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Healthy Indian?

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I've a craving for Indian food that I've supressed for a couple of years now because I haven't found a place offering healthy food. By my definition, this means 'not swimming in oil or cheese'. I haven't really been actively looking, so it's more a random sampling of places I just happened to be passing, when hungry, and with enough time to consider a meal.

In India, I've found places - not many - that offer such fare, both Northern and Southern Indian styles, so I'm convinced that the spicy-ness and flavor of Indian food is possible without the oil. As an aside, I'm also vegetarian/vegan, but that's much easier to deal with than what I perceive as the health issue.

Thanks in advance for any thoughts.

(Edit: Optimally, East Bay)

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  1. The oil is a necessary and central component of any masala based curry. What you need to focus on is the nature and quality of the oils, and the skill of the preparation. (I also find the fear and loathing of oils and greases to be silly. There is nothing unhealthy about oils and fat in the right propotions and the quality of the ingredients are good.)

    Two places that immediately come to mind are S Indian: Vik's for lunch and Dosa for dinner.

    I have only been once to the Udupi Palace in Berkeley. I didn't love what I got, but the men was intriguing and worth another try. They feature a vegetarian menu and seem to deliver a good quality/price.

    Finally I'll mention Chaat Cafe on University in Berkeley, not because I love it, but because I think they do a good job in terms of fresh quality ingredients. I have been there a lot, but have not delved too much into their vegetarian dishes. Love the nan. The prices are on the steep side for what they offer.

    Vik's Chaat House
    2390 Fourth Street, Berkeley, CA 94710

    995 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA 94110

    Udupi Palace
    1901 University Ave, Berkeley, CA 94704

    Udupi Palace
    1007 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA 94110

    Dosa on Fillmore
    1700 Fillmore Street, San Francisco, CA 94115

    Chaat Cafe
    1902 University Ave, Berkeley, CA 94704

    1 Reply
    1. re: BernalKC

      I feel the need to backpedal here. Sure, I've often been revolted by clumsy, oily bad Indian food. Especially when the dish has been sitting too long, either at a buffet or take-out. So I hear ya about the problem of low-quality greasy Indian food. But I also think many people are way too sensitive about oils in their foods.

    2. Rotee in the lower Haight is pretty restrained with the oil. I agree with other posters that some dishes require a minimum amount of oil, but I don't think Rotee overshoots the mark. We're especially fond of the tandoori chicken, which seems particularly healthy, but I understand meat isn't on your short list...I assume they have some sort of veggie options that would compare.

      400 Haight St, San Francisco, CA 94117

      1 Reply
      1. re: SteveG

        Portions at Rotee are beyond chintzy. I had a Chicken Tikka Masaala there with literally 4 pieces of chicken swimming in a sauce that was soupy, and oil thick. Prices didn't seem so bad, but the portions were cut so small, it ended up costing us $40 for very little food. It was one of those bills where you're adding it over and over because it doesn't seem right. Only the spinach was an entree portion, enough for two to share as is customary, and we were only eating it because we needed to fill up. The food wasn't any better of healthier tasting then what you get at one of the various Naan-N-Curry type places but the decor and menu are obviously trying to appeal to a certain clientele. On top of it, we were neglected by the waiter who was visiting with a female friend, sharing her meal with her. We were the only other people there, and there wasn't enough food on the table to keep us occupied for an extra half hour.

      2. I share your concerns about the overwhelming amounts of butter, ghee, cream and oil that often accompany 'restaurant style' Indian food. And while I know that you were looking for restaurant recommendations, I'd like to point out that once you have the requisite spices required, it's remarkably easy to make really really good Indian food yourself - and when you do, you can obviously control the amount of oil you're using.

        http://www.youtube.com/user/ShowMeThe... and http://www.youtube.com/user/Manjulask... are both excellent resources for instruction and recipes.

        I've largely given up on going out for Indian food, unless a craving for dosas or biryani strikes. I get often better and always healthier results from my own kitchen.

