Indian 101 – A Guide To Common Indian Curries

What’s the difference between A Balti & a Vindaloo Curry?

Have you ever wondered what’s the difference between Butter Chicken and Tikka Masala, or a Jalfrezi versus a Korma? It can be very confusing if you didn’t grow up eating Indian food but over the last month or so as I’ve been enjoying my Curry Adventures in London and Toronto I’ve started to appreciate the subtle differences and nuances in Indian food. India is a vast country with a rich culinary history that is interesting to explore once you get past the North Americanized version. For example, I’ve discovered that in the North the diet consists mostly of wheat bread like Naan, meat such as Lamb and lots of yoghurt and cream while in the South it’s predominately Rice and rice derivatives like Dosa (rice crepes), Fish and Coconut. There are also differences between the East and Western parts of India. When we say Indian food, we encompass it all but if you speak to a person of Indian ancestry they talk about the regional cuisines like Tandoor, Punjab, Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai. I’m no expert but I have found a great guide to help explain 15 common Indian dishes we can order at a restaurant. Now when you order you may just try something new without being nervous of what you are going to get.

Tikka Masala Skillet Shepards Pie Recipe from Pataks

While I was touring the Patak’s factory in England, I kept noticing many sauces that aren’t available in Canada, one of those is called Balti. I’ve discovered it is available just under a different name. In Canada, it’s referred to as Tomato and Cumin sauce. Named after the dish it is served in, Balti is made from tomatoes, onion, cumin and chilli. Huge in Birmingham it quickly has become one of my favourite sauces.

Bhuna is a dish I’ve yet to try on my adventures. Made from tomato and tamarind with plenty of onions, it is sautéed slowly over a low flame and with the addition of tamarind I can only imagine a sour flavour with a hint of sweetness from the tomatoes. I’m putting this on my “must try list” before the adventures are over.

Pasanda is a rich, creamy and absolutely delicious. What dish wouldn’t be if it was made from Almonds and Coconut? I’ve enjoyed this with Lamb many times and it is a sweet dish without too much heat.

Rogan Josh hails from Kashmir and is a spicy red sauce made from Tomatoes, Cardamom and Kashmiri chillies. Not too spicy this dish is full of flavour thanks to the cardamom and other spices. It warms my stomach every time I enjoy a plate of Rogan Josh.

Defintion of Balti Bhuna Pasanda and Rogan Josh Sauces

Biryani is found all over India but every region has their own version. Simply put it is rice and meat or vegetables cooked together to make one meal. This is the one pot casserole of Indian cooking. Depending on where you are the spice mix may change but the basics are the same. I know a lot of kids that love Biryani as their go to meal to order when at an Indian restaurant.

Butter Chicken is probably the most common Indian dish ordered by North Americans yet it is a very young creation in Indian Cooking. Made from tender Chicken cooked in Tomato, Garlic, Ginger, Tamarind and of course Butter this rich creamy dish is on everyone’s order when eating Indian. Was it first created in England or perhaps at Delhi’s Moti Mahal?  Who can say but it is one hell of a tasty dish.

Tandoori & Tikka are similar yet slightly different. Tandoor refers to the oven and a cooking style founded in Northern India. Tandoori and Tikka are almost the exact same with one exception, Tikka generally refers to boneless marinated Chicken while Tandoori has the bone in and can be any part of the Chicken. Once you change the meat or make it with Vegetables they are the same, marinated in yoghurt and spices and cooked in a Tandoor Oven.

Four more Indian sauce definitions

Dopiaza is dish I’ve yet to try on my adventures but it is made with Tomato and Onions cooked 2 ways. Generally a mild dish that derives it’s sweetness from onions I’ve not seen this on many menus here in North America but I saw it on a few in London. Now I wish I had given it a try so I could see how it compares.

Jalfrezi is the first dish from India that incorporates red peppers in the sauce that I’ve tried. Sweet Peppers, Coconut, Tomatoes and spices all cooked together to create a sweet. Originating from Kashmir “Jalfrezi” means stir fry.

Tikka Masala is a British dish that combines Tikka (boneless Tandoor grilled chicken) with Masala which means Tomatoes and Onions cooked with spices. Hugely popular everywhere this Indian dish is really British with Indian heritage.

Madras is from Southern India and is a region as well as a dish. Tomato with Coriander, Cumin and Fenugreek these dishes are hot and spicy just like the region.

Dopiaza, Jalfrezi to Tikka Masala and Madras definitions

Vindaloo is often the hottest item on the menu at any Indian restaurant. Made from Tomato, Chilli and Cumin this dish is actually influenced by Portuguese traders who visited Goa (Western India) in the 16th century. The Portuguese are the ones who first introduced Chillies to the Indian culinary scene and the thermometer keeps rising with this Vindaloo dish.

Korma is as mild as Vindaloo is hot. Made from Coconut and Almond it is similar to Pasanda with the difference being that Korma includes Saffron which creates a pale yellow colour while Pasanda is always white. Both are equally rich, creamy and delicious however I find that Korma is what’s on the menu the most in Canada. This is a very kid friendly dish if you are looking to intro your kids to some fabulous Indian foods without overwhelming them with spice.

Korma and Vindaloo definitions

There you go, a bit of a helping understanding of some of the various dishes you can order at an Indian restaurant. By no means is this complete and in fact I’ve only just scratched the surface. I recommend that the next time you visit an Indian restaurant you ask them to take you on a culinary journey. Try dishes you’ve never had before and ask for the stories behind them. Do this and you can travel to India via your stomach without ever leaving your seat. I hope this helps and inspires you to try something different next time, as you can see they all are based on similar ingredients, it’s just the cooking method or spice combination that varies. Give it a try.


This 30 Days of Indian adventure series is sponsored by Patak’s Canada, the world’s leading producer of authentic, quality, and convenient Indian foods, sauces, and pastes. Continue to follow this adventure to find more great ways to Mix in a Little India into your daily life. The opinions on this blog are my own.


4 thoughts on “Indian 101 – A Guide To Common Indian Curries”

  1. Great post. The description for vindaloo is a bit lacking, though. It is true that it’s derived from a Portuguese dish (and hence popular in the Goa region), but its spice level isn’t just what sets it apart. In fact, it comes from the dish “Carne de vinha d’alhos”, which means meat cooked in wine and garlic. However, due to some reason (due to the higher price of wine or the social stigma surrounding alcohol in those days), the Indian chefs replaced wine with palm vinegar, and thus, “vinha d’alhos” became “vindaloo” in colloquial speak. Today, Vindaloo is a unique dish that combines Indian spices with the tangy kick of vinegar, which also offsets the usually high levels of heat present, and gives you a taste you will remember forever at the first bite.

  2. John David Dunson

    do you know anything about hyderabadi? an Indian friend of mine at work suggested i try it.
    all i’ve had so far is tikka masala, and i LOVE it, but today i’m trying the korma for the first time.

    1. Indian foods and dishes are not definitive, unlike the French.
      Although Butter Chicken itself has only been around for around 60 years, that’s enough time for variations to appear. Each one only as valid as the level of customer satisfaction.
      One restaurant may add tamarind, another not.

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