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Indian Food without fats?

As a vegetarian who loves ethnic food, and a heart patient, I really try to watch the oils/fats I eat. Indian food is something I haven't eaten in a year, but would love to get back into. As most things vegetarian are fried, have cheese in them, have ghee, butter, unhealthy fats, coconut or coconut milk (as in curries), or high fat yogurt, I find my list of items in Indian restaurants very limited, more by my lack of understanding of the fat content. Can you suggest to me items you might know about like curries, bean dishes, and rice dishes that would not have these fats in them that would definately fall into this category?

I know that either North or South Indian is more veggie based, so maybe you can clarify that for me too. There are plenty of Indian restaurants to choose from here in the San Fran Bay area of both, some specifically vegetarian, but the non-fats dishes that could be ordered in most restaurants have me stymied. Can you help set me in the right direction? Many thanks to all.

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  1. Southern Indian cuisine can be considered more vegetarian. Unfortunately their fats tend to be worse for you (i.e. coconut oil). Kerala, being the coconut capital of Indian, is generally not your friend.

    Dals are the ideal way to go. They use a minimal amount of oil (usually vegetable, not ghee), take well to olive oil and are full of fiber. Idli sambar is a variation on this theme utilizing lentils and a tamarinds. Unfortunately you are right that most vegetables take a good amount of oil. This, however, is generally a result of sloppy cooking. One only needs enough oil to keep the masala from burning, which should only be a couple tablespoons. You might try asking the waiter to use oil sparingly in a vegetable saute like baingan bhartha, rajma or bhindhi masala.

    8 Replies
    1. re: JungMann

      I tend to think the chicken items from the Tandoor may be a little more healthful as opposed to any curries. Perhaps ask the waiter for suggestions & seek restaurants with healthier options. For example, I know Junnoon in Palo Alto ($$$) has a heart healthy menu & Saffron Indian Bistro in San Carlos boasts "continuous efforts to cut fat from traditional recipes set it apart from the fray" on it's website. Standard healthy fare for Indians is rotis/chapatis without butter, a little side dish & raita. Perhaps post something to this effect on the San Francisco board: seeking Indian restaurant w/ healthy options.

      1. re: ceekskat

        Yes, I was going to recommend Tandoori dishes too. But if you want to go for curries, stick with ones that aren't cream-based. Oniony and Tomatoey ones are lighter.

        As another poster said, you could always make your own. It seems a daunting thing at first, but it's really quite easy once you have the spices you need. The BBC's food website has some good stuff: http://www.bbc.co.uk/food. If you click on the Recipe tab, you can find a number of good Indian recipes.

        1. re: Kagey

          What do you think would be a better option? Tikka masala or tikka makhani (chicken with butter sauce)? Tikka masala sauce definitely has cream in it, while the makhani seems more like it's straight tomato, but I assume it's loaded with butter. Sigh.

          1. re: janethepain

            Well I'd think that the "butter sauce" would be the giveaway! The dishes I was thinking of are things like dopiaza (an onion sauce), madras, vindaloo, and so forth. Our local Indian also has a dish called methi chicken, which is a sauce made of fenugreek leaves.

            I'm lucky because I'm really not a fan of cream sauces of any sort. If you are, I'd say go for it, but in moderation. My s.o. and I sometimes split a main dish and get a side or two of dal or veggies, like okra or eggplant. Satisfies the craving and I don't feel like a blimp afterward!

      2. re: JungMann

        Most South Indian restaurants in the US do not represent Kerala cuisine. They will offer dishes like avial or coconut chutney that can be high in coconut fat, but those few items are easily avoided. I heartily second the idli suggestion. Uttapams can also be fairly low fat. Ask for extra tomato chutney in lieu of the traditional coconut chutney accompaniment. You can even specify dosas (crispy crepes) to be cooked in less oil. Watch for tons of ghee in the savory rice and lentil dish called pongal. It becomes sublime with a dollop of ghee on top. But I am sure it could be left out if you specify as such in the beginning.

