Northeast Florida is home to quite a few authentic Indian restaurants, so there's no shortage of places you can try.
Indian cuisine varies regionally due to a reliance on locally available spices, herbs, meat, vegetables and fruits.
In early India, the typical diet rarely included meat, instead relying heavily upon fruit, vegetables, grains, eggs, dairy and honey. Consumption of beef was taboo, as cows are considered sacred in Hinduism. Even today, beef is rare within Indian cuisine. However, chicken, followed by mutton (goat), sheep and buffalo, are frequently part of area menus. Common vegetables include cabbage, cauliflower, potato, tomato, onion, bell peppers and eggplant.
Traditional Indian flavors combine a variety of ingredients, including powdered chili pepper, black mustard seed, cardamom, cumin, turmeric, ginger, tamarind, curry leaves, bay leaves, coriander, garlic and cloves. In sweeter dishes, cardamom, saffron, nutmeg and rose petal essences are used.
Dipping sauces, called chutneys, are present at almost every Indian meal and can be spicy, sweet or sour. The dominant flavor or ingredient gives the chutney its name — coconut, tamarind, mint, coriander, peanut, cumin, tomato or ginger.
Some dishes are cooked at high temperatures in an earthenware oven called a tandoor. These include tandoori chicken, which is marinated in yogurt that's been seasoned with garam masala, garlic, cumin, cayenne pepper and ginger. Another dish, called chicken tikka, is made from small pieces of boneless chicken marinated in yogurt and spices and then grilled on skewers in a tandoor. It is then typically served with green coriander chutney.
In some regions, samosas, a popular triangular-shaped snack stuffed with spiced potatoes, peas, onions, coriander and lentils, or ground lamb or chicken, are cooked in a tandoor. In other regions, they're fried.
Just like American cuisine, menus in Northern India are quite different from the food served in Southern India, where dishes are fiery, while the northern ones are milder. Both regions incorporate many of the same spices, but the cooks use them differently. Northern Indian food is enriched with yogurt or cream, with a blend of chopped herbs, fresh chilies and tomatoes added late in the cooking for a subtle flavor. These thicker curries are eaten with a variety of breads, from flat chapati to puffy tandoor-baked naan.
A feature of most all Indian food is the cooks' extensive use of dried beans and lentils, which gives Indian cuisine clout with vegetarians of all ethnicities.
More than a dozen Indian bread varieties are characteristically flat. One of the most popular offerings in America is naan — a leavened flatbread cooked in a tandoor and served warm. It's lighter and softer than what we think of as bread and it's typically served with curry dishes and used for scooping food. Dosas are a thin, crispy cross between crêpes and tortillas. The fermented batter (made from lentils and rice) is gluten-free. Once cooked, dosas are stuffed with fillings, rolled into a long pipe shape and served with chutney.
Somewhat resembling American fritters, pakoras are made of vegetables or meat dipped in a spicy batter and fried in ghee, a clarified butter made by boiling off the water and milk solids leaving a rich, golden butterfat. Light, crispy and full of spicy goodness, pakoras are dipped in chutney and eaten with your fingers.
Be sure to include a cup of Masala chai, made with warm brewed black tea and a mixture of Indian spices and herbs such as cardamom pods, ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves, peppercorn, fennel seeds and star anise. While some people prefer unsweetened chai, a bit of sugar helps bring out the flavor.
In Jacksonville, the Baymeadows
corridor is a popular spot for experimenting with Indian cuisine. Within a few miles of one another are 5th Element (9485 Baymeadows Road, 448-8265), India's Restaurant (9802 Baymeadows Road, 620-0777) and India House (8661 Baymeadows Road, 683-5528). Also on the Southside is Apna Restaurant (10769 Beach Blvd., 645-3334). Across town in Five Points, Cozy Tea (1029 Park St., 329-3964) offers a prix fixe Indian dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings. Masala Indian Cuisine (9825 San Jose Blvd., Ste. 6, 268-6499) in Mandarin offers an impressive buffet.