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A Passage To Indian

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If you're trying to expand your ethnic dining repertoire beyond tacos and spare ribs, consider looking east — far east — to Indian cuisine. Don't let exotic-sounding names like masala, kofta or biryani intimidate you. There are plenty of neophyte-friendly options on the typical Indian restaurant's menu.

For appetizers, you can't go wrong with pakoras or samosas. Pakoras are battered, fried veggies, nicely (and not overly) seasoned. Samosas are fried turnovers with potato filling inside. Each of these are generally served with a dark and slightly sweet dipping sauce, but taste great without it, too.

The entrée section of the menu will include plenty of meat-based choices, but Indian cuisine makes the most of its vegetables, so don't shy away from a veggie dish. The following are popular even with picky eaters:

Daal makhani: a basic lentil and cream sauce combo which, like most dishes, can be ordered mild, hot or anywhere in between.

Palak paneer: a dish that combines creamed spinach with soft, homemade cubes of cheese.

Malai kofta: homemade stuffed vegetable briquettes served in a mild creamy sauce.

Vegetable biryani: basmati rice cooked with vegetables and finely sliced nuts (biryanis can also be ordered with chicken, lamb, shrimp or all three).

A condiment is a nice addition to most Indian meals. Raita, a mild yogurt sauce with cucumbers and shredded carrots, is a great, basic choice. It can tone down a too-spicy dish or simply impart more flavor to a near-perfect plate. Condiments for more daring types include sweet mango chutney or sour-spicy lime pickle.

Don't forget an Indian bread to accompany your meal. The milder flavor of the bread contrasts nicely with the more strongly seasoned main course (and can help you sop up the delicious sauces or condiments that will be left on your plate when you're finished!). Parotha is a whole wheat flat bread, shaped like a tortilla, but fresher and doughier. Naan is white bread, prepared in a similar fashion. Parothas can be ordered with a variety of stuffings, including peas, cauliflower, potatoes and even lamb, but are also delicious plain.

If you feel just a little adventurous, try a lassi with your dinner. These are mild yogurt-based drinks that can be served sweet or salty. Mango lassi is light and sweet, without being too dessert-y.

Typical Indian desserts include rice pudding or grated, caramelized carrots. These are a lovely change from the too-sweet American fare we're all used to. But it's often nicer still to leave the table with the tastes of spicy lentils and cucumber raita still on your lips. Enjoy!

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