        1. re: sweetTooth

          how about chutneys? what are they usually made with? oil/butter/neither?

          1. re: yankeefan

            I've never known a chutney to be made with butter! Some pickles use mustard oil, but mostly pickles and chutneys are fruit, salt, spices, and acid, like vinegar. But seriously, how much chutney do you actually eat?! I wouldn't worry too much about it.

            1. re: Kagey

              Heh heh. First off, most condiments that Indians call chutney are not necessarily like Major Grey's Mango Chutney. In India chutney is very broad term that does not automatically imply fruit and definitely not vinegar. Generally it is simply an intense condiment. It may be hot, sour, spicy, herbaceous, sweet or salty. It's consistency may be runny, thick like a dip or sticky from sweeteners or even breadcrumbs-like.
              Regardless, Kagey is right in that most Indian chutneys will not contain an appreciable amount of oil (I've never heard of butter in a chutney). And also right that you'd usually consume it in a small enough quantity (a couple of tablespoons) that it shouldn't matter. Coconut chutney is typically served more generously - perhaps because it is not very intensely sour, salty, sweet or pungent. Hence, my caution above for those worried about consuming too much coconut.

      3. if you're open to making Indian food yourself, this is a cookbook that I've had success with:


        It's a bit more contemporary and the recipes are lighter with significantly less fat than the traditional.

        1 Reply
        1. Indian restaurants tend to go heavy on the oil and ghee because it helps speed up the cooking process and makes the food taste better. :) I wouldn't recommend eating indian restaurant food on a regular basis because it's not healthy. Even the vegetable dishes that seem healthy are usually loaded with oil. Being Indian, we cook most of our Indian food at home. My dad is also a heart patient and my mom has adapted her cooking to fit a low-fat lifestyle. She uses less oil to fry her masalas and onions, and then spoons off the extra once the frying is done. More veggies, less meats. More plain rice instead of sauteed rice with cumin and onions (or peas or whatever). Lowfat yogurt instead of full fat to make raitas.

          If you order food from a restaurant, I would ask them about the oil used. Dals seem healthy, but the onions, etc in them are fried separately in oil/ghee and added to the lentils. Same goes for rajma (kidney beans) and chole (garbanzo beans). Many chefs baste their tandoori items with oil or ghee for nice browning and sheen.

          2 Replies
          1. re: boogiebaby

            I totally agree with you boogiebaby, the foods in the indian restaurants are loaded with oil and home preparations are much more controlled. Daals are the way to go with some naan. You can tell them about your condition and I am sure they would make preparations with very less oil. They had done that for my dad , who is on a controlled diet as in very less oil, and they made it pretty well with less oil.

            At a south indian joint, Idlis are good, light and healthy. A little sambar should be ok. Upma is good too, its light. You can ask them to make the dosa without oil. That can be done too. have tried it at home with pam spray and it works just fine. Good luck! :)

            1. re: amishad

              Yes, when I want lighter-style Indian food, I cook at home where I know what I am getting. It is fun to do and impresses the hell out of people, too - I don't know why because the preparations I make are all pretty easy.

          2. What about dosais? Masala dosai always struck me as being very low in fat compared to most Indian food. Am I wrong?

            3 Replies
            1. re: vorpal

              Comparatively, but they are still fried in ghee. I recommended idlis because they are similar, but steamed instead of fried.

              1. re: JungMann

                I was just going to recommend idlis. I love them. Soups are a pretty safe bet, too, assuming there's no coconut milk or cream.

                You can often ask that breads not be brushed with butter before serving, too. That keeps the naan from becoming a fat-bomb.

                1. re: JungMann

                  Actually dosas are typically not fried in ghee. If they are, it'll very likely be a separate variation on the menu called "ghee roast dosa" or some such name with the word "ghee" in it. If you order a plain or masala dosa at an Indian restaurant, it is most likely to be fried in oil.

