It is hard to resist the naan, biryani, and butter chicken at Nandini Indian Cuisine in Tempe.
It is hard to resist the naan, biryani, and butter chicken at Nandini Indian Cuisine in Tempe.
Jackie Mercandetti

How to Order Like a Punjabi in Phoenix

How often do you go out to try a new cuisine and end up just scanning the menu for something vaguely familiar? Even the most adventurous eaters could use some pro tips when navigating an unfamiliar menu. To help you order like a native, we put together a series of menu road maps to guide your culinary discoveries throughout metro Phoenix.

Cuisine: Punjabi
Restaurant Name Keywords: Punjabi, Indian
Menu Keywords: Naan, Paratha, Subji, Biryani

What is Punjabi Food?

For the unacquainted, Punjab is a northern state in India (as well as an area of Pakistan). It is commonly known as "India's bread basket" because of its agrarian culture and ecology, with wheat and rice serving as staple foods. In addition to fabulous breads and rice dishes, the Punjab region is also know for tandoori-style cooking, which involves baking meats and naan bread in a bell-shaped clay oven.

Fresh naan is one of life's greatest pleasures. Dipping this buttered, soft bread into a curry or any rich, buttery saag-paneer (spinach and cheese) dish is the ultimate in carb-heavy, spicy comfort. And a good biryani, a complicated rice dish layered with masala spices and either vegetables or meat, is an essential at every Punjabi wedding.

You never say no to a Punjabi wedding. The people are immediately welcoming, hugging attendees they don't know as if they are long-lost kin, with warm smiles and a quickness to dance, fueled by a feast of north Indian culinary delights. Punjabi lentils and biryanis are enhanced with subtle touches of cashews, saffron, and rich ghee (clarified butter), and the scent of buttered naan hangs in the air.

As much as I've tried to match these dishes at home, the magic of the tandoor oven and the intricately spiced Punjabi biryanis aren't readily replicated. They take a kind of patience few of us have, and without a tandoor oven, the signature naan just isn't the same.

The good news is that there are several Punjabi restaurants in the metro Phoenix area where you can sample this unique cuisine, even if you don't have a Punjab wedding in your future.

Taste Punjabi Cooking

Chennai Chettinaad Palace, Phoenix
Go for: Biryani. The masala spice mixture is subtle and doesn't overpower the dish. It isn't too spicy, so you can taste the vegetables. Also, don't leave without trying the paneer (fresh cheese) chili.

Nandini Indian Cuisine, Tempe
Go for: Lamb kabobs cooked in an authentic tandoor oven. The added color of onions and red bell peppers make the dish especially beautiful to look at.

Order and Eat Like a Punjabi
A complete Punjabi meal is best with bread, especially butter naan, a tandoor-cooked meat, veggies, biryani, and some yogurt. To get a good sampling, you should go with a group and order family-style. The yogurt, or raita, is essential, as it is a way to cool and clean your palate so you are able to enjoy the variety of spicy, sweet, buttery, and savory flavors.

Little India offers some serious chaat.
Little India offers some serious chaat.
Lauren Saria

SNACKS AND APPETIZERS

Chaat: Chaat is considered a street food in India, especially popular in Mumbai, but also common in Punjab. The dish consists of small, fried bits topped with different chutneys from sweet-tart tamarind to spicy mint. It is a blend of tart, sweet, soft, and crunchy. The base is made with everything from puffed rice to samosa (a potato-stuffed, triangular pastry), topped with the various chutneys, tomatoes, cilantro, and a dollop of yogurt.

Pakora: Are you curious about India's version of a savory doughnut? Various vegetables, like eggplants, chiles, potatoes, and onions are shredded and deep-fried in batter made out of gram flour for this popular street snack. These fried concoctions are best eaten warm with a complementing mint or tamarind chutney.

Samosa: Most people who are acquainted with Indian food know samosas. It is a savory item that is fried or baked with a filling of potatoes and peas. There can be variations on the filling, like paneer, lentils, or minced beef, but it is most commonly a vegetarian dish.

