Try a crispy samosa from Sweet Cherubim on Commercial Drive

Scan the menu at any Indian restaurant and the list of dishes can be intimidating, with tongue-twisting names and curious ingredients. Do you try the lamb pasanda or goa curry, or sample some vegetarian dishes such as pakoras and palak paneer? Overwhelmed by choice, you order the butter chicken (again) because this tried-and-true tomato-based dish is infinitely satisfying – and safe. Indian cuisine in Vancouver goes well beyond this basic, so branch out. We share some of our fave dishes with this primer on what to eat, and where to try it


1. Chaat Tikki: Elevated street food

With its soaring ceilings and luxurious decor, Maurya Indian Cuisine just might just be one of Vancouver’s most glamorous Indian eateries. The restaurant undoubtedly offers guests a fine-dining atmosphere, but one of of its standout dishes, Chaat Tikki, is street food in India. It’s a riot of colours, textures and tastes tumbled onto a dish in a seemingly haphazard fashion. Potato-and-pea fritters are piled with chickpeas, mint, and tamarind chutneys, and refreshing yogurt somehow ties it all together. It’s street food that’s fit for a maharaja — and ideal for sharing with friends.

Maurya Indian Cuisine, 1643 West Broadway


2. Samosa: A savoury potato-stuffed pastry

While most people make a rule of avoiding hot food that’s on display near the cash register, Sweet Cherubim’s heavenly samosas are the massive exception. Eaten typically as an appetizer or snack, flour pastry is filled with a fistful of ingredients — traditionally mashed potatoes, peas and spices — and is deep-fried until crispy. Samosas are served hot, often with a side of sweet mango chutney for dipping.

Although Sweet Cherubim, an organic and natural foods purveyor, has its own restaurant onsite, after stocking up on organic maple syrup and quinoa, one can get a bit peckish and want something to nibble on while walking home. One of these will happily plug the hunger gap. Go for the classic potato combo or change it up by choosing an unconventional offering: spinach and feta, chickpea and rice, or tofu and rice.

Sweet Cherubim, 1105 Commercial Drive


3. Dosa: Indian’s answer to the crêpe

We get it: a crispy rice and lentil crêpe doesn’t sound as enticing as a French one, but a dosa dish isn’t a dessert — it’s a savoury choice that's as varied and delectable as its French counterpart. Bring your appetite to Chutney Villa if you plan to indulge in this South Indian staple (often eaten for breakfast), which comes with a range of fillings (we recommend the masala — spicy onions and potatoes) and served with coconut chutney or other accompaniments. Be warned: the dosas here, which are curled into a rolling pin-sized cylinder, are so massive they hang over the edges of the plate. Tear off a chunk of the crêpe with your hands, dip it in the chutney, and enjoy.  

Chutney Villa, 147 East Broadway


4. Bhaji/pakoras: a “blooming onion” by another name

It might be a bad analogy, but if you’re familiar with the battered “blooming onion” on some steakhouse menus, you have already been introduced a somewhat westernized version to this Indian snack, which is called pakora in the north and bhaji in the south. The pakoras cooked up at Nirvana Restaurant can only be described as divine. Spinach and shredded potatoes are flavoured with cilantro and ginger, then coated in seasoned chickpea flour and flash fried to crispy perfection. They’re light and delectable, unlike some of the grease-laden offerings at other restaurants. And the cilantro-based chutney that comes with it is equally appetizing.

Nirvana Restaurant, 2313 Main Street


5. Lamb pasanda: a mild and creamy-nutty curry

People often opine that lamb is too gamey for their taste. Not the lamb pasanda at A Taste of India, a longtime Robson Street establishment that has outlived its ever-changing neighbours. Here, boneless lamb is cut into large chunks and cooked with creamy yogurt (it’s homemade too) and married with ginger and garlic, spices (think coriander, cumin and cardamom) and nuts. The flavour is mild but multilayered with hints of crunchy nuts and the lamb is tender and delicious. Consider this your gateway dish to eating lamb, Indian-style.

A Taste of India, 1282 Robson Street


6. Palak paneer: spinach meets cheese

Vegetarians can quickly get tired of dahl (lentils), chana (chickpeas) and biryani (basmati rice cooked with spices). They’re definitely delicious dishes, but high in carbs, plus they can be heavy when eaten on their own. An excellent vegetarian alternative is the palak paneer at Indian Oven. Move over kale: spinach is the delicious green that packs this dish with nutrients and flavour. Chunks of homemade paneer, a type of cheese that has the texture of firm tofu and a mild flavour, brings the protein. Onions, garlic and spices round out the recipe, giving the good-for-you greens a decadent appeal.

Indian Oven, 2006 West 4th Avenue


7. Prawn Goa curry: tender seafood with coconut

Indian cuisine is a lesson in history, culture and geography. Goa was colonized by the Portuguese for more than four centuries and sits in a southern coastal region of the country where coconut and seafood are plentiful. The prawn goa curry at Handi Cuisine of India exemplifies such regional cuisine. The spicy-sweet sauce has onions, coconut and spices, and prawns are added at the end of the cooking process so they stay juicy. And while many people don’t ever darken the doorway of their go-to Indian restaurant, preferring to order-in, Handi’s Dunbar location is one of those places where eating in seems to amplify the dining experience with the heady aromas wafting from the kitchen. Gather with friends to share some dishes (order some beer to go with), but make a reservation so you’ll be guaranteed a table at this busy restaurant.

Handi Cuisine of India, 4432 Dunbar Street, Vancouver; 4544 Hastings Street, Vancouver; 1579 Bellevue Avenue, West Van