South Indian Restaurant Menu Decoder Ring

For years, we’ve enjoyed eating out at South Indian restaurants– they often have exceptionally interesting food. They are almost invariably vegetarian, so it is generally safe– even for non-carnivores –to order anything off of the menu.

But here’s the rub: the menus tend to be terse. Many of them have only a list of items, without description at all (Tirupathi Bhimas has an excellent example). It’s not clear if this is because they don’t expect “outsiders” to want this kind of food, or perhaps some other reason, but restaurants with clear descriptions of the menu items are the exception, not the rule.

Moreover, the waiters aren’t always trained to give explanations to non-Indians. If you ask what the difference between a dosa and a rava dosa is, you might hear that rava dosas are crispier. But your waiter may not know that rava means wheat or be able explain that in a rava dosa semolina replaces the rice flour. And that won’t help you if you don’t already know that a dosa is a large crispy crepe made with a fermented batter of rice flour and ground lentils. The semolina in a rava dosa does make it crispier, and a little thicker than a regular dosa. It also takes a little longer to cook, so you can expect it to come out of the kitchen a bit later than a regular dosa.

That little bit of trivia may stick in your mind for a short while, but will you remember it the next time you are at the restaurant? (Will we?) And what if you can’t remember what uthappam is? Some restaurants include more information on their website than they do on their printed menu (Saravanaa Bhavan [pdf] and Udupi Palace are good examples) but it would be a hassle and require planning to print out their online menu to take with you.

Decoder 1

So you need a decoder ring! Or at least a wallet card. With a little help from Wikipedia (check out their page on curry!) and the glossary in my copy of 1000 Indian Recipes, we’ve put together a South Indian Restaurant Menu Decoder Wallet Card (800 kB PDF) for your enjoyment, education, and dining pleasure. You can print it out– single sided so no hassle –and it compresses to standard business card size: 3.5″ x 2″. You can also not print it out, and just view it on your iPhone. (And if you’ve never been to a South Indian place, isn’t this a good time to try one?)

Decoder 2

A note on spelling and vocabulary: India is big. Many ingredients and dishes have different names in different regions, languages and dialects. Spellings vary a lot. I have used some of the more common variants, and tried to use multiple versions where the variance seems significant to me. I used versions that I have seen on menus in my area. I have not included all of them. If it sounds similar, it probably is.

A note on my definitions: I tried to include enough information to be useful, not so much as to be tediously accurate. My translations are gleaned from lots of sources, including my own experience and experimentation. Space considerations for the wallet card have led to some compromise on absolute accuracy. But I’m not Indian or I wouldn’t be writing this, so if you see something that’s blatantly wrong, please let me know.

We’d love to see wallet decoder cards for other kinds of restaurants, so let us know if you make one! Korean? Pakistani? Where else do we need one?

26 thoughts on “South Indian Restaurant Menu Decoder Ring

  1. This is a nice idea, but why not an iPhone app with this info? In the iPhone version, you could have several ethnicities to choose from. Hey, you might even make a couple bucks.

    1. Hey! Why not an iPhone app to end world hunger and disease? Seriously get a clue – most people do not have/cannot afford the iPhone.

  2. Awesome idea. I love Indian food but never know what I’m ordering. I almost always like it but can’t seem to re-order ‘favorites’.

    The iPhone app idea is a good one!

  3. Thanks for this! I love Indian food but have slowed adventurous eating since encountering a jalepeno curry on accident.

  4. Nice idea. But… I’m left a bit confused. While the first card is filled with South Indian dishes (mostly in Tamil), the second card is filled with North Indian ingredient names (mostly in Hindi). Never having been to the US, I’m curious if South Indian restaurants actually use Hindi ingredient names in their menus.

    Also, a few notes:
    Kozhambu is _not_ yoghurt-based. (Only "More Kozhambu" is yoghurt-based; "More" means buttermilk (that is, churned mix of water and yoghurt) in Tamil). (The "zh", for those who don’t know, is a retroflex approximant sound that’s a bit like "r", but with the tongue curled and pulled back.) Kozhambu is a gravy dish. X Kozhambu just means that it is a gravy dish with X as the main ingredient. Kozhumbu is generally made without the pigeon peas that go into Sambhar. BTW, I’ve never had More Kozhambu with pumpkin in it. If it had pumpkin, it would probably be a kind of "Kootu" or even a Sambhar. But it would be quite unusual with More Kozhambu. Amongst other things, Bhindi (Okra) is oft added to More Kozhambu.

    Pachadi and Raita are almost the same. One is the Tamil word ("pachadi") and the other the Hindi word.

    While "Dal" is literally lentil, when used alone, it usually refers to a soupy lentil side-dish.

    "Katharikkai" sticks out like a sore thumb in the second list, being the only South Indian (Tamil) word there.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to call Aviyal "soup". It’s a dish with some amount of gravy. (And gravy’s an English word, for crying out loud!)

