If it's bland, run.
That's my No. 1 rule for eating Indian food in restaurants. It's self-explanatory.
Rule No. 2 is a bit denser: Be adventurous and don't be afraid to get your hands dirty.
Spoons and forks are all well and good. But when Indian food is involved, using your hands is the (traditional) way to go.
Oprah landed in hot water a few years ago when, during filming in Mumbai, she disparagingly told an Indian family, "I heard some Indian people eat with their hands still." The response was swift: Yeah, Oprah, plenty of people still eat with their hands. It's just how things are done.
The last time I was in New Delhi, in the northern part of India, meeting my Bihar-born boyfriend's family, silverware was almost nonexistent. Instead of setting down utensils, hosts ask in Hindi, "Tumko kitni roti chahiye?" ("How many pieces of bread do you want?")
Chances are, unless you have your own desi cutie hanging around, restaurants are your main source of Indian grub. Indian food is friendly to vegetarians (an estimated 40 percent of India's population is vegetarian), vegans (most Indian vegetarians don't eat eggs) and gluten eschewers (several nonwheat flours are prominent, such as ground chickpea besan).
North Indian food is probably what you're most familiar with from restaurants. Most local Indian restaurants focus on the cuisine of the north with a dash of some southern dishes such as spiced rice biryani. South Indian cuisine, which is much more heavily based on rice, is the focus at a few local spots such as Udipi Cafe on N Dale Mabry Highway and Dosa Hut in Town 'N Country.
Embracing the traditional way to eat all Indian cuisine means forgoing silverware.
In lieu of forks and knives, tear long chunks of bread (in restaurants, that's usually naan) with your right hand, pulling with your thumb and forefinger while holding the rest in place with your other fingers. Wrap this around the food and gravy in your main dish and eat the whole morsel in one scoop. Rice, too, can go in the mix, especially with a thinner dish like daal, though rice's primary function is to salvage any remaining gravies. "Chawal?" a host will offer when your rotis are gone but food remains.
Fun facts: Leftovers are generally undesirable in India, and the meal isn't complete in many places until you've eaten your rice. In fact, in much of South India and parts of the east, you'd skip right to this step, not bothering with bread (unless you count the south's dosa, which is a crepe made from rice batter).
Rice, too, is traditionally eaten with your right hand as the utensil, working the grains and gravies — there's no keeping your dishes separate at this point — into a sticky ball on your fingers and using your thumb to slide it into your mouth. The technique is a little more complicated and messy than the bread one, so in more formal cases, including in a restaurant, a spoon will usually suffice.
Now that you know how to eat the food, what should you order?
For the curious beginner (or the simply ravenous), a lunch buffet is the way to go, sampling things better understood by sight and smell than menu definitions like "with fragrant Indian spices," which describes, well, everything.
But when you order a la carte, dishes are meant to be shared family style — a little of what you ordered, a little of what your companion(s) ordered, a little communal rice. This means sharing a strategy with your co-diners is also best. My approach is someone orders vegetarian, someone else meat, and no two sauces should be alike.
I cook more Indian food than the average American, so at restaurants I usually also go for the things I don't make at home. (I have long since admitted defeat in the vindaloo category.) Even if you don't cook it, do venture past the basic tandoori chicken or aloo gobi (literally "potato-cauliflower") for things like complex sauces, goat and lamb that show the real breadth of Indian cuisine.
Intimidated by goat or lamb? Don't be. You may have to do a little picking around bones, but goat curry is very savory and not so unlike a spicy pot roast; ground lamb seekh kebab has much more flavor complexity than chicken.
And I can credit Indian cuisine with getting me to eat okra (bhindi do pyaza) and liver, something all the deep-frying in this country's South has never managed to accomplish.
Remember what I said about having a bit of adventure? It makes for good food stories.
Contact Caitlin E. O'Conner at [email protected] Follow @CaitOConner.