We love a great Indian buffet, too, but never ordering off the main menu means you're missing out on some of the best ethnic eats around town. We make it easy to explore local Indian offerings

We love a great Indian buffet, too, but never ordering off the main menu means you're missing out on some of the best ethnic eats around town. We make it easy to explore local Indian offerings

Indian food, as most know it, is synonymous with the buffet-and for good reason. Many preparations, no matter the regional variety (and on this subcontinent, there are many), are well suited to the steam table. Undoubtedly, a good Indian buffet can be an enjoyable experience.

But there's a world of dishes not suited to that format and, as a result, these only appear on menus. Ignoring this array of offerings closes off a range of edifying options. And they're often far less frequented by those who are new to the cuisine, likely due to unfamiliar terminology.

While many Indian restaurants have adapted their menus to appeal to American palates, with the Indian population being Columbus' second-largest immigrant group, there are also plenty of restaurants offering the real deal, too. As we discovered, there are many rewards that come with further exploration.

Bethia Woolf, owner of Columbus Food Adventures, blogs about the ethnic dining scene at alteatscolumbus.com.

Northern Indian

Most Americanized Indian food is derived from what are traditionally thought of as Northern Indian dishes, though that's not to say that the real-deal flavors of the north can't be found.

Much of Northern Indian cuisine relies heavily on the tandoor, a large clay-pot oven that gives its name to tandoori dishes. Tandoors are used for cooking kebabs, grilled meats and naan bread. Naan is a wheat bread made with yeast and dairy (usually milk or yogurt) to soften the dough and is best when eaten straight from the tandoor.

At Taj Palace, try the tandoori chicken or kebabs-you can watch through glass as chefs prepare dishes using this method. At Amul India, dishes popular with Indian patrons include the chicken sabaji (chicken cooked with fresh vegetables) and the chicken dal (chicken cooked with lentils).

Pakistan shares a border with India, and there's significant overlap between the cuisines. For tandoori dishes, naan and much more, it's hard to beat Columbus' two Pakistani restaurants, Tandoori Grill Khyber.

The chic, new Tandoori Grill and its sister market and take-out counter, Apna Bazaar, share a kitchen equipped with a pair of tandoor ovens always in action putting out top-notch dishes. Khyber, on the West Side, is also paired with a market and offers a similar menu and level of quality to Tandoori Grill, though served in humbler surroundings. Both have excellent kebabs, tandoori chicken and karahi dishes, proteins served in a spicy tomato-based sauce with onion and green chili. The kebab karahi is particularly good. Khyber also features some good vegetarian options, such as dal and okra.

Biryani is a rice dish cooked with meat and spices and sometimes served with a side of gravy. It's widely available, but you can't go wrong with the Hyderabadi chicken dum biryani at Dakshin or the chicken or goat biryani at Tandoori Grill.

Southern Indian

Columbus has half a dozen Southern Indian restaurants, with Udipi Cafe and Dosa Corner clocking in as veterans of the group. These restaurants are popular both with Indian diners and vegetarians, as Southern Indian restaurants tend to be meat-free. Many even offer a variety of dishes for vegans, too. From this regional cuisine, expect coconut, tamarind and spices, including liberal doses of heat.

?The most common Southern Indian dish is the dosa-a thin, crispy crepe made with a rice and lentil flour batter and typically offered with a range of fillings. The most common, the masala dosa, is loosely filled with a turmeric-colored potato curry mixture.

?Another South Indian staple is a lentil and wheat steamed bread called idli. It's a small round disc about the size of a hockey puck and, at its best, is warm, light and fluffy. Idli are often served with chutney or eaten alongside a curry or soup, such as sambar-a lentil and vegetable soup with tamarind, chili and spices.

Where to order: Idli can be found at all of the South Indian restaurants, and Udipi also offers a fried idli appetizer.

Expect to see uttapam at Southern Indian eateries around town, too. The pancake-like dish starts with a batter similar to a dosa, but it's much thicker. Coconut or vegetables are then incorporated while the pancake is still on the grill.Uttapam are served with chutney and sambar.

Where to order: If you want versions of uttapam done right, stop by Dosa Corner or Udipi.

Sure to attract the attention of neighboring diners, channa bhatura-a large, puffy bread served with chickpea curry-is about the size of a slightly squashed basketball. When it arrives at your table, stab it with a fork to release the steam, then tear pieces off to eat with the curry.

Where to order: It's particularly good at Udipi.

Chaat

Chaat dishes are based on street food from western India, generally comprised of fried shells, samosas or puffed rice topped with chutneys and garnishes. For a long time, Banana Leaf was the sole destination for chaats in Columbus, but they're becoming more widely available. Cumin in the Polaris area now offers a weekly chaat stand, as well as regular appetizers on the menu. Dakshin has become a destination for chaat, with a dedicated chaat cart set up outside the restaurant during the summer Thursday through Saturday. They offer more than 10 chaat dishes that can be ordered and eaten inside the restaurant.

Drinks

Most Indian restaurants serve a selection of Indian beers and sometimes Indian wine. Other drinks include the yogurt-based mango lassi; the sweet, milky spice tea Indian chai; or badam, a milk drink with nuts and cardamom.

Desserts

Save room for desserts, such as gulab jamun, a doughnut-hole-like fried dumpling soaked in cardamom-infused syrup, or kheer, an Indian rice pudding often flavored with cardamom, saffron or nuts. You may also find kulfi, Indian-style ice creams often made with mango or pistachio.

Breads

Breads are another joy of Indian dining. The best known is naan, but there are many others. Kulcha is similar to naan but is often stuffed with onion or paneer and is usually made with baking powder instead of yeast. A poori is a puffy, fried bread smaller than a bhatura. Parathas are flaky, layered breads often stuffed with potato, meat or vegetables. Roti and chapati are the simplest breads: unleavened wheat discs. Chapati are cooked on a griddle, and roti are cooked in a tandoor. Some restaurants, like Taj PalaceCumin, offer a basket, which allows you to sample a few different breads.

Menu lingo

Biryani: A rice dish usually containing meat and spices and colored with turmeric. Biryani rice is cooked separately from the sauce and then combined after cooking.

Dal: A stew made from split lentils. There are many variations of dal, but the most common are dal makhani, made with black lentils and red kidney beans, and tarka dal, made with yellow split peas. Dal is usually eaten with rice or bread.

Kofta: Cottage-cheese-and-vegetable dumplings usually served in a stew.

Masala: A mixture of spices that can refer to a powdered spice mix or a dish flavored with it.

Methi: Fresh fenugreek leaves are used in sauces for dishes like lamb methi.

Pappadam: Also known as papads, these are thin, crispy discs eaten as a snack, often with chutney before the meal. They can be plain or spiced.

Pakora: A fried snack madeby dipping vegetables or paneer into a spiced chickpea flour batter. It's sometimes called bhaji, especially if made with just onion.

Paneer: A mild Indian cheese that does not melt, so it's added in cubes to curry and vegetable dishes like palak paneer (spinach with cheese).

Raita: A sauce made from yogurt, commonly with cucumber and mint. It's a cooling accompaniment to spicy dishes.

Rasam: A tamarind-based soup with tomato and chili.

Samosa: A triangular savory pastry typically filled with a potato curry mixture. Some restaurants also offer meat-filled samosas.

Seekh Kebab: Spiced ground meat (such as lamb or chicken) shaped around a skewer and grilled over a tandoor.

Tikka: Usually meat or fish dishes (but also paneer) that have been marinated in yogurt and spices then dry-roasted, typically in a tandoor.

Wada: A crispy fried lentil doughnut popular in Southern India and commonly served with sambar and chutney.