    1. Wow. Thanks for all the great information!

      Here are some answers to your questions, and some questions to your answers:

      There’s really only one card, and at the bottom is a list of commonly used ingredient names. And yes, South Indian restaurants often use Hindi terms on their menus here. They often have a couple of North Indian dishes on the menu, too. I saw the word Katharikkai and didn’t know what it was, which is what this card is all about. Most non-Indian Americans aren’t going to know what the source language is, so it helps to have as many variations as possible.

      Gravy in America means something very specific (a thickened sauce made from the drippings of roasted meat, usually meant to be poured on the meat or its accompanying starch dish such as mashed potatoes). Indian usage of the word gravy is very general, more like how we would use the word sauce. It can be a source of some confusion.

      The way you use the word buttermilk, it clearly means something different than it does in common American usage. Saying yoghurt is close enough for basic understanding for an American like me.

      All of the recipes I could find for Kozhambu (usually More Kozhambu) had pumpkin and yoghurt in them. It was a really hard one to get info on. Can you give me a definition or point me at some source material for it? What kind of a sauce is used, if not yoghurt?

    2. Obviously, if we knew all the words, and knew which languages they were from, we wouldn’t need a list to tell us what they meant. But the simple fact is that they all show up on our menus here. The food is good, and we’d like to be able to order it reproducibly, so it’s helpful to understand the words a bit.

      The word "gravy" as you use it (and as it is used at Indian restaurants) is very clearly a foreign term in need of translation. I was quite alarmed the first time that I heard it used at an Indian restaurant, because there is no sauce at any Indian restaurant (north or south) that I would describe as being a gravy — the thought of someone putting gravy on my kofta sounded pretty bad!

      Windell H. Oskay

      1. Sorry, didn’t mean to ruffle feathers. Just that as an outsider (or an insider to Tamil cooking) I found the translations of English words into English (or American) rather funny. I guess it just didn’t occur to me that the same word would have a different meaning in Indian English.

        As for kozhambu: I was speaking from 23 years of eating Tamil food. But here’s a recipe for Onion Vetha Kozhambu (a rather popular dish in my house): <;.

        Definition? That’d be difficult, since not all kozhambu’s share sufficient minimal commonalities. But most of them are made out of a tamarind-water base. Even that’s not enough to distinguish it from rasam (also made from a tamarind-water base) and sambar. As a very (very) rough rule-of-thumb: if it is very watery, it’s rasam; medium consistency is kozhambu; and the thicker one is sambar. <; Seems like an okay site. But I haven’t come across definitions.

        Also, I’m wondering, in these South Indian restaurants, do you folks eat with a knife and fork?

        1. Thanks – I’ll try and get an edit of the card up for kozhambu!

          As to forks, well, the ratio of Indians to non-Indians at most of these restaurants is about 10:1, and if you look around, most folks are using their bread (poori, chappathi, dosa, etc.) to scoop up their food. The non-Indians tend to use the fork and spoon more, but knives are a rarity at South Indian restaurants. I personally do a mixture of both, but probably use my fork more than most. What is the standard where you are? Bread scooping? Strict fork & knife rules? Fingers all the way?

          I had a conversation at lunch today with an American and an Indian-American about gravy, and the same dichotomy came out in the conversation. He said that if it didn’t have meat in it, it wasn’t a gravy, and gravies are always a side dish that is poured over other things. She said that gravy is just the sauce in any saucy dish. It’s those kind of cultural differences we’re trying to bring to light, to make eating at various restaurants more comfortable for folks like us!

  5. Nice idea. This is a common problem. I have it too.

    Why do all the "l’s" (els) look thick?

  6. I found this cool little app that would be perfect for "cheat sheets" like this. It creates a little foldable (8 pages in all) booklet that’ll fit in a wallet easily. It uses only 1 sheet of paper too. You could fit a lot of info on one of these. Hope people find it useful for lots of different things..

  7. Totally great idea. Now I don’t have to rely on my waiter when we go in. And since they change their menu every week, this is doubly handy.

  8. Great effort!

    But just to let you know- rava dosa contains rice flour, in addition to rava (which is actually semolina) and all-purpose flour. It’s usually much thinner and crisper than a regular dosa.

  9. I live in the area, and there are sooooo many Indian places around! I know some of the names, but this is certainly going to be helpful. Thank you!

    The only other type of restaurant where I have trouble remembering what things are what are the middle eastern places – they’re delicious, but I’m clueless.

  10. For anyone who ever eats Indian food but is too afraid to ask or feels silly asking, this is the BEST THING EVER. :D I love it. I already have my copy printed and ready to be put to good use!

  11. I guess my previous algorithm of "I’d like the green stuff and the bread with garlic in" is really not sufficient anymore.

  12. I love this idea! I want to try foods from other cultures/countries/etc., and have been making notes for myself, but nothing as cool as your pocket mod version (and I love pocket mod too, so yay!). I totally ‘get’ where you are coming from in making this – not necessarily a perfect ‘wiki’ device for Indian food, but a guide for what your local restaurants are serving. If I write one for Thai, Persian, etc., I’ll share with you!

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