        6 Replies
        1. re: jpancake

          Same here. I gave up on restaurant Indian food because it always seems to have a puddle of oil in it that give me an upset stomach. The Indian I try to make at home probably isn't very authentic, but it satisfies the cravings I get nicely.

          1. re: jpancake

            THANK YOU for taking the time to make the distinction between 'restaurant style' [Indian] and [Indian] in general. This is a personal pet peeve of mine. There is a whole subcontinent that subsists on their own regional variations of this food where obesity is not a problem. And, to BernalKC for pointing out that fat is needed in the creation of the spice base to "cook" the spices. To minimize the amount of oil in my own cooking, I will add water to the masala mix during the bhuna process if the masala gets too dry as it cooks. Or, one could always just skim the oil off the top after you're done cooking. Just because it's there doesn't mean you have to eat it. :)

            To the OP: Cafe Raj in Albany advertises themselves as being healthier and although they're technically Pakistani, they have the typical North Indian standards. It's gotten mixed reviews and I tend to think that because people are used to fat-laden restaurant food, that the lack of fat in Cafe Raj's food makes the same dishes unfamiliar and less pleasing. This is not to say that their food is amazing (I'd say their food is a bit heavy on the onions), but it is healthier and throughout college, I would often go there and order their chicken vindaloo (spicy) as it was the closest thing in a restaurant that I could find to my mum's cooking. Their lamb biryani - although not like any other version I've ever had - is also nice. Vegetables are clean and simple.

            1. re: adrienne156


              Cafe Raj
              1158 Solano Ave, Albany, CA 94706

            2. re: jpancake

              Good post. I'm with you on this, though I don't often cook Indian food at home. I look forward to the youtube videos.

              Excellent topic, Unk. Thanks for starting this.

              My interest in Indian food is equalled by the disappointment I usually have when I eat at Indian restaurants, even highly touted ones. I've only been to the much maligned Breads of India once, mainly because I live in the South Bay, but I liked it because of its ingredients and not so heavy handedness.

              1. re: maigre

                Taste Buds in Sunnyvale is perhaps the South Bay winner for Indian places with lots of flavor but less oil. Although the menu looks familiar, the food seems homier than at many other places. It's a tiny place but a local gem.


                Taste Buds
                673 Grape Ave, Sunnyvale, CA 94087

                1. re: mdg

                  I went recently and liked it quite a bit. Not greasy in the least and nice flavors just like you described it, mdg. Great call. The owners are nice people, too. I'll be back. I'm happy this place is less than ten minutes from my house.

            3. Huh? I swore I saw an interesting reply from someone claiming to be the owner/founder of Breads of India. Was it removed by the author? Or is there some rule against posts by restaurant employees/owners/investors? As long as people state their relation to the restaurant clearly, I think it would be really useful to hear from these people.

              And I will chime in that I think Breads of India does offer very high quality dishes. You pay a premium, but you get what you pay for, certainly in terms of quality ingredients.

              Breads of India
              2448 Sacramento St, Berkeley, CA 94702

              1. Hi Unk: No. 1 on your list, should be Amber in SF (Yerba Buena Lane). Fine dining style. No steam table food. Try the Sunday brunch ($19.95) for all-you-can-eat. They build the spice base for their dishes, it's not just "hit and miss." They grind the spices freshly every day and you can taste the difference. Prices are reasonable. The food is incredible, if you shut your eyes, you would swear you had eaten the real thing as it should be prepared in India. (Minus the decay, carcasses in the street, flies and unspeakable odors.) Your tummy will thank me. Send me the IOU! IlanaW

                1 Reply
                1. re: IlanaW

                  My memory from the Amber India in mountain view was that there was an awfully heavy hand with cream, butter, and oil. Yes, the food is tasty and fresh, but the OP isn't looking for the best Indian, rather for healthy indian that is vegi/vegan friendly. Do you have any experience ordering vegan at Amber India?

