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Vegetarian Wants to Enjoy Restaurant Indian Food

Let me start by saying that I LOVE Indian food.

So I am perplexed and frustrated that I have gotten very ill four times in a row while eating out at different SD Indian restaurants in the last year. Each experience was several months apart from the other, and I kept hoping that it was just a "fluke" that I was sick after eating Indian food again. None of the other people in our group has ever gotten sick, so there isn't a problem with any of the restaurants; the problem is with me. But I can't seem to ignore the obvious facts: I haven't gotten sick from any other cuisine; and all four times I ate out at Indian food (in the last year) were followed by vomiting (and sometimes diarrhea). Twice I reacted so quickly that I threw up in the car on the way home from the restaurant. The other two times were long nights of vomiting beginning about 2-4 hours after the meal.

I never used to get sick while eating Indian food-- for 10 years prior I have enjoyed the cuisine (I was living in the SF Bay area then). Does anyone know of a food intolerance that would show up later in life (I am 31) that would be present only in Indian food? I have cooked Indian food at home and never feel the slightest bit sick. But my ingredients may not be the most "authentic". I do not have ghee at home; I always use canola oil. Is this the most obvious culprit? I am not allergic to dairy, and have no known food allergies.

The dishes I generally order (I am vegetarian) are: dal, vegetable korma, palek paneer, aloo gobi, naan, samosas, and mango lassi. However, the last time I was sick I only ate naan, samosa, lassi and 1 bite of biryani.

I also visited New Delhi, India in the summer of 2007 for two weeks and ate local food (all vegetarian) for three meals a day and didn't get even slight stomach upset ever. We ate at all manner of places from tourist restaurants to street vendors (never any raw fruits/vegetables).

Please help me if you have any ideas! I really want to enjoy Indian food out (it is my husband's favorite); and I just can't seem to figure this one out.

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  1. Sounds to me like this is a question better asked of a medical professional. I would be curious to know where you're eating, though.

    1. The fact that you are sick so soon after eating sort of indicates that it might not be a bug , but it would be best to check with a medical professional. Could it be that the dishes are really rich - lots of creamy sauces, ghee etc? Or your gut could be sensitive to a particular spice or spices. I know that turmeric makes me fart. Even if you haven't been sensitive to anything before, the immune system does change as we age so we can develop sensitivities to things we were fine with previously.

      1. Retired RN here. My guess is that they're not sneaking meat products into your food, if that's what you're thinking. This has more to do with gastrointestinal system than it has to do with your vegetarianism. We're assuming this is at different restaurants. (If it's not, that tells us more.) Do you eat similarly rich food elsewhere? That really is awfully fast for something that's from microorganisms.

        If you don't want to go see a gastroenterologist, I'd start by doing an elimination diet sort of thing. Have only one simple thing, perhaps the lassi. If the symptoms develop then, I'd think about a problem with mangos or yogurt. (Mango problems, like lots of food intolerances, can develop in the middle of your life, which is always hard for us to get our heads around: "But I've ALWAYS been able to eat okra!") If you're okay, next visit add one more thing, This is obviously a pain in the wazoo, but so is what you've got now.

        1 Reply
        1. re: lemons

          meat is expensive why would they put it in if you ordered veg?

        2. Most restaurant food is MUCH richer than what we cook at home, whatever the cuisine. My guess is your body is reacting to the extreme richness of the restaurant food as opposed to a particular ingredient, like ghee vs. canola, or the amount of grease in restaurant biryani as opposed to what you'd make at home.

          Much as I don't like to admit it myself, I see among my friends (40something) and even moreso my Mom and her friends (60something) that the older you get, the less you can tolerate these kinds of rich foods. Bringing up after a meal or a night of horrible stomach pains and the runs is a common theme after ingesting a too-rich meal.

          I would suggest going for lunch for Indian, where portions are smaller, and maybe eating half portions of what you order. You could bring the rest home and try to eat it in a couple of days.

