chicken Tikka Masala: This is actually thought to be the most popular dish in England, and it should be since it is believed to have been created for Brits living in India. It is chunks of chicken marinated in spices and yogurt and cooked in the tandoor oven. Masala means mix of spices and Tikka means cutlet, so it translates to be cut pieces of boneless chicken cooked in a spicy sauce. It is believe to have been inspired by Murgh Makhni or Butter Chicken.

Butter Chicken: Chicken is marinated overnight in yogurt and spices (often ginger, lemon, pepper, coriander, cumin, garlic, and chili). It is then roasted or baked and served in the makhani sauce made from butter, tomatoes, and almonds as well as a variety of spices and usually finished off with a touch of cream or butter.

Tandoori chicken: The chicken is marinated in yogurt and spices, especially red chili powder or cayenne pepper (although most tandoori chicken I've had has not been spicy at all). If your chicken is a yellow-orange then it is colored with turmeric. If it is a bright red, it is colored with food coloring. It is either grilled or cooked in the tandoor and is served without a sauce.

Biryani: Common also in Persian or Iraqi cuisines, this word comes from the Persian and means fried or roasted. Meat is common in biryani, although some vegetarian options can be found. When meat is present, it is usually the main ingredient aside from the rice. Common spices are cloves, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, mint leaves, ginger, onion, garlic, and yogurt. Most similar to what we might call "fried rice", it is a friendly dish for the food-fearful. Vegetarian biryani may also be called tehari.

Dal, or Daal: Simply this means you're eating a lentil dish and is a dried bean that has been stripped of the outer hull and split in half. These cook much more quickly than the traditional dried lentil you'll more likely find at chain grocery stores and since the hull is removed, it easily cooks into a thick soup or stew-like dish. There are so many different types of daals. Some are are red, yellow, green, or even occasionally black or dark brown. Kidney beans and chickpeas are also commonly used. These are easily cooked by boiling them in water or broth, adding spices and herbs and then cooking until the bean breaks down. There are so many regions and versions that you're likely to find two dishes that are called the same thing that taste and look very different. To get the most flavor out of the spices, they're often fried in ghee or oil before being added to the dish. In Southern restaraunts, you'll often see this as sambar. This is often a pea or vegetable stew or chowder that is cooked with a lot of tamarind and lentils.

Vindaloo: This is actually derived from a Portugese dish. Pork was often preserved in red wine or red wine vinegar and then cooked with a lot of garlic. You'll most likely find this cooked with chicken or lamb since pork is not eaten by muslims. The Portugese version doesn't contain potato, but the Indian version does. Since aloo means potato, you'll know that there will be chunks of potato cooked in the dish. This is often thought of as the spiciest dish you're likely to find on a menu, but apparently phall and tindaloo are even spicier, in case you've got a masochistic tongue.

Many entree menu items are easily translated into English because usually each word translates directly to an ingredient. Here is a list of many of the items you'll find on menus. Since these are all translations to English from a non-Romance language, you'll likely see a lot of different spellings for each of these. If you pronounce these out loud, or under your breath if you're timid, you might be able to see how they're similar to the words on your menu.

Lamb: Gosht
Chicken: Murgh
Beef: Often served in Indian restaurants in America, but since many Indians are Hindu, and since cows aren't consumed traditionally by them, it may just be listed as meat. Often found on Pakistani menus.
Macchi: Fish, although you're more likely to see a type of fish written on the menu.

Asparagus: Shatwar
Bell pepper: Simia Mirch
Cabbage: Patha gobi
Cauliflower: Gobi
Carrot: Gajar
Corn: Makai
Eggplant: Biangan, Baigan
Mushrooms: Goochi
Okra: Bindi (this may also be called "ladies' fingers")
Peas: Matar
Potato: Aloo
Tomato: Tamatar
Spinach: Palak, or saag
Onion: Peeaz
Vegetables: Sabzi

Legumes and Lentils
Chickpeas: Channa dal
Yellow lentils: Thoor dal
Black lentils: Urad dal
Green lentils: Moong dal
Red lentils: Masoor dal
Kidney Beans: Rajama

