Incredibly vast and extremely far away; filled with bright colors, exotic scents and unfamiliar flavors; India can be a daunting destination. So we were thrilled when native food and nutrition expert Nirmala Jesudason shared her inside knowledge of the local cuisine with us in our new Eat Well India app. There's a lot to love about Indian food, but there are also a lot of potential nutritional pitfalls. Many dishes are made with liberal amounts of oil, from sauced main dishes to deep fried snacks and griddled breads. But with Nirmala's help, you can find healthful options on most any menu while still immersing yourself in an authentic Indian eating experience.
Lots of Lentils
Due to religious practices, many Indians eat little or no meat. As a result, they are pretty crafty with plant-based proteins. Various types of peas and beans are incorporated into countless dishes, but perhaps none as pervasively as lentils, or dahl. They take center stage in soups and stews, add satisfying heft to vegetable dishes, and are even ground into flour and incorporated into snacks and desserts. These small but mighty legumes offer a lot more than just protein. They're a great source of soluble fiber, which can help lower cholesterol and keep blood glucose under control. A serving of lentils also provides plenty of nutrients like iron, folate and magnesium to name just a few. All this, for the low caloric price of about 200 calories per filling cup. This means that lentil based dishes are a great way to save up for calorie-dense sauces so you can try all of the region's delicious curries without going too far overboard. Use this tip in the Southern parts of the country, where local cuisine is dominated by curry dishes. You can even get your lentil on first thing in the morning with iddlis, steamed rice and lentil cakes served with coconut chutney or a lentil and veggie stew for breakfast. Iddlis can be found in most any restaurant in Mumbai, including fast food chains like Sukh Sagar and Shiv Sagar.
An infinite variety of street food is available for snacking in Indian cities if you're looking for a pick-me-up; unfortunately, the majority of them are fried. There are a few options for those who want to snack on the lighter side if you know what to look for. Boiled and roasted peanuts are both popular and a good choice for an energy boost from protein and healthy fat. Slices of cucumber or raw green mango with chili powder and salt are another healthy, refreshing choice to recharge and beat the heat. Finally, some versions of chaat can be viable part of your Eat Well meal plan. Chaat is a savory mix of various chopped ingredients, somewhat like a salad, including boiled potatoes, puffed rice, yogurt, raw onions, lime and mint sauce. Just beware of chaats that feature those pesky fried ingredients (there they are again!). A word of warning from Nirmala when deciding where to pick up your snack: roadside stands may not have exacting standards for sanitation. Stick to popular restaurants with high turnover rates to avoid food borne illness. Saravanabhavan is a reputable chain of restaurants with locations across the country; or try Chowpatty Beach in Mumbai for chaat and evening entertainment -- this spot becomes a carnival at night!
The customary Indian diet is cereal-based, so complex carbohydrates form the center of most meals. This may not sound terribly healthy to us in the States where we've become a bit carbo-phobic, but if you focus on whole grains and keep your portions moderate, it can be a perfectly nutritious way of eating. Rice dominates in south Indian cuisine, so look for brown and red rice which still contain their fiber and nutrient-packed bran when eating in this area. Hand-pounded rice is a traditional variation popular in regions such as Kerala which, when made from brown or red rice still retains a good portion of health-promoting nutrients. In the northern regions wheat reigns supreme, and a variety of breads may form the backbone of your meals. Ask for breads made with whole wheat flour, or atta, and stick with the ones that are baked in clay ovens rather than fried or griddled. Naan and roti are good options. You can try naan alongside healthy baked meats (tandoori foods) or some of those superstar lentils at Dabha, part of the restaurant complex on Radhakrishna Salai in Chennai. If you want to expand your culinary horizons, you can also look for millet, an ancient grain that used to be popular in rural areas and is still sometimes served around the country. You may see different types of millet such as cambu, thinai, samai or ragi which is used for breakfast porridge. Ancient grains are totally on-trend right now in culinary circles, so a breakfast of ragi will supply you with protein, fiber, and bragging rights when you come home to your foodie friends.