The diverse cuisine of India is a treasure trove of inherently wholesome and delicious recipes prepared with seasonal fresh vegetables, aromatic spices, fragrant herbs, and heart-healthy oils. Misconceptions about Indian food linger in the United States: that it is laden with fat (ghee, or clarified butter), heavy in carbohydrates (breads made from all-purpose flour), and high in calories. But like most cuisines, dishes that are typically healthy when homemade are often embellished by restaurant chefs. "Indian restaurant food tends to be oily, which reinforces this perception," says Niraj "Raj" Patel, M.D., a Houston physician and coauthor of The Healthy Indian Diet.
Indian cuisine is based on the use of spices to create flavor and texture in dishes. Spices—often toasted before grinding—and aromatics like ginger, garlic, and shallots are sautéed gently in hot oil, and then the main ingredients are added.
Create the Flavor Profile
The Indian pantry includes a wide array of spices. The most common are cinnamon, turmeric, cayenne, coriander, mustard seed, and cumin. "Buy high-quality spices and focus on when to add them to the dish and how long to cook them," says chef Anne Fitzgibbons of OMango, a Chicago-area restaurant focused on serving healthy Indian dishes. In addition to providing flavor, many spices are nutrition powerhouses. "One gram of cinnamon contains up to 300 times more antioxidants than a bunch (300 grams) of grapes!" says chef Gurpareet Bains, a nutritionist and author of Indian Superfood. As nutritionist Rebecca Katz likes to say, "Think of spices as sunscreen for your insides."
Choose the Right Oil
Many associate Indian cuisine with the liberal use of ghee. In reality, Indian home cooks use many healthy oils and add a bit of ghee for a finishing touch. "Cook in canola oil, as it is high in monounsaturated fat and doesn't have any distinct taste, so the flavors of spices and ingredients are pronounced. When a recipe calls for using ghee, replace it with canola oil," says Para Mehta, R.D. Grapeseed oil or coconut oil (common in southern Indian cuisine) are also healthy substitutes.
Add Enticing Vegetables
Vegetables are a staple of most Indian meals. While we know that vegetables are nutrient-rich with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, Indian cuisine adds one more benefit: Indian meals usually consist of a medley of colorful vegetables, so dishes are high in visual appeal. "A spiced cabbage dish will also include potatoes, peas, carrots, and tomatoes," says Mehta.
Bring in the Grain
Indian home cooking also relies on whole grains like rice, millet, and barley. One of the most popular is basmati long-grain white rice. This rice is also available in the higher-fiber brown variety.
"Indian cuisine celebrates legumes (lentils, peas, and beans) and enables you to cook and eat these amazing plant-based proteins in so many different ways. You'll never tire of them, and you'll get your daily dose of fiber, protein, and complex carbs," says Anupy Singla, author of Vegan Indian Cooking. To make cooking legumes even healthier, Mehta suggests a pressure cooker, a common appliance in most Indian kitchens. It speeds up cooking and helps the ingredients retain their nutritional value.
Avoid the Obvious Dangers
As with any cuisine, there are dishes to be watchful of. With breads, stick with whole-wheat breads like chapatti and tandoori breads and stay away from the white-flour naan. Deep-fried foods like samosas are best enjoyed in moderation.
Indian cuisine, with its abundance of spices and focus on vegetables and whole grains, is a terrific way to add flavor and raise intake of antioxidants naturally. Adds Bains, "We know spices taste good, and weight-for-weight are the most antioxidizing foods available to us—there is no better reason to cook and eat spice-laden Indian dishes."
Try these exclusive recipes:
Originally published in Organic Gardening Magazine, Oct/Nov 2013