The naming of Indian foods is not nearly as complex as it looks or sounds! Foods are often named by the cooking process involved in preparing them - Tandoori Chicken is tandoor-roasted. They could also be derived from the place the food originated in (for example Fish Amritsari is from Amritsar in the Punjab), the culture it was adapted from (for example Mughlai Biryani which comes from the famous Mughal culture), the main ingredient in it (for example Chicken Saagwala which is made from fresh greens and chicken) or the texture or dominant flavor of the finished dish (for example Reshmi Kabab with its succulent bits of chicken, Malai Prawns with their creamy gravy or Achaari Murg with its pickle-style flavors).
Here is a rough guide of what some of the names you may come across on a menu mean:
Made with spices similar to those that go into Indian pickles, Achaari dishes can be medium- to very hot and most often will have a tangy flavor. Expect spices like chilli, fennel, mustard, carom seed (or Bishop's weed), cumin etc. These dishes will be on the drier side with minimal gravy so order them with a "wet" dish like Daal (soup-like lentils) or a Raita (yogurt preparation) to add textural variety and cut out some of the heat. Achaari-style foods go really well with breads like Chapatis (flatbread), Parathas (pan-fried flatbread) or Naans (leavened flatbread made baked in a tandoor or oven).
Bhuna, Bhoona or Fry:
This means "to stir-fry or sauté". Many Indian dishes require spices to be lightly fried or Bhoono-ed to release their aroma and flavors and prevent them from having a 'raw' taste. Bhuna dishes can range from mild to hot. Expect spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, bay leaves, chillies, coriander and cumin and ingredients like onions and tomatoes. Bhuna dishes are characterized by the fact that the meat or vegetable used is cooked in its own liquids and no extra water is added. This makes for medium amounts of thick gravy that go well with both wet and dry dishes. Since each restaurant has its own heat level in Bhuna dishes, enquire about that before you order. Bhuna dishes like Achaaris, go well with breads like Chapatis (flatbread), Parathas (pan-fried flatbread) or Naans (leavened flatbread made baked in a tandoor or oven).
This word means scrambled. Bhurji dishes, like scrambled eggs, are stir-fried. They can range from mild to very hot and the main ingredient is usually accompanied by onions, tomatoes, ginger, garlic and a medley of spices like chillies, cumin, coriander and turmeric. Bhurjis are dry dishes and as such they go well with gravied ones. When ordering a Burji, ask how hot it will be and team accordingly with a mild or hotter gravy dish. Team Bhurjis with breads like Chapatis (flatbread), Parathas (pan-fried flatbread) or Naans (leavened flatbread made baked in a tandoor or oven).
This is a truly one-dish meal! For Biryanis, which can range from medium to very hot, veggies, meat, chicken, fish or seafood is cooked into a curry (with medium gravy) in a variety of spices and then layered in a large dish with pre-cooked, fragrant, long-grained rice. A garnish (like caramelized onions or saffron) is then added and the dish is sealed. The contents are then slow-cooked (for several hours sometimes) in their own juices! The result is delicious. Biryanis are Mughlai in origin and made differently in different regions of India. Though Biryanis are, by nature, without much gravy, once cooked, the rice is saturated with the juices from the meat or veggies it is layered with. Expect fragrant spices like cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, pepper and saffron among others.
Try my recipe for Mughlai Biryani!