                2. I too find it difficult to find good Indian food that is not super oily. If you end up at Dosa or Udupi, both should have idlis, which are steamed and usually the healthiest option on any menu at a South Indian restaurant.

                  Also, I have resorted to asking Indian restaurants if they can make my food with less oil. A dry curry like okra doesn't need much oil to taste good. And you can also try to request if they can make dishes, like dal (lentils) or saag (spinach) without the heavy cream. While many Indian restaurants dump a bunch of heavy cream into their dishes, at home Indian cooks, such as my mom, never use the cream and the food still turns out great. Another recommendation for bread substances would be to go with rotis (whole wheat), or "dry" naan (i.e. sans butter).

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: hmruthi

                    hmruthi brings up a good point, if looking for healthier options it's as important what you order as where you order it from. Ask the staff what kind of oil and/or butter they are using and look for items that are cooked to order so they can be modified for your needs. Also, look for places using fresh veggies as opposed to frozen or...canned.

                    Also, make sure that the people you deal with at Indian restaurants understand the difference between vegan and vegetarian. Vegans aren't that common in India, and the term vegan is even less common. I caught a few of our employees recommending vegetarian dishes with dairy to people looking for vegan meals. We now make sure everyone working knows the difference.

                    As a vegan you probably want to stay away from naan in general as I have never found a naan that doesn't have some sort of dairy (not to say that it doesn't exist. Tandoori roti is your best bet. Be cautious of saag and dal dishes as the N. Indian versions traditionally get their flavor from a tarka, some combination of ginger, garlic, chili and onions cooked in butter.

                  2. Kind of surprised no one has mentioned Ajanta. Rotating regional offerings. Stuff you can probably eat on the current menu includes the always yummy TANDOORI PORTOBELLO MUSHROOMS, KHUMB ALU TIKKI (Cakes made with potatoes, breadcrumbs and shiitake mushrooms), LOBHIA AUR KHUMBI (Black eyed peas and shiitake mushrooms cooked in a sauce made with onions, garlic, tomatoes, and spices including coriander, turmeric, and paprika ), MILONI SABZI (Mixed vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, blue lake beans) cooked in a sauce made with pureed spinach, onions, garlic, coconut milk, cashews, and spices), BHEH, KHUMBI AUR MATAR (Lotus root, shiitake mushrooms, and peas cooked with caramelized onions, ginger, garlic and spices including mango powder, turmeric and coriander), NAWABI TARKARI BIRIYANI (Rice and mixed vegetables (cauliflower, peas, green beans carrots) cooked together with spices, topped with caramelised onions, nuts and raisins), and the usual suspects. I like my meat and dairy, but all of the above sound great to me. Everything at Ajanta is lighter than I find elsewhere in the East Bay.

                    Ajanta Restaurant
                    1888 Solano Ave, Berkeley, CA 94707

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: lexdevil

                      Ah, that menu sounds great. Have to make a trip to Berkeley sometime soon for Ajanta!

                      This is a great thread.

                      there is a restaurant in Milpitas, Heritage of India. When they started their claim was that they cook everything in olive oil. I hope they are keeping it up.
                      Their buffet is very good. The menu is rotated. It does seem like they use less cream, but still lot of oil compared to home cooking.

                      I think the tandoori dishes are a great option. all the curries with gravies are loaded with calories.

                      For south Indian veg, one of better restaurants is Woodlands in Newark, east bay.

                      1. re: chowmeaow

                        The tandoori portobellos and khumbi aur matar that lexdevil recommends (and I'll add the lamb boti kabobs to that list as long as you specify how you want them cooked) are among the best [Indian] dishes out there taste and healthwise. I've complained about Ajanta's price-to-portion ratio on their dinner menu on several previous threads (you get 4 strips in one order of the tandoori portobellos w/ a little dallop of sauce for $5... it bugs me, but it's so good... robbery), but after two business lunches there in the past couple of months I'll take back my comments... About their lunches.

                        Please do go. I'm gonna try out the other things LD suggests since I've just refound this place myself. (Thanks, LD!)

