How to Eat Indian Food Like a Local

April 03, 2014

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You're thinking 'great'. 

I finally got hooked on good Indian food and now this punk is going to tell me I've been eating it wrong all these years? Well. Kind of. Not really. Okay, maybe just a little bit. Stick with me and I'll show you that the light at the end of this tunnel is not so far away. Promise! Hint: it has everything to do with the sides. 

A good Indian dish is all about layers of flavor and texture, but so is the meal. 

In my classes I like to tell folks that cooking an Indian dish is relatively easy once you have your spice cabinet arranged. But, serving it like a local can be slightly cumbersome because in North Indian cuisine (and we'll get to other regional cuisines later), we don't just want the dal (spiced lentils) with rice or bread. We want those main components served with several side components. These side components are what make our meal sing and basically make my mouth water when I think about eating a great Indian meal. 

It's also what makes me break out in hives at times (like when I'm in the middle of writing a new manuscript) when the hubbie says he wants homemade Indian. Because, no matter what I am cooking, those sides must be ready and available or NO ONE is eating the meal. Including my kids. Take tonight as a great example. We had Urad-Chana dal and rice, but along with that came everything below. 

Here's your checklist and why we love these components so much: 

1. A side salad. This is not the kind of salad we are used to in the West. No greens involved, but instead raw onion, cucumbers, and thinly sliced tomatoes. We drench these components with fresh lemon juice, sprinkle salt on them, along with Kala Namak or black salt, and a tiny bit of red chile powder or cayenne. You can add some chaat masala if you have it. There. Done. What's the purpose? To add tart and crunch to every single bite. So, we eat a mouthful of food and then take a bite of salad along with it. If you don't love raw onions, not to worry. Sub with sliced daikon, more cucumbers, red radishes, or any other crunchy veggie you can think of. I cannot eat my meal without a salad like this, and have been known to have dinner at my Indian friends' houses and beg to make one if they don't already have one on the side. I am so good at making this salad that my dad often begs me to do it when I am visiting them in Philadelphia. I think when you love eating food it shines through when you are prepping it. If you truly want to live dangerously, keep a fresh green Thai chile on the side to also bite into as you are eating. There is nothing like it..but please don't try it if you are not into spicy foods. There's a recipe for my favorite salad at the end of this post. 

2. AchaarA small dollop of savory pickle always accompanies our plate. You can make it, and I have some recipes in  my book 'Vegan Indian Cooking,' but we typically purchase it. Indian pickles can be made from mango, lemons, or even carrots and daikon. I adore the one we purchase from the Indian grocer made whole from red chile peppers. You put just a tiny dollop on your plate and then as you eat mix in a tiny bit with every bite. If you are eating bread, take that piece you've broken off with your hand and grab a tiny bit of achaar first before heading to all the other stuff. It gives us a spicy base to our bite. Or, if the achaar is sweet, it give you a mixed sweet and salty explosion in your mouth. Gosh, my mouth is watering now. Be sure to just grab a little. We can always spot someone new to Indian cuisine when they dole out the achaar in the same proportion as the lentils on their plate, take a bite, and almost spit it out. It's the same idea as eating too much wasabi at one time with your sushi. 

3. Papad. You probably know it as Papadum, the fried crisps that restaurants bring out pre-meal to dip into chutneys. We actually eat these either with a scotch way ahead of a meal (the guys eat them like beer nuts) OR we eat it with our meal. It's typically a wafer made from lentils that is pounded paper thin. We never actually fry it, but just heat it up on a open flame until it crisps up. You can purchase these from any Indian grocer. My kids and I like the black pepper ones that are extra spicy. The idea is that as you are eating your meal, you take bites of papad to add crunch and spice to every single bite. It's especially handy on days when I don't have time to add bread to our meal. 

4. Raita. A cooling, spiced yogurt is a must for our meals. It not only balances each bite in terms of heat, but adds one more layer of amazing flavor. We typically add grated cucumber, a few pinches of roasted cumin, ground, and some salt. A dollop of food and a touch of yogurt will send your senses into far off places. Seriously. Use unsweetened soy yogurt and a dash of lemon juice if you are Vegan. 

5. Chutney. Not a must, but nice to have around - a nice mint or tamarind-date chutney adds depth and flavor once again to every bite. Now, most folks in the West think this should be a sweet, almost syrupy mango chutney. Not so. We love light, airy chutneys that are often simply made with crushed mint leaves, spices, and lemon juice. 

So, now that you know how we truly eat Indian food, ask for these amazing components when you eat out. Likely, your server will be excited that you're in the 'know'. Or, simply head to the nearest Indian grocer and pick up a few components. You'll be so glad you did, and eating Indian food like a local in no time at all. 

Remember, with Indian - it's all about layers of flavors and textures. Here's a recipe for my favorite salad from my new book, Indian For Everyone. It's out this Fall and already available for pre-order on 

North Indian Onion Salad

Most Indian food lovers don’t realize that North Indians—especially Punjabis—cannot and will not eat their dinner without raw, spiced salads on the side. We need that extra crunch and texture with every bite. I always ask waiters to make me a plate, and even go and cut my own at Indian friends’ houses if they happen to overlook the cardinal rule. Our typical salads include onion, cucumber, and tomatoes, with whole green chiles on the side. I’m giving you just the onion version, but feel free to add the rest and adjust the spices.

Tools: You’ll need a large, deep mixing bowl.

1 large yellow, red, or white onion, sliced in thin rings

Juice of 1 lemon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon kala namak (black salt)

1/2 teaspoon red chile powder or cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon chaat masala (optional)

  1. In a large, deep mixing bowl, submerge the onion in water. Set aside to soak for 15 minutes. Drain and pat the onion dry. This step removes bitterness.
  2. Return the onion to the bowl and add all the remaining ingredients. Stir well until combined.
  3. Transfer to a serving bowl and serve immediately as a side salad. Be prepared to hear “I call the water!” from your kids. My girls fight over the spicy lemon water left over at the bottom of the bowl.

Thanks for sticking with me while I finished Book 3. It's in the hands of the publisher now and I am back to blogging. WooHoo. It's been a long, long year. I just appreciate your faith in me, my writing, and my cooking. More pictures and stories to come. But, best of all, amazing new recipes are headed your way...along with some fun contests. Stay tuned. 




Anupy Singla
Anupy Singla


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