Eating Indian food is a culinary experience unlike any other: the bold and complex spices, the rich, silky texture of curry, the bright acidity of chutneys and achaars (pickled fruit or vegetable), the cooling effect of raita (yogurt sauce), and perhaps the best part, the fresh, handmade bread used to scoop and savor all of these flavors together in one perfect bite.
Indian food is as diverse as the subcontinent that it comes from. For those new to this distinctive cuisine, navigating the menu can be overwhelming. We asked Harjit Singh, chef and owner of Taste of India, to teach us the basics and help us explore his menu. Having served delicious Indian food to the Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon communities for 25 years, both at his location in Resnik and his restaurant on Penn Avenue in Lawrenceville, we knew he’d have a lot to share.
In 1982, Mr. Singh moved from the state of Punjab, located in northern India, to New York City. He lived there for nearly a decade, working in restaurants and building the foundation of his culinary skills and passion for cooking. In 1991, he moved to Pittsburgh to be closer to family and to pursue his dream of owning a restaurant. In the same year, he opened both the Penn
Avenue and CMU locations, specializing in North Indian cuisine. Mr. Singh describes his regional cuisine as “very rich, savory, and less spicy than many other regional cuisines.”
When we asked about the most popular item on the menu, Mr. Singh did not hesitate: “Chicken Tikka Masala.” It’s a recipe that is usually reserved for special occasions for a home cook, yet it is available at the CMU location daily. This labor-intensive dish is truly decadent: melt-in-your-mouth chicken, braised in a velvety, deep-orange curry, exploding with flavor from over a dozen herbs and spices, aromatic vegetables, tomatoes, and cream. As in any restaurant, Mr. Singh noted that there are a number of dishes that diners overlook. If you are looking for a hidden gem, consider the chef’s favorites that are noted throughout.
If you have eaten at Taste of India on campus, it is likely that you have tried an achaar, as it is offered as a complimentary condiment with any meal. Achaar translates to the word pickle, which is a fruit or vegetable that has been preserved with an oil or an acid, such as vinegar or citrus juice. Achaars may be sour and spicy, ranging from mild to very hot.
Alu or Aloo
Alu is the word for potato. The starches in potatoes make them perfect for absorbing and extending flavor, making them a favorite ingredient to highlight the depth of a dish. Alu is often prepared with a wet or dry curry and combined with other vegetables and proteins as a main dish, or transformed into a spicy filling for samosas, parathas, dosas, or alu tikki.
Baingan is the word for eggplant, commonly featured with other vegetables in curries such as alu baingan or in baingan bharta, a popular dish featuring smoky, char-grilled eggplant mashed with spices.
Rice is an essential base for Indian cuisine and Basmati is always the rice of choice. It’s a high quality, long grain rice that is prized for its aromatic qualities and nutty flavor. It may be served plain or in rice dishes such as Biryani.
This versatile rice-based dish can be prepared with any combination of meat, vegetables, and dried or fresh herbs and spices. For a sweet-savory twist, some variations include dried or fresh fruit and nuts. Biryani may be accompanied with raita, or other sauces or chutneys. If you make it to the Penn Avenue location, try one of Mr. Singh’s favorite dishes – Lamb Biryani.
- Chapati or Roti – an unleavened bread prepared from atta (a finely ground whole wheat flour), water, oil, and salt. It is rolled to a tortilla-like thickness and quickly cooked over an open flame. This is considered the everyday bread in Indian homes, perfect for scooping up curry.
- Paratha – an unleavened bread made from whole wheat flour. It is a thicker bread with flaky layers as a result of folding the dough repeatedly, similar to a pastry dough. Herbs or spices may be folded in to the dough. It is then pan-fried with a light oil or ghee.
- Poori (Puri) – an unleavened deep-fried bread often prepared for festivals or special occasions.
- Naan – a leavened bread usually prepared with white flour and cooked in a clay tandoori oven. It can be stuffed with vegetables and herbs. While this is the most popular bread in many Indian restaurants, Tandoori ovens are rare in homes; therefore, it is not a bread that is eaten regularly in everyday kitchens. Naan is the only bread available on campus, but all varieties are available at the Penn Avenue location.Check out the Taste of India Tandoori oven in action!
Chana or Channa
Chana means chickpea, a staple in Indian cooking. This creamy legume is incredibly versatile and may be served whole in dishes such as Chana Masala or mashed and mixed with spices and fried as an appetizer. Chickpea flour is used as a breading or to make savory pancakes, crepes, flatbreads, or crispy papadum snacks. Chickpea flour is also known as gram flour or besan.