                        1. re: chowmeaow

                          What do you recommend at Woodlands?

                          Woodlands Restaurant
                          39203 Cedar Blvd, Newark, CA 94560

                          Heritage of India Restaurant
                          167 S Main St, Milpitas, CA 95035

                          1. re: rworange

                            Woodlands has the typical south Indian fare, so dosas, utthapams, idlis.
                            try the vada-sambhar. IMO it is not the best dosa, but the restaurant is clean and service is always good.
                            They have specialty rices, bisi-bele-bhat etc. I also like their thalis, one of them is poori-bhaji. which is fried breads ( I know oil !) with 2-3 veg curries.
                            Their combos are great. You get one appetizer/one dosa/drink with it.

                      2. I love Shalimar on Jones in SF. It's much better than the other locations, although it is in the tenderloin. I haven't found anything in the EB that compares. I like Vics and Ajanta, but their food doesn't have the same depth of flavor.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: laurenlyle

                          Shalimar is tasty, but in my experience they have some of the oiliest food around (which is why the tandoori is my favorite there). It's been a while since I've been to the Tenderloin location, but I thought the food in the Sunnyvale location matched up very well with what I remembered from the Tenderloin. I'd be curious to know what you had that was different.


                          1. re: laurenlyle

                            I'm a vegetarian, too - and I have to agree that Shalimar has some of the very oliest Indian food I have had the misfortune to encounter! Their meat dishes may be okay, but I had some garbanzo bean curry with a (kid you not) 2-inch layer of grease on top! (It was take-out). I had to pour off the grease, but what was left was still completely inedible. My friend loved his lamb curry, though!

                          2. Thank you all for your thoughtful suggestions. Sincerely. I've started a 'short list' of places to try. I do realize the need for oil in Indian (or Senegalese or Ethiopian or Eritrean...) food. I'm just looking for that optimum balance. And I believe your guidance will be helpful. Again, thanks.

                            P.S. I'm new to these boards/forums, but hope to participate actively in the future.

                            11 Replies
                            1. re: Unk

                              for your short list of healthful food:

                              340 O'Farrell St (between Taylor and Mason) SF 94102

                              Saffron Grill
                              1279 Fulton Street (east of Divisadero) SF 94117

                              340 Ofarrell St, San Francisco, CA 94102

                              Saffron Grill
                              1279 Fulton Street, San Francisco, CA

                              1. re: Unk

                                If you're interested in healthier Ethiopian, Cafe Rehoboth in SJ uses no corn oil and has lots of organic veggies. They use olive oil in recipes where other Ethiopian places would use corn oil. They're not heavy handed with the butter in the dishes I've had, either. I think Cafe Colucci in Berkeley is similar with oils, but I'm not sure about that.

                                Good oils make such a big difference in flavor, too. Corn oil doesn't taste very good and it's heavily used by lots of "ethnic" restaurants.

                                1. re: maigre

                                  That's funny -- I think corn oil tastes pretty good, especially compared to the disgusting-tasting canola oil.

                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                    A Vietnamese family I know made the weirdest dish that you might like. They used to boil some Chinese egg noodles and then toss them in nothing but a small amount of corn oil from a freshly opened bottle.

                                    It was actually pretty tasty and I have no idea why, although she said it was very important to use fresh corn oil.

                                    1. re: sfbing

                                      Weird is right. Sounds awful. If a friend serves it it me, I'll give it a try, though. :-)

                                      No argument on Canola Oil. It doesn't taste good by itself, on bread, for sauteeing, etc. But I do use it in a few situations where the flavor is hidden or neutral.

                                2. re: Unk

                                  How is Mint on Shattuck in Berkeley. I remember Morton the Mousse liking it better than his old favorite, Ajanta ... which I WILL try one of these days. Not sure about the oil factor at Mint.