          1. I'd be inclined to pin the blame on the ghee... Indian food is delicious, but it makes me regret it afterwards because there's way too much milk fat in it for me to be able to digest it.

            1. I would agree with lemons that it would be helpful to do a modified elimination diet by eating only one item per visit. If you are sick the first time, then not sick with the next dish you can start to narrow down by ingredient, or at least know what dishes are "safe". If you get sick repeatedly, you may have to throw in the towel on this cuisine. Many food intolerances can develop later in life. For me there are restaurants where I can't eat without becoming ill, but no one else seems to have a problem. I tend to blame it on less than stellar food safety practices and avoid them like the plague. Since you have experienced illness after eating at different restaurants, it seems likely it is an ingredient. I hope you find something you can enjoy.

              2 Replies
              1. re: maxie

                Thanks everyone for the suggestions. I'm not sure if I have the patience for the elimination diet that was suggested; at this point I think I'll sooner throw in the towel as maxie suggested.

                Just for clarification, the four incidents were at three different restaurants, and I am quite sure that food handling is not to blame. I actually suspected poor sanitation at the first one, as I had never been so violently ill (threw up at least 8 times during the night) and called the health department. They actually visited the restaurant and called me a couple of days later to let me know that all foods were being properly stored, and a clean bill of health. So it was only later that I discovered it is me and not the restaurant at fault.

                My last incident (on Friday night) was after eating a very small portion of food-- certainly smaller than "lunch" sized portions. I had naan (2-3 quarter pieces), a mango lassi, 1/2 a samosa and 1 spoonful of the biryani. I was actually just accompanying friends to eat; and mostly there to socialize. So I have a hard time believing that what I actually ate was overly rich for my system. Maybe it is the mango though-- I did have a full lassi, and mango isn't something I eat all the time.

                I eat rich Mexican & Italian food routinely; dishes brimming with cheese and fresh creme (in the case of Italian). And I have had occasional stomach upset from too much fresh creme on an Italian dish; but this is usually a quick trip to the bathroom and all better. I've never had a problem with vomiting from any other food.

                Thanks again for the thoughts! Let me know if anything else strikes anyone...

                1. re: deeannerenee

                  How long does it take before you fell ill? All the foods you describe except Samosa contain milk, even the naan but from the sounds of your symptoms I doubt it is lactose intolerance. Do you experience any swelling or itchiness when or after ingesting Indian food how is your breathing any difficulty? You may be allergic to something a spice or a dahl, even mango?
                  Good luck

              2. "Dal (very rich, especially if it's a dal makni or something that's made with cream- try a masoor dal instead), vegetable korma (more cream!), palek paneer (cheese!), aloo gobi (fried in oil!), naan (usually brushed with ghee or butter), samosas (deep fried), and mango lassi..."

                Do you have a South Indian restaurant nearby? I'm a vegetarian and I find South Indian restaurants to be a much better fit for my diet. You can get something light like rasam or sambar with idli, a dosa (yes, it's fried, but it's not thick and heavy like naan), and I find their vegetable curries are usually lighter and fresher.

                1. I had another thought! How do you feel after eating at Chinese restaurants? I ask because I've noticed that all the Indian grocery stores here sell MASSIVE tubs of MSG. I've never seen tubs like these sold in other ethnic grocers (or "Canadian" grocers) so I assume restaurant Indian food might be pretty heavy in MSG. I know that MSG is in lots of stuff, and can be naturally occuring, but the size of these tubs, and the fact that they're front and center in all the Indian grocers in my city, raises some red flags.

                  1. Not sure if you ever found the cause, but I have had the same problem with Indian food only. My allergist said they could do testing or to do food elimination by taking notes when I go there, however I believe it could be the heavy richness. If we get carryout I usually do not have a problem, and probably eat less than their lunch buffet, or they actually put in more sauce for people to fill up on at lunch. But I did not have any issues until I was almost 50. Ever, with any cuisine. And now it is every time with Indian and I have to hurry home or make sure to be near a bathroom for the next half hour to hour. I have decided to try dish elimination, so far no luck. Good luck to you.