              2. Stick to the vegetable curries and lentil dishes. Avoid the sweets, breads, and fried foods. Oil itself is beneficial for the heart and circulation. It raises good cholesterol levels and lowers bad cholesterol levels, as do nuts and oily fishes such as salmon. (This is not to say that fried foods are necessarily healthful.) Refined grains and sugar contribute to heart disease by scaring heart tissue and raising triglyceride levels in the blood. A diet high in fiber (beans, lentils) is also good for the heart, as it keeps blood sugar steady. This is not some wacky theory but rather straight from the Harvard Medical School Department of Nutrition web site and book.

                1. Tandoori poultry and seafood are your best bets, as well as daal made with vegetable fats, and vegetable curries with steamed rice. South Indian is more vegetable and seafood-based, however this does not necessaily translate to heart-healthy, due to their preparation methods. A reputable establishment will hopefully understand if you request your foods be made without ghee (including the breads!). Plain naan (not poori) is your best bread bet.

                  1 Reply
                  1. Cafe Raj on Solano Ave in Albany, self-described as "healthier indian/pakistani," has been slammed by plenty of people here for not being "authentic" but I think the common misconception that heavier spicing = authentic may set the indian standard and cause restaurant food to become unhealthy. The more spices, the more oil is needed to keep them from burning/sticking, hence why so many vege dishes end up unhealthy. At home, it's a couple of tablespoons of canola, onion, garlic, serrano chilies, and maybe some cumin or onion seeds and turmeric, and a sprinkling of water every so often to keep stuff from sticking - too simple for restaurant food. It's not likely that you're going to find the healthy vegie dishes at restaurants, but try Cafe Raj. Even if you decide you don't like it, at least you didn't bring yourself a step closer to a heart attack. :o)

                    1. 1) The high fiber in many Indian dishes helps block the absorption of some of the fats.

                      2) Spices are great sources of phytochemicals that help regulate the circulatory system. For example Cinammon contains a compound that is molecularly similar to aspirin and is known to produce similar heart healty results.

                      3) Try eating a greater proportion of naan, dals & kachumbar... with smaller portions of rich entrees like palak paneer.

                      1. Is naan bread very unhealthy?

                        the quality stuff is so good, there must be something bad in there for you. ignorance is bliss.

                        13 Replies
                        1. re: yankeefan

                          well, it's not good for you.

                          One recipe lists this as ingredients:

                          1 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast
                          1 cup warm water
                          1/4 cup white sugar
                          3 tablespoons milk
                          1 egg, beaten
                          2 teaspoons salt
                          4 1/2 cups bread flour
                          2 teaspoons minced garlic (optional)
                          1/4 cup butter, melted

                          Plus restaurants often butter the naan after they pull it out of the tandoor...

                          1. re: chocabot

                            the rich ones Ive had, I actually thought it would be worse. good point on the added butter though, that is probably where I am getting that taste from.

                            still delicious. thanks for the info.

                            1. re: chocabot

                              What is bad about it?

                              It offers protein, calcium, albumin... its certainly much lower in fat (as a % of calories) than french fries?

                              If we compare it to French cuisine where a meal might include a bread chicken breast stuffed with cheese & ham, then served over a cream sauce with a side of frites... and a basket of bread with butter.... Indian cuisine is so much healthier than traditional Northern European and American cuisine... lets keep things in perspective!

                              1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                i didn't mean to imply naan was "bad" just not "health food"...

                                indian food as a whole does have healthier options

                                1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                  hell, the stuff could be laden with lard and Id use it to sop up some good curry sauce. its delicious, you only live once. I was just wondering.

                                  didnt mean to hit any sensitive points.

                                  1. re: yankeefan

                                    Don't apologize, hon. My son owns a French bistro and no one serves food like that. (breaded chicken breast stuffed with cheese and ham? Whaa?). French restaurants and even many of the Indian restaurants in my area, are reflecting the new approach to lighter cooking. Indian Americans have the same health/weight issues the rest of "us" do. In my area, the only people walking for exercise are Indians which makes them 10 times smarter than me with my treadmill. I occasionally use ghee instead of butter because it doesn't burn, but the same can be said of canola and grapeseed oil which has a high burning point. You can eat healthily with any cuisine if you use your smarts.