                                  IMO, and after much experimention, Etheopian doesn't need oil just enough to sautee the the onions. It is the spices that make wat. IMO, my messer wat is far superior ... or at least as good ... as Cafe Colucci. Here's my recipe for messer wat

                                  Colucci is organic and uses olive oil in some dishes and spice butter in others. They sell the spice butter at the market next door.

                                  Cafe Colucci
                                  6427 Telegraph Ave, Oakland, CA 94609

                                  1. re: rworange

                                    They remodeled the interior at Mint Leaf so it's a more comfortable-looking space. I'm going to try their late-night menu one of these days (they're currently open till midnight seven days). Discount coupon: http://www.themenupage.com/mintleaf/i...

                                    I'm pretty sure that most of Colucci's ingredients are not organic. Their injera's the best.

                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                      Hmmm ... and they now deliver and have a full bar and a happy hour. Good to know about the late night menu. Seems like in this economy most places are adding lunch or brunch to bring in a few bucks. Nice idea of going the late night route. I may actually give them a try. Anyplace giving the economy a fight, deserves some business ... at least from me.

                                      Colucci labels the organic ingredients on the menu, mainly the spices and lentils.

                                    2. re: rworange

                                      rworange, have you been making your own injera, too? My attempts, none of them in the last few years have been total disasters. The teff solution ferments, but it doesn't turn into anything edible when I try to cook it. I haven't used any wheat or yeast, though.

                                      1. re: maigre

                                        Actually I dislike injera, even Colucci's, though theirs less than others. The whole wat thing started when I bought a bag from a liquor store that was sellling a local injera that was getting some positive mentions elsewhere. To use up the injera, I looked into Etheopean dishes and so I found and fell in love with wat. Also, it is beyond simple to make and so forgiving.

                                        1. re: rworange

                                          The only Ethiopian thing I've ever tried to make is injera, which is probably the hardest. I'll have to follow your lead on some other dishes.

                                          I love injera, it's my favorite bread by a mile, though I'm not really that big of a bread eater. There was a teff shortage a few years ago and local Ethiopian restaurants had to make injera from other ingredients. I was a regular at Zeni at the time and I found that the food really suffered with the substitute injera, that I didn't like it as much as I thought I had.

                                  2. I'll second Rotee. Their eggplant and okra dishes are incredible and very low on the oils. Also, you may be interested in Ganges, which is an all-veg Indian restaurant over near the Upper Haight and UCSF area. The owner is... interesting, to say the least, but the food always tastes fresh. I'd probably prefer Rotee, though, in a blind taste test.

                                    New Ganges Restaurant
                                    775 Frederick St, San Francisco, CA 94117

                                    1. This is not E. Bay, but Roti Bistro is worth trying. I have found there food to not be greasy.


                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: rln

                                        For Vegan/Vegeterian, I suggest some quality restaurants in Bayarea where I enjoy some healthy food....

                                        Masala Indian Fusion.....Danville- 5 star
                                        Amber Bits and Bites- Mountain view( This is not Amber India)
                                        Madras Cafe- Mountain view- Fantastic South Indian Food- No Comparison
                                        Chaat Paradise-Mountain view, Nice and healthy food.....

                                      2. In South Bay, I recommend the following: Bhavika's is typical homemade fare while the others tend to be a bit restaurantish in quality but no where close the the oil, cream and red color laden "buffet style" Indian places.

                                        Komala Vilas
                                        1020 E El Camino Real, Sunnyvale, CA 94087

                                        New India Chaat Cafe
                                        454 S Main St, Milpitas, CA 95035

                                        Bhavika's Indian Restaurant
                                        1053 E El Camino Real, Sunnyvale, CA 94087

                                        Spice Hut
                                        1086 N 1st St, San Jose, CA 95112

                                        1. Hey has anyone tried 8 Elements Perfect Indian Cuisine? I think it is delicious! They have all the classic Indian dishes as well as some more unique options, such as naan wraps. They seem to be on the less oily side, and they also offer whole wheat naan! Yumm!

                                          1781 E Capitol Expy,
                                          San Jose,
                                          CA 95121

                                          Call: 408-270-2577