While Indian cuisine in America is characterized by dense, fried food and oil-rich curries, traditional Indian cuisine incorporates a lot of fresh vegetables, legumes and some of the world’s healthiest spices. Indian cuisine is highly influenced by Hindu beliefs and culture, including the popular practice of vegetarianism in Indian society.
“Vegetables are the life and soul of Indian cuisine,” said Indian chef Suvir Saran in an article on CookingLight.com. “Indian food is best known for heady spices, bold seasonings, and hot dishes, yet ingredients work together to offer contrasts.”
As with any cuisine, you can prepare lighter dishes at home than you would receive in a restaurant because you have complete control over how much salt, butter, cream or oil you add to your dish.
Easy on the Added Fat
While most Indian curries are cooked in vegetable oil, some regions of India prefer peanut oil, mustard oil, coconut oil or sunflower oil. Though some oil is necessary to cook and help flavor your food, use a light hand when adding fat to your recipes.
“Typically Indian recipes can be lightened up a lot if you consider how the oil is used,” food writer and culinary instructor Monica Bhide told Epicurious. “In a typical Indian dish, heat the oil and then add the spices. The hot oil helps the spices release their flavors. One does not need a lot of oil to help spices release their flavor, nor do we need a lot of oil to actually cook the ingredients.”
In lieu of oil, some Indian foods are prepared with a cooking medium known as ghee, which is a hydrogenated vegetable oil composed entirely of fat.
“Use ghee at the end of cooking the dish,” said Bhide. “I heat a little bit of ghee, season it with spices, and then pour it over the cooked dish. It adds great flavor and a delightful buttery flavor to the dish without a lot of fat.”
As with any cuisine, adding spices is a great way to give your food flavor with no additional fat or calories. Some common spices in Indian cooking are chili pepper, cumin, mustard seed, turmeric, coriander, garlic, paprika and cinnamon. Sweet dishes are also flavored with saffron, cardamom and nutmeg.
“Whole or ground spices, spice blends, fresh herbs, chiles, and lentils are integral to Indian cooking,” said Saran. “The bulk of Indian seasonings are common to many American pantries, but you may need to visit an Indian grocery store or large Asian supermarket for some of the dried seasonings and leaves.”
A number of the spices