Served as a condiment or accompaniment, chutney offers brightness and acidity, which creates a perfect balance when combined with rich, earthy, spice-laden dishes. Chutney is the name for relish and is typically made from fruits or vegetables combined with an acid (citrus juice or vinegar), ranging from sweet to sour to spicy. Green, tamarind, and mango chutneys are some of the most popular varieties.
Perhaps the style of cooking most commonly associated with Indian cuisine, curry is a general term for either a combination of dry and/or fresh herbs and spices that are ground into dry spice mixtures or a paste to create a signature flavor. Whole dry spices such as cumin, coriander, mustard, fenugreek, clove, cinnamon, turmeric, or cardamom (to name a few) are always toasted to enhance the flavor prior to grinding. Curry paste may also include fresh aromatics such as garlic, onion, and ginger (Mr. Singh’s top three favorites), cilantro, or lemon grass, and combined with an oil or ghee to form a paste consistency. Dry curry or curry paste added at the beginning of the cooking process infuses the flavors into the cooking oil. Curry sauces are also known as wet curry, a gravy-like sauce created by the addition of a liquid such as yogurt, coconut milk, stock, water, milk, or cream. Each region or family is known for unique curries; however, some common names for curry on a menu are Masala (the word for spice), Madras, Korma, or Vindaloo.
Lentils, peas, or beans, also known as legumes or pulses, which are often split and sometimes hulled (skin removed). The process of splitting increases the surface area of the legume, which decreases cooking time and exposes the starchy inside, creating a creamy, sauce-like texture when cooked. Dal is the name of both the ingredient and the prepared dish. It can be seasoned in a number of ways and is commonly prepared with aromatics and spices and cooked to a porridge-like consistency and served over rice with bread.
Clarified butter is made by melting the butter and removing the milk solids, which helps to prevent burning when cooking at high heat, making it more suitable for frying and sautéing. Ghee, while a typical cooking oil, has become less popular as consumers request vegetable-based oils for health reasons.
Rice pudding, served as a dessert, made with rice, milk, sugar, and cardamom. Variations may include ingredients such as rose water, nuts (like almonds or pistachios), or fruit.
Best translated as “meatballs,” although koftas are often vegetarian and may be made from potatoes, vegetables, or paneer. Saag kofta, or “spinach ball,” is made by mixing chopped spinach, onion, garlic, spices, and chickpea flour and forming it into balls, which are then fried and served in a curry sauce.
A fresh, non-melting farmer’s cheese that is set by an acid, such as lemon juice or vinegar. You will find paneer in many forms on the menu: cubed and added to curries, such as palak paneer or mattar paneer, or in pakoras, fritters that are served as an appetizer or snack. As it is generally an unsalted cheese, it can easily be transformed into a number of creamy desserts.
Saag or Palak
Although the words saag and palak are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. Saag is the general word for greens, and palak means spinach. So technically, saag might be spinach or another green leafy vegetable, but palak will always be spinach. Another classic dish is palak paneer – one of the best vegetarian offerings on campus! If you go to the Penn Avenue location, you will have the opportunity to taste Mr. Singh’s favorite dish – lamb saag.
Pilav translates to pilaf, a rice dish with spices, aromatics, and vegetables, as in peas pilav.
This simple, satisfying dish features red kidney beans in a rich gravy with tomatoes, onions, and, of course, lots of spices.
A traditional style of cooking, utilizing wood or charcoal in a cylindrical clay oven, that produces smoky, grilled meats, vegetables, or breads at temperatures reaching as high at 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Favorite dishes include tandoori chicken (marinated with yogurt and spices) and naan bread.
Vindaloo originated in Portugal and is named for its key ingredients: a marinade of wine or wine vinegar (vinho) and garlic (alhos). The dish was transformed to become a traditional Goan dish, laced with warm spices, onion, and chili peppers. Vindaloo is assumed to be a very spicy dish due to the Kashmiri chiles, which contributes a fiery red color, but they are not an especially hot chili. The heat level will vary depending on the restaurant, but it is a dish that can be customized for those seeking a dish that offers more or less spice.
Carnegie Mellon University Dining is incredibly fortunate to have Taste of India on our campus and as a part of the Pittsburgh dining scene. Visit the CMU location, the Penn Avenue location, or have food delivered from the restaurant through Happy Belly. Catering for campus is also available upon request by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.