THE MAIN MEAL

Breads: The most common Punjabi bread is naan, made out of white flour, salt, and yeast. It is kneaded, rolled out and placed in a tandoor oven to bake. It is thick and fluffy with a subtle flavor that is enhanced by dipping it into curries or lentils. Roti is a slightly "healthier" version made out of whole wheat flour and cooked on a hot griddle, called a tawa.

Subzi (vegetables): Aloo (potato) and gobi (cauliflower) are cooked with turmeric, garlic, onion, coriander, and cilantro. Another common dish treated as subzi is saag (spinach)-paneer or mattar (peas)-paneer. Paneer is a fresh cheese made from milk and lemon juice that has a spongy texture that is great for taking on the flavor of the gravy, curry, or spices in which it is cooked.

Lentils: Chole (also called chana) is a chickpea dish made by sautéeing the beans with onions, garlic, and chiles in a tomato-based curry. Another popular lentil dish is dal makhani, for which black lentils are fried in ghee (clarified butter) with tomatoes, onion, and garlic, along with a litany of spices, like cardamom, cloves, and cumin, and finished with heavy cream.

Tandoori Meat and Chicken: Tandoori chicken is a staple for Punjabis. Marinating skinless legs and thighs in a yogurt and lemon juice before baking it in the oven ensures that the meat will remain moist as it slow-cooks. Another specialty is tandoori lamb, either minced and molded into kabobs or cut into chops.

Butter Chicken: This rich dish is a spicy, creamy medley of boneless chicken simmered with heavy cream, tomato, garlic, onion, spices, and the namesake, butter. Tender naan is perfect for mopping up the piquant gravy.

Rice: Biryani is an essential Indian dish, with region variations across India. What unites all biryanis is the cooking method, which involves layering the steamed rice with spices, vegetables, and sometimes meat and letting it steam together so that every grain is infused with flavor. Every restaurant, household, and home cook has their own version of the dish, which is a reflection of the flavors of the area.

Kulfi from Kwality Ice Cream in Phoenix.EXPAND
Kulfi from Kwality Ice Cream in Phoenix.
Rudri Bhatt Patel

DESSERTS

Kulfi: If you've never tried kulfi, you are missing out. It is a pan-Indian frozen treat that is denser and creamier than its ice cream counterpart. Unlike Western ice creams, kulfi is not whipped, but made by slow-cooking and stirring evaporated and flavored milk together with ingredients like saffron, pistachio, rose essence, and mango.

Halwa: Semolina is a common ingredient in Punjabi cooking. It is a wheat grain that is combined with butter, sugar, and flour for a sweet that has the consistency of polenta. It is sometimes enhanced with dried fruits and nuts.

Kheer: Made using either thin vermicelli noodles, rice, or tapioca, which are slow cooked with milk and sugar, flavored with the likes of saffron, cardamom, cashews, or rose water, the resulting dish is a warm, comforting South Asian version of rice pudding.

DRINKS

Sugarcane Juice: When I traveled to India as a little girl, I'd often stop near the roadside for sugarcane juice. Stalks of sugarcane are pressed and the juice lands in a glass and can be topped with ginger, mint, and black salt. Cold sugarcane juice tastes particularly refreshing, with the right mixture of natural sweetness that is hard to find in processed drinks.

Lassi: Yogurt is the base of this popular drink. The blended concoction is versatile with a sweet and savory version. The sweet lassi is flavored with sugar and fruit (especially pureed mango), while the savory lassi might have cumin and salt as its main flavoring agents. It is generally served cold and is refreshing and nourishing during the hot season.

Jal Jeera: If you're a fan of lemonade, then jal jeera is your drink. Jal means water and jeera is a beverage of water, cumin, tart mango powder, tamarind, salt, and ginger, which combines to form a sour, salty, cooling digestive popular in northern India.

Learn more about Punjabi Cuisine
Those cooks who want to experiment with Punjabi cuisine at home don't need to feel intimidated, Show Me the Curry is a great website for those who want an easy how-to-guide to simplified version of complicated Punjabi dishes. If you are craving a history lesson about Punjabi food, Veronica Sidhu's Menus and Memories from Punjab: Meals to Nourish Body and Soul is a great resource in which she provides history and personal stories about dishes that Punjabi households make on a regular basis.

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