Other ingredients and dish styles
Achar : Pickle
Bhajee or bhaji: Dryer and mild vegetable curry
Chutney : Salsa-like mixture of fruit and vegetable with spices
Curry: This word doesn't actually translate to any language in India. It was started by the British a few centuries ago. There is a leaf often called a "curry leaf" which is frequently used in curries. This relatively generic word will vary greatly in flavor from region to region and restaurant to restaurant. Indian curry is very different from Thai or other Asian curries. A curry is a spicy and richly flavored gravy-like sauce poured over used for cooking meat, vegetables, or lentils.
Garam masala: This means "hot mixture" and is a blend of spices that are common in Northern India.
Kebab: Chunks of meat that are skewered and grilled or cooked in a tandoor. Occasionally ground meat mixed with spices or maybe lentils are formed around a skewer before being cooked over direct heat.
Kofta, or kefta: Ground meat, vegetables, and spices that are formed into balls, dipped in batter, and deep fried before being cooked in a curry sauce.
Korma: This is often just a mild curry, so look for this word if you are spice averse. But it is a very rich dish. Some sort of meat is usually cooked with vegetables in a sauce made from cream, yogurt, and nuts and heavily flavored with saffron and other very aromatic spices.
Lassi : Yogurt drink (can be salty, sweet, or fruit flavored and are great to help mitigate the heat of your dish. Mango Lassi is the most common.)
Mulligatawny: A British soup.
Paneer : Fresh cheese
Patia: Seafood curry that is very thick with a sweet and sour flavor and frequently dark brown.
Pickle: Usually very spicy and frequently made from lime, mango and chili. Used as a condiment.
Pulao: Rice pilaf. In many places, ingredients are cooked and then stirred together afterward before being quickly cooked together. This is very often dyed yellow from either saffron or food coloring.
Raita : Yogurt condiment
Rasam or Sambar: Soupy, spicy broth
Sambals: The side dishes that will accompany a meal.

Gulab jaman: Ping-pong ball sized dough balls that are made of flour and milk powder, deep-fried, and then served in a cold syrup.
Halva: There are a huge variety to choose from in restaurants and sweet shoppes. But the generic term means a sweet made from fruits, nuts, or vegetables and syrup. It's often formed in a pan and then cut into small squares for serving.
Jalebi: Sort of like an Indian funnel cake but the dough is made from flour, milk powder and yogurt. These can be served hot or cold with a syrup. Food coloring is very common.
Gajar Halva: Shredded carrots that are slowly cooked in milk, sugar, butter, cardamom, cashews, and raisins.
Kulfi: Frozen dessert, similar to ice cream, made from milk, sugar, cardamom, ground cashews and frequently have pistachios or mango stirred in.
Feemi: Rice pudding often served with rose flavoring.

This list is longer than most of the menus you'll find and you won't find all of these dishes at any Indian restaurant. As you explore, don't hesitate to read the menu or ask your server which region the chef comes from. You may find that you really like foods from one region but not food from another. Since most of these restaurants are family-owned, you'll likely find servers, cooks, or hosts who are not only happy to talk to you about their food, but happy to explain the cooking process of their dishes and you'll also likely hear why their dish is better than any of their neighbor's dishes that masquerade under the same name. It's not common to have service that hovers nearby offering and asking how they can best satisfy you. But requests for explanations, more water, etc. are likely to be stoically attended to.

You'll also notice two different types of restaurants along Devon: sweet/snack shops and sit-down places. Many sweet/snack shops have tables but you'll order at a counter from either an overhead menu or off a paper menu. You'll likely see a lot more desserts at these places than I've listed here. And you may get vague explanations of what is in them since there aren't American equivalents. I could write an entire feature about just sweets and snacks, so this listing will do you more good in a traditional sit-down establishment. But stay tuned. I may just be able to crack the code of sweets in a future feature.

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mmorowitz / February 22, 2008 5:31 AM

Nice list. One important word you might add is "mirchi" which means chili pepper. (Similar to the word "mirch" in bell pepper).

On a menu you might see "mirchi pakora", essentially a deep-fried chili.

Butterfly / February 22, 2008 8:13 AM

Thanks!! Some context might be helpful for readers to understand why there is such variation in how words are spelled. Basically, there are several consonant and vowel sounds in Hindi that can't exactly be captured by english letters, and there has never been a standardized way of representing those sounds, like there is in Chinese. So, the "r" sound in "pakora" is actually halfway between a "d" and an "r", which is why sometimes it's "pakora" and sometimes it's "pakoda". Everyone will have their own spelling, so make sure people know that words will never be exactly the same in any two restaurants!

Other examples:
Onions - "peeaz" is sometimes "pyaz".
Final vowels are another issue - sometimes written, but not pronounced. So, "mirch" is the same as "mircha" (pepper). "Ramayana" is actually pronounced "raMAYan"

mary / February 22, 2008 9:25 AM

thanks so much for unearthing the delicious mysteries of indian cuisine!! i look forward to knowing what im eating before i eat it!

Cinnamon / February 24, 2008 11:19 PM

Thanks for the compliments and the suggestions/additions. There is so much that I left out of this, and so much more that I don't even know about. If anyone else has any suggestions or corrections, please leave them in the comments. I want this to be as helpful as possible to anyone who is interested.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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