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Beginner’s guide to Indian food

A typical meal at Sri Lankan-inspired Soho restaurant Hoppers. Photo by David Loftus

Without leaving these shores, we have an entire subcontinent of flavours to savour – and that’s why regional Indian food is worth celebrating

There’s no contest: the UK is easily Europe’s best place for Indian restaurants. What’s more, the variety and quality of the food has soared since those far-off flock wallpaper days. Cuisine from across the regions of the subcontinent can now be found here, but where to begin? 

Most local curry houses are run by those of Bangladeshi heritage, so it’s worth examining their menus for genuine Bengali dishes; keep an eye out for ingredients such as shatkora (a citrus fruit), mustard seeds and freshwater fish. 

However, the cooking style that dominates northern India and Pakistan is Punjabi. Bread is the dominant staple here, chargrilled tandoori food is popular, and curries tend to be rich and meaty. Butter chicken is a Punjabi classic, as is the lentil-based dal makhani.

With the current vogue for street food, you’re increasingly likely to find ‘beach snacks’ such as bhel poori (a crunchy blend of puffed rice, onion, potatoes and tamarind chutney), which originated in Mumbai. 

Also from western India, the sweet, vegetarian-based food of Gujarat is served in many north-west London establishments, and Goan dishes are gaining appeal throughout the country – look for pork vindaloo (where the sauce is a blend of garlic and vinegar, rather than scorchingly hot). 

Especially distinctive from the curry-house norm, though, is southern Indian cuisine. Vegetarian cooking predominates here, and dishes such as idli sambar (rice cakes served with spicy lentil-based gravy) and masala dosa (crisp pancakes stuffed with spiced potatoes, often served with coconut chutney) are especially enticing. 

You might also encounter food from Nepal (try the momo meat dumplings) and Sri Lanka (sample the ‘string hopper’ noodles and the fiery ‘devilled’ dishes), even outside the UK’s major cities.