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The Beginner’s Guide to Indian Food

Trying a new cuisine can always be a little scary, especially if you’re completely unfamiliar with the terminology, the types of dishes, and the etiquette of the cuisine. Fortunately, as Americans, we enjoy a melting pot of different foods, and one gaining some ground lately is Indian food. The dishes of India are delicious, healthy, and offer a lot of options for vegetarians and vegans, making it a popular choice for many Americans. If you’re ready to try Indian cuisine but are just a little worried by how unfamiliar it is to you, here is a quick beginner’s guide to help you feel more comfortable the first time you visit an Indian restaurant.

Serving Style

The first thing to understand about Indian dining is that it’s meant to be served family-style, like Chinese food. An Indian family sitting down to a meal together would have an assortment of dishes to choose from, including appetizers, main dishes, side dishes, and bread. Indian cuisine is also about the layering of flavors and spices, so it’s perfectly acceptable to put a little bit of everything on your plate and mix and match. Indian bread can be eaten with the food or used to sop up the last bits of sauce.


Indian food can be a little spicy, but of course, Indian restaurants are used to catering to individual tastes. If you ever have a concern, be sure to bring it up to the wait staff when you order. Most dishes can be customized to the level of heat you prefer. Curries can be mildly spicy; masala a little more so. But the one to watch out for is vindaloo, which is typically the house’s spiciest curry.

Types of Dishes and Common Terms

Perhaps one of the most alarming parts of trying a new cuisine is not knowing what the names mean. It’s hard to know what you’ll like if you don’t know what anything is! Here is a quick explanation of some of the common terms you will find on an Indian menu. Remember, some of the healthiest Indian dishes have become popular because of how flavorful they are while still being good for you, so it’s worth the leap of faith to discover this amazing cuisine.

  • Naan, roti: These are types of Indian flatbread which are often served with the meal. They are usually eaten with the food or used to sop up the remains of the sauce afterward.
  • Dahi, raita: Dahi is plain yogurt, which is frequently used in sauces and eaten with Indian dishes to balance out the spices. Raita is a spiced blend of yogurt and cucumber.
  • Saag: Saag is a popular vegetable dish of creamed spinach and other greens, which is served as a side or mixed with other dishes, such as saag paneer (spinach and cheese).
  • Dal: Dal (also sometimes spelled dahl or daal) is a delicious spiced lentil soup.
  • Masala: This is a common term you’ll hear paired with chai, chicken, chana (chickpeas), and other types of food. It really just means a blend of spices, but it can be rather spicy.
  • Tandoor, tandoori: A tandoor is just a traditional clay oven that is used to make things like naan and chicken tandoori.
  • Curry: Curry dishes are popular in Indian cuisine. You’ll often find seafood curries on the menu since seafood features prominently in many regional Indian cuisines due to the proximity of the ocean.

Drinks and Desserts

If you’ve ever enjoyed a chai tea or chai latte, you’re already familiar with how Indian cuisine can layer spicy and sweet together. Chai really just means “tea,” but the spices and the milk base make it so much more interesting than the tea we’re used to. Every family has its own way of making chai that is passed down through the generations, which is why you’ve likely had so many different-tasting drinks labeled “chai.”

And don’t forget about dessert! Indian cuisine balances out layered flavored and complex spices with some amazing desserts. One that has made it into some parts of popular culture is the mango lassi, which is essentially just a mango smoothie, only so much more flavorful. Another popular dessert is kheer, which is just a rice pudding that integrates sweet flavor with mild spices.

The Best Indian Food in Denver

Still a little apprehensive about trying a new cuisine? The best approach is to make sure to visit a reputable restaurant for your first time. For years running, Westword readers have rated Little India of Denver, with locations on East 6th Avenue as well as on Downing Street, as the best Indian food in Denver. You’re in good hands when you come to us for your first experience with Indian food!

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