If you’ve never tried Indian food (and believe me, you’re not alone), one word most likely comes rushing to mind when this particular cuisine is mentioned. Yes, I’m talking about that ever-intimidating “C” word…

Curry.

Whether you have a positive or negative reaction to the thought of curried dishes, have no fear. The wide world of Indian cuisine has plenty to offer in curried and non-curried varieties and I’m here to tell you how to find your way around it all. So sit back and enjoy the ride as we stroll through a beginner’s guide to Indian food.

What exactly is curry?  Curry is a generic description of the spices used in a variety of South Asian cuisines. While you can purchase “curry powder” at your local grocery store, it’s actually a combination of several different spices. Most commonly, curries feature turmeric, coriander and cumin, and can include a wide range of other spices depending on the region of the dish.  This rich spice palate can be combined with tomato-based sauces, cream or yogurt sauces, as well as a variety of lentil or bean dishes. The results are delicious.

Appetizers
Let’s start at the very beginning; with appetizers, of course. There are plenty of delicious starters to choose from.

Naan (An absolute must!) – This leavened bread is made in a clay oven comes in plain, garlic and often onion varieties. Consider it the “bread basket” for your Indian feast. The warm, fluffy starter can be eaten before your meal or used to scoop up the delicious courses that follow.

Papadum – Think Indian nachos. Fried crackers that can be dipped in various chutneys (chunky salsa type mixtures containing vegetables, fruit, herbs and spices) or sauces.

Samosas – Savory, stuffed pastries filled with vegetables, meat and spices. Typically you’ll find potatoes and peas inside, but lamb or other meat-filled varieties are also quite common. Dip them in savory sauces or eat them on their own.

Main Courses
Most of the dishes below are meant to be eaten with basmati rice (a soft long grain rice) or naan. If it’s rice you crave, layer the rice and then the sauce or just mix ‘em together. If naan is your vehicle of choice, scoop or sop the sauce up with the fluffy bread and enjoy!

Chicken Tikka Masala – As one of the most popular items on an Indian menu, this dish contains chicken breast pieces in a yogurt sauce with tomatoes and spices. The seasonings in this dish blend together, creating a mixture with lots of depth, but not an overpowering flavor. If you’re looking for a great beginner dish, try this!  (Bonus: Masala refers to the sauce, so diners in need of a vegetarian option can look for this word on the end of the dish’s title for the same great flavor without the meat.)

Paneer – Say cheese! Look for dishes with Paneer in the title and you’re in for a treat. This unique Indian cheese has a mild flavor with a hint of lemon and is usually found in vegetarian dishes. Try Palak Paneer (cheese and spinach in a savory tomato sauce), Kadhai Paneer (green and red bell peppers with cheese, onions and tomatoes) or  Mattar Paneer (green peas, this famous cheese, tomatoes, onions and a fabulous cumin sauce).

Tandoori  – Another popular style of Indian food that refers to the manner in which the food is cooked (Tandoor ovens are bell-shaped clay ovens that heat to an extremely high temperature) and the yogurt sauce used to marinate and tenderize the meat. Typically one of the spicier options on an Indian menu; look for great Tandoori choices with both chicken and lamb.

Vindaloo –  Turn up the heat with the spicy king of the curries. Vindaloo is a kicked-up version of a traditional curry and involves a wine or vinegar based curry/cumin sauce and LOTS of hot peppers. Popular vindaloo dishes include chicken, pork and lamb options.

Don’t forget the veggies! Have a vegetarian or a Gluten Free eater in your party? Indian food is great for both! Not only are there lots of standard vegetarian options on every Indian menu (remember those palate pleasing Paneers?), but Lentils are a staple of Indian cuisine and they just happen to be Gluten Free. Look for tomato-based items that contain the word “Dal” (lentil) for a GF version or any Dal dish for your favorite vegetarian.

These are some of our favorite building blocks for a truly divine experience with Indian food, but we’d love to hear some of yours! What is your favorite Indian dish or restaurant? Share it below! And if you’re hungry for more FirstBites, check out our guides to Tapas and Sushi!