                                  2. re: Eat_Nopal

                                    Nan is made of refined flour. That (plus the added sugar) causes blood sugar to spike. That causes scarring of the heart and heart disease. It also raises trigyclicerides in the blood, another cause of heart attacks. If you want to eat heart-healthy, learn to eat like a diabetic: Lots of fiber, non-starchy vegetables, healthy fats, lean proteins. Keep your blood sugar moderate and steady.
                                    Also, the meal you describe is not at all a real French meal, but rather an American misconception. A typical French meal might start with celery and mayonaise (full of fiber and healthy fats -- oil and egg), move on to lentils (more fiber), then a main course of a small piece of meat and yet another side dish of vegetables, completed with a small sliver of full-fat cheese. Washed down with a glass of red. French bread (a sliced baguette) might very well be served, but most French people, at least Parisians, will not touch it. And it will never be served with butter. It is consumed plain. This is an actual meal, very typical, that I had in a Paris bistro. (Of course, it is also possible to order steak frites at a cafe type place. I am not saying it does not exist. Also, at a special crepe place, crepes with ham and cheese and a salad.) You can get a sandwich of bread, butter, and cheese, but the French look down on this as horrible junk food. It is no joke to say the French diet is vastly higher in fiber and vegetables than ours and much lower in starch and sugar. I would guess the amount of fat consumed is about the same, mostly in the form of cheese and cream. The French do not eat low-fat dairy products.

                                    1. re: KateC.

                                      B.S.... I have had the meal I described in a Parisian neighborhood where they preferred me to order in Spanish than in English... and with no other American tourists in sight. I can't say that I know 1,000s of French people but the few friends that I have tend to eat low fiber diets.... a croissant for breakfast, a ham & cheese baguette for dinner... maybe a little green salad with dinner... but certainly regularly eating legumes etc., Of course I realize that Southern French eat differently... but I was speaking of the Northern European side... Paris, Normandy etc.,

                                      Indian cuisine as a whole is pretty healthy for some of the reasons you have mentioned.... high fiber and antioxidants etc.,

                                      1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                        Interesting. I must admit I'm puzzled. Meal breaks every rule of Parisian "good taste." Also, the chicken you describe is, to the French, a Russian dish, called Chicken Kiev. I have never been served butter with bread in my life in France. Always had to ask for it.

                                        1. re: KateC.

                                          Chicken Kiev was invented by a Parisian chef in the 1800's; not sure why he named it after the capital of the Ukraine.

                                          1. re: KateC.

                                            Chicken Kiev is stuffed with butter. What Eat_Nopal described is chicken cordon bleu. Though I have to agree, serving that with frites is a bit of overkill. I think more likely you'd get a salade composee to balance out the cream sauce.

                                    2. re: chocabot

                                      ...And how many servings does that recipe make? I'm sure it's atleast 8. Also, you can ask restaurants not to bathe the naan in butter after they take it out of the tandoor.

                                    3. re: yankeefan

                                      I know most Americans loooove naan and many probably don't even notice the whole wheat roti or chapati available on many Indian menus. So I figured it wouldn't hurt to point out this healthier option. There are several versions of what is termed as roti: there's the Tandoori roti which is thick like a naan and cooked in a tandoor. There's the phulka which is very thin roti that puffs up when cooked, so when you tear into it, there are two distinct layers. There is the non-phulka roti which could be multi-layered and is typically thicker than a phulka but thinner than the tandoori roti. These are all completely unleavened, involve very little, if any, added fats and will bring whole grain guilt-free goodness to your meal that naan can't. It is traditional in home kitckens to smear phulkas with ghee as they come off the stove (to keep them moist), but I haven't noticed that in restaurants here. However, if you don't want to be surprised, specify "no ghee on top" when ordering.

                                      Even if your favorite Indian place doesn't offer rotis yet, if you and your friends ask often enough, maybe they'll add it to the menu!