A Guide to Indian takeaway food

Indian cuisine has been popular in Britain since the Asian subcontinent was the brightest jewel in the Empire’s crown, and we still rate a curry as a favourite takeaway treat.

Perhaps you have your favourite Indian dish and accompaniments, but if you knew more about the others on the menu you might be brave enough to step out of your comfort zone, so use our guide to British takeaway Indian cuisine to help you make a choice from the menu. Wondering how hot the various curries are? Then visit: How Hot is That Curry – Dentons Curry Heat Guide.

The Main Indian Curry Dishes Dissected:

We take a look at the stories behind the most popular great British Indian fast foods. It may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that some of them are not of Indian origin at all. Use the Dentons heat-o-meter to choose the right curry for your taste. Also, we’ve given a heat and health ratings on a scale of 1 – 5 (where 1 is the mildest and healthiest)

Balti Curry

Chicken Balti with rice and Naan bread

Chicken Balti with rice and Naan bread, By Edinburgh Blog [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The name for this mixed meat/vegetable curry means “bucket” in Hindi, and likely refers to the flat-bottomed wok-type pan it is usually cooked in. The dish could have originated in northern Pakistan, but the British city of Birmingham claims it was first cooked there in the 1970s, and they’re sticking to the story.

Balti has served Birmingham well – it’s “Balti Triangle” boasts dozens of restaurants specialising in the dish. Balti is, though, a firm favourite right across the British Isles and beyond as a takeout or dine-in.

Balti comes in a variety of versions. Marinated meat (usually chicken or beef, fish or prawns) are stir-fried quickly in the wok-type pan along with vegetables like onions, spinach, potato, mushrooms or aubergines and selected spices. The result is a fairly dry rather than saucy curry, which is served with rice.

The secret is in the spice mix used, including Garam Masala, curry leaves, coriander, cumin, cloves, cardamom and others (more about spices further on too), all forming a marinade/cook in sauce in a base of stock with tomato puree and peanut oil.

Balti is usually listed on the menu (especially in a specialist Balti House) in different heat strengths of mild, medium or hot. Generally, those who can’t take too much spicy heat even find the mild version hot!

The traditional way to eat Balti is scooping it up with chunks of a sweetish-flavoured Naan (flat) bread. Other good accompaniments are a cucumber and yoghurt raita and/or a fruity chutney.
Heat index: 4 
Health index: 3


Bhuna Curry

Chicken bhuna and naan bread

Chicken bhuna and naan bread, by Edinburgh Blog, Flickr CC BY 2.0

Bhuna is actually an Asian cooking method, rather than a dish, so it applies to any lean meat cooked in that style, usually chicken, lamb or beef. The cooking process requires simmering the meat in a spicy sauce for an hour or two, allowing the sauce to reduce until it is thick and coats the meat, which is very tender. This results in a rich, pungent flavour, concentrating the spices. The dish is usually garnished with green capsicum and shredded onions and served with rice and naan bread.

The basic sauce for the bhuna generally contains varying proportions of cumin, coriander, mustard seed, chilli, fennel, shallots, ginger, garlic, tomato and curry leaves.
Heat index: 4   
Health index: 3


Biryani Curry

Lamb biryani

Lamb biryani by Leigh A Murrell Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

This was originally a simple Persian (Iranian) dish, where rice and meat were baked together in the oven. Over time spices and other ingredients were added. Nowadays in the Indian takeaway, a biryani is usually a stir-fry of pilau rice with chicken or lamb (cooked up in the bhuna way), usually with almonds, sultanas and various vegetables.
Heat index: 2
Health index: 4





Dhansak Curry

Dhansak with rice

Dhansak with rice

The Parsees of south Asia gave us this super-hot dish made with lamb, vegetables and various types of dahl (lentils or pulses). Takeaway menus often describe the dish as “hot, sweet and sour”, and it does encompass all of these flavours. In the curry house version, the heat comes from chilli, the sweet from sugar or pineapple, and the sour from lemon juice.
Heat index: 3
Health index: 3


Dopiaza Curry



The name of this classic Indian dish from Hyderabad translates as “two onions”, which obviously gives a clue as to its main ingredient. Onions are used both in the cooking of this curry and fried onions as a garnish. The basic recipe for takeaway Dopiaza also usually includes chicken, beef, ginger, garlic, spices like cardamom, cloves and peppercorns, and chilli powder. Traditionally Dopiaza has a touch of sourness added with lemon juice.
Heat Index: 4 
Health Index: 4


Jalfrezi Curry

Chicken Jalfrezi with rice, naan and poppadums

Chicken Jalfrezi with rice, naan and poppadums. By Mikey, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The term Jalfrezi means stir-fried – a concept introduced in India during the colonial era when Brits used their Sunday roast leftovers to fry up with curry spices on a Monday. Perhaps this is why it is one of the most popular takeaway dishes in the UK today (though you won’t get leftovers when you order nowadays!). Available in a variety of combinations, including vegetarian only, Jalfrezi can vary from curry house to curry house, but usually contains marinated meat, onions, bell peppers and lots of green chillies. A good Jalfrezi should not be too saucy and goes down well with cream-based condiments.
Heat index: 5
Health Index: 3


Korma Curry

Chicken korma, rice and naan bread

Chicken korma, rice and naan bread. By Edinburgh Blog, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The origins of creamy korma curry date back to the 16th century in northern India and Pakistan.  Traditionally it involved meat marinated in yoghurt, then braised on low heat until marinade and juices reduce down to a thick sauce. Nowadays the takeaway chef speeds things up a little, and the ingredients have been adapted, often including almonds, cashews and coconut milk along with thick cream and the requisite spices, but the delectable flavour remains the same. A good korma is mild, but should never be bland.
Heat Index: 2
Health Index: 2


Madras Curry

Madras Curry

Madras Curry by Regan76, Flickr CC-BY-2.0

While this style of curry is said to emanate from Madras (now Chennai) in southern India, the name is certainly not used there and is a British invention. It has come to denote a very spicy, hot, rich curry in a thick sauce.  Its served up in restaurants or to take away, and been translated into dozens of commercially available brands of curry powders and cook-in-sauces.

Madras curry is usually beef-based in UK curry emporiums, but there are often chicken, lamb and vegetarian versions available. The ingredients can vary as much as the heat strength according to the chef’s choice, but for a good Madras, there should be some signature flavours and textures involved: smoothness from coconut or yoghurt, a toasty tang, and sour-sweet fruitiness with a touch of aniseed. The spice mix used is usually a blend of dried, roasted and powdered cumin, cinnamon, coriander, ginger, garlic, turmeric, peppercorns and the like – with, of course, plenty of chilli.
Heat Index: 5 
Health Index: 3

Pasanda Curry

Chicken Pasanda

Chicken Pasanda by Edinburgh Blog, Flickr CC-BY-2.0

The name of this popular dish derives from the Urdu word for “favourite”, and that it certainly has been since the days of the Moghul emperors. It was originally made with marinated, flattened strips of lamb leg, which was then fried. The process remains essentially the same, but nowadays chicken and prawns sometimes take the place of lamb. The marinade contains yoghurt, chilli powder and a variety of other spices including cumin, peppercorns, cardamom and garlic. While frying other ingredients are added such as onions, ground almonds, cream and cinnamon.
Heat Index: 3
Health Index: 2

Rogan Josh Curry

Lamb Rogan Josh

Lamb Rogan Josh, by Bob Walker, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

A staple of both Kashmiri cuisine and the great British curry house, Rogan Josh is aromatic and redolent of spices, without being too hot for most palates. It’s a traditional braised curry with a gravy base, which, besides chunks of lamb, spices and chillies, contains browned onions and shallots, yoghurt, ginger, bay leaves, red peppers and tomatoes. In the original Kashmiri version, the reddish colour would come from the region’s chillies – in western takeaways, the red peppers and tomatoes add the colour.
Heat Index: 3
Health Index: 3

Tikka Masala Curry

Chicken Tikka Masala

Chicken Tikka Masala by Jason Lam, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

There’s an ongoing raging debate about the origins of this curry concoction, which – regardless of the argument – is recognised as Britain’s favourite national dish. Glasgow in Scotland claims to be the home of chicken Tikka Masala, the story being that a curry house owner invented it by accident while trying to satisfy a lorry driver customer, who complained about his curry being too dry. The addition of a can of tomato soup solved the problem, and so the legendary dish was born. In Britain and around the world today there are hundreds of different recipes for Tikka Masala, but they all share the essential ingredients of spiced, marinated, roasted chicken and tomatoes (generally puree). The chunks of chicken are served in the tomato-based sauce, which contains chilli, garlic, onion, ginger, yoghurt/cream and sometimes coconut milk. The characteristic orange-red colour is achieved with turmeric and paprika or helped along with food dyes.

What’s in the name? Well, “Tikka” is a word from Punjab referring to “bits of chicken”, while Masala is simply a term used for a mixture of spices.
Heat Index: 3
Health Index: 2

Vindaloo Curry

Lamb Vindaloo

Lamb Vindaloo by Pat Castaldo, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

A fiery favourite on the takeaway market, Vindaloo is an anglicised version of a curry originating in Goa, India, which was made with pork marinated in wine and garlic. The meat used in the vindaloo we know today is usually beef or lamb, and it is marinated in vinegar, sugar, ginger, chillies and spices before being cooked up, often with potatoes, which were certainly not included back in Goa.
Heat Index: 5 
Health Index: 3


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