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Is there anything HEALTHY to get at an Indian place?

A little off topic, but I had to cut back drastically on my Indian food intake (crack, as I call it). Chowhounders love Indian, there's always lots of Indian posts, and they are all torture. :-(

Is there anything HEALTHY to get at an Indian place? I'm guessing some of the chick pea dishes and vegetarian options, but most things seem to come in heavy, creamy curry sauces. And those samosas and onion bahji...oh lord.

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  1. Daal, Aloo gobi, raita and Tandoori shrimp/chicken/fish are all fairly healthy.
    Or try finding a restaurant serving more south Indian style curries. It's usually the northern Indian and Pakistani dishes that use a lot of cream and paneer in their cooking.

    1. I second the recommendation to focus on southern Indian food. By doing so, you'll get dishes made primarily from lentils, chick peas, and other legumes. Sauces will be based on zesty tropical flavors rather than cream. Any Indian restaurant that features "masala dosa" in the menu is more likely to be serving southern food.

      1. I imagine that, depending on how they are served, snacks such as bhel puri or chaat papri could be very healthy. These rank among my favorite Indian treats.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Steve

          I wish that were true! Most chaat preparations have lots of deep fried ingredients. The sev (chickpea noodles), papri (flour tortilla chip), puri (hollow semolina ping-pong balls), dahi vada (lentil fritters soaked in yogurt).. I could go on.. are all deep fried. However, you can still get a fairly okay concoction if you ask for deep fried items to be omitted.

        2. I find the question odd because Indian cooking is about as healthy as you can get. I cook Indian vegetarian dishes regularly without any dairy at all. They use a lot of legumes (chickpeas, lentils, beans) flavored with spices but only a little fat. And there are lots of vegetable curries, also low in dairy/fat. The use of cream is limited to some fancier dishes which are easy to avoid. We like paratha which is on the heavy side, but roti or naan are low in fat.

          As others have said, look for Indian restaurants with different menus. There are lots of options.

          6 Replies
          1. re: cheryl_h

            I agree in general but restaurants can use a lot more oil. Also, watch out for coconut cream.

            1. re: cheryl_h

              real homestyle indian cooking may be healthy, but Indian restaurants are NOT healthy. In fact, it's some of the least healthy food you can eat.

              1. re: cheryl_h

                Indian food can be very healthy as you describe it and it is often healthier if prepared at home as restaurants do tend to use a lot of oil.
                Re the coconut cream comment below, it may be high fat and calories, and therefore, you may want to go light on it, but many would dispute that it is unhealthy.
                Everything in moderation.

                1. re: pescatarian

                  paneer, kormas, rogan josh, masalas, and generally most of the curries used in the northern style dishes are staggeringly high in calories and fat.

                  1. re: tamerlanenj

                    agreed, but they can be modifed and made at home with less oil, more vegetables, etc. so that they are very healthy

                    1. re: tamerlanenj

                      Saad / palak paneer isn't traditionally a rich dish. One serving has about 2/3 cup of milk made into fresh cheese and a tablespoon of oil or ghee for sauteeing the greens.

                      Same goes for most vegetable masalas.

                      That said, some Pakistani restaurants use enormous amounts of oil or ghee in those dishes.

                2. There are usually some vegetable dishes (spinach or other greens, cauliflower, okra, bitter melon, eggplant) that don't have a lot of butter or cream. You have to figure out place by place what they are.

                  At Pakistani / northern-style places:

                  - chana masala
                  - tandoori chicken (they always take the skin off)
                  - tandoori fish
                  - biriyani
                  - plain naan

                  At vegetarian southern Indian places:

                  - rasam
                  - chana masala
                  - chana palak
                  - palak paneer
                  - plain paratha

                  6 Replies
                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      I would say that biriyani has a lot of fat and is very heavy. Onions are fried before they are added and the entire sauce requires a lot of oil.

                      1. re: beany

                        We must be talking about a different dish. The biryani I know has only about a tablespoon of oil per person and no sauce.

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          My biryanis are not oily either, and the only liquid is absorbed by the rice. I expect you could make it somewhat heavy if you made lamb biryani with fatty lamb?

                          1. re: cheryl_h

                            Actually, I think you are right, there are two different styles of making biriyani. In my way, the sauce (raas) is made separately from the rice which is coloured and spiced with saffron. The sauce part is made separately, with lots of oil, tomatoes, garlic, ginger and all the other common spices.

                            I just asked my mother who told me our style is East African (Tanzania), I trid to search the net to find a recipe using our methodology, but I couldn't find anything.

                            1. re: cheryl_h

                              I make biryani at home using Shan Bombay Biryani spice mix, which is a packaged mix (just the spices) used at home by Indian cooks. (79 cents, an incredible bargain, and makes a very delicious biryani.) The recipe on the box calls for 1 1/2 cups of ghee, for 3 to 4 cups of dry rice and about 2 pounds of meat (including bones). I NEVER use anything like that much, in fact I've made it without any ghee or fat at all, and it tastes great.

                              In Chicago there is a wide variation among restaurants as to the amount of ghee in dishes; the cheaper restaurants, more frequented by immigrants, tend to be on the heavy side, the one that uses the least tends to be most expensive, although the food is very good and the patrons are about 50% from the subcontinent.

                      2. As far as recommendations for South Indian are concerned, note that the main oil used in the south is coconut oil.

                        I agree with Robert that the healthiest options are tandoori grilled stuff, and maybe chana masala. On the other hand, I eat what I like, and don't really pay attention to such things.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Peter Cherches

                          I disagree, the main oil used in the South is not necessarily coconut oil. Palm oils are sometimes used, but even in homestyle Indian cooking nowadays it is rarely used-palm oil is more likely to be used to moisturise hair than to cook food. If something is cooked in palm oil, you can normally taste it. Most Indian restaurants, north and south, do not use palm oil much at all. Ask what oil they cook in-it could be ghee, vegetable, canola, sunflower, or, in some cases, palm, coconut, butter or ghee.

                          Biryanis and pullaos (also spelt pullav, pillau, pilau, pulao and many other ways) are generally safe to eat-just ask if they could cut down on the oil and try to get one with vegetables or ask for extra vegies in it. A raita/patchdi can also be delicious and fairly healthy, using yoghurt and cucumber or other vegetables, but some restaurants may add cream or sour cream-ask them to omit it if they do use it. Idli is a delicious and very healthy South Indian dish. They are made of rice and lentils, and are steamed. They are usually served with coconut, tomato or a type of lentil chutney, and a steaming lentil sambhar. Delicious. Dals and legumes and nutritious and they are cooked healthily in households but many dals in restaurants are heavy in cream. Try to avoid the samosas and bhajis, and pakoras and all the other irresistible deep-fried stuff. And Gulab Jamun for dessert? Probably not a good idea, but it is fine as a once-in-a-while treat.

                        2. Baigan Bharta (sp?) (eggplant), Dal Makhani, Chana Dahl, and Idli Sambar I believe are healthy dishes.

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: J T

                            Considering that Makhani simply means "butter", I doubt the relative "healtiness" of the dish :).

                            1. re: Blueicus

                              And eggplant absorbs so much oil - and I find Indian preparations of it to be particularly oily.

                              I've actually noticed lately that Indian food is getting sweeter, like maybe they are actually adding sugar to some dishes?

                              1. re: julesrules

                                Baignan bartha shouldn't be oily, the eggplant is baked, peeled and chopped or mashed. It is then folded into a mix of lightly cooked spices and some tomato puree. I have it in my fridge right now. It's delicious and absolutely healthy.

                                I think all the responses which say that Indian food is oily, rich etc. are limiting themselves to bad Punjabi cuisine which admittedly is the most widely available. My last Indian restaurant meal was at a South Indian vegetarian place and our meal consisted of idlis, dosas and thali, not a greasy buttery sauce in sight.

                                1. re: julesrules

                                  A lot of Gujarati dishes tend to be on the sweet side, so maybe the sweetness you're noticing is from a Gujarati influence?

                            2. Unless you know the chefs well and can talk to them about their ingredients, I wouldn't count on anything in Indian restaurants to be healthy except maybe tandoori chicken, since there is no sauce. When we get takeout Indian at work and have leftovers, there is a thick coating of oil and/or butter on top of each pan the next day, usually at least half an inch thick.
                              All the fried samosas, etc., of course are particularly bad,
                              as are the desserts, which have to be some of the most caloric and fatty of any cuisine. It's too bad, because I love burfi!
                              Of course, if you cook Indian dishes at home, you can use much less oil and it becomes a healthy cuisine.
                              As Anthony Bourdain explained in Kitchen Confidential, never underestimate the amount of fat a restaurant will pack into its food to make it taste good.

                              1. One more thought brought on by the mention of samosas -- after cooking samosas at home a couple of times, I realized that I really love the filling, which is essentially a spicy potato and pea mix. So now I often make just the filling, and either eat it hot or cold, but in any case, without the fried shell. It's very delicious and fulfills some of the need for Indian food, without all of the calories. (Plus it's quick and easy.)

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: Anne H

                                  That's a good point. I love samosas too but almost never get them because of the deep fried shell. But I often make the potato-pea curry which we eat with Indian bread or rice.

                                  1. re: cheryl_h

                                    I've baked them before, with good results. Or I wrap the filling in lettuce leaves for some healthy crunch - not the same at all, but pretty darn tasty.

                                2. I'd hate to say that despite all the good suggestions, the fact is vegetables and legumes in Indian cuisine tend to be very overcooked, and the food's many nutrients are taken away. Especially without the ghee and other goodies, it wouldn't be providing enough nutrients. How's this suggestion, pair Indian food with something lighter? Like a samosa with a salad/sauted lightly vegs? Dosa with a non cream based chicken curry? Or maybe combine a heavier Indian dish with something lighter? Something along those lines?

                                  1. Forget all I've said before. After extensive searching for the nutritional facts of Indian food I've just gotten more depressed. So from now on I'll order tandoori chicken on plain basmati rice with a bowl of mulligatawni soup and a few pappadom and be happy (and safe).

                                    1. Restaurant food, for the most part, is not healthy food. There is healthy Indian cuisine out there, but if restauranteurs tried to just serve those dishes, they'd be run out of business by the masses who clamor for chicken tikka masala and beef korma.

                                      If you really have a jones for Indian food, it might be worth it for you to get a healthy Indian cookbook, like the one put out by Madhur Jaffrey. Making the food at home allows you to control what goes in, and thus the overall healthiness of the dish.

                                      3 Replies
                                      1. re: reenum

                                        Are all her cookbooks healthy, or is there one in particular that you recommend for healthy indian?

                                        1. re: Produce Addict

                                          "Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cookery," from the BBC TV show, is my favorite.

                                          1. re: Produce Addict

                                            There are a number of low-fat Indian cookbooks. The cookbooks use fat, just not the gobs that you will find in many Indian restaurant dishes. Do a search on Amazon or other book purveyer for Indian and low-fat.

                                        2. I have a cookbook written by Suvir Saran. I've definitely noticed a difference in the amount of oil/ghee he uses compared to Madhur Jaffrey. He prefers a lighter taste, and goes easy on the fats. There are also a lot of vegetarian dishes as well as he is a vegetarian.

                                          1. As others have mentioned, home cooking is usually healthier than restaurant cooking. But if you don't want to go that route, you can:

                                            a) try frozen Indian meals. Some, like Amy's Kitchen, are fairly healthy.

                                            b) stick to Southern Indian food. Not all of it is healthy - there's still fried stuff - but it uses less cheese, cream and ghee. Some dishes, like idli, are steamed.

                                            1. Now that I've finaaaally had a baby, I have to cook at home. (Cry for me, people.) I live by the cookbook "Indian Low Fat Cooking" by Roshi Rozzaq. Every single dish I've tried (I'm a veggie, so I can't speak for some of the meat dishs,) has turned out delicious. Even when I've made some of the meat dishes using vegetarian meat substitutes, I've had great results. Now, I'm not 100% sure this book is still in print. But I'm sure you can find a copy somewhere, because it's very popular. (I think I found my copy from a sidewalk book vender, frankly.)

                                              Otherwise, many of the dishes that people think are cooked with cream are not actually cooked with DAIRY cream. They are cooked with almond cream or yogurt. (Don't believe me? Look up a recipe for a food you think was cooked in cream, and see if you see heavy cream listed anywhere.) However, I'm not sure if that fact saves you any calories or fat, once the ghee and paneer is added. Still, if you look carefully and ask questions, you can find things on the menus of some restaurants that might fit your health needs. After all, Indian people go on diets too, ya know!

                                              Good luck, and happy new year!

                                              (And this is my first post!!!)

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: FaithNJ

                                                Amazon has some options to buy it used --but the last name is razzaq http://www.amazon.com/Indian-Lowfat-C...

                                                Edit to add: Thanks for your post FaithNJ and welcome to chowhound!

                                              2. I would disagree with the comment about cream usually being yogurt or almond cream. At home, south asian cooks are more likely to use yogurt (I've never heard of using almond cream), but it's easier to get the right consistency without curdling with cream than with yogurt. Also, it tastes better and they want you to come back.

                                                Try the vindaloos or madras-style curries and stay away from the masalas and mahkanis. The thickness in non-dairy based sauces usually comes from their pureed-onion base. Kormas are a gray area as they are supposed to be made with yogurt, but I would definitely ask because they may be using greek yogurt which is definitely not low fat. The stir-fried veggies (bhunas) are usually cooked in quite a bit of oil as well, so the sauced veggies are actually a better bet. Also, I would highly recommend asking specifically for steamed rice and not just the rice that they usually serve because the pilafs are almost always lightly fried in ghee before being steamed.

                                                I'm half Bengali (East Indian) and I totally second Madhur Jaffrey's books as the go to for good Indian cooking. I like her "A Taste of India" and Camellia Panjabi's "The Great Curries of India" - I often get cravings for mommy-food and they are surprisingly accurate, although I do tend to be bit generous with the dry spice amounts.

                                                Oh, and btw, if the biriyani is the mughal version (no sauce, just pilaf and meat/nuts/fruit) it is probably the fattiest thing on the whole menu.

                                                Hope this was helpful! :o)

                                                1. The solution I've come up with is to simply limit my Indian dining to once every couple of months and order whatever the heck I want. My last trip to India Quality was...hmm...two months or so ago. I guess I get to go back soon! :-) Lamb madras!

                                                  1. How to make Indian food healthier: Eat less of it. You can't make a "low fat" palak paneer- why even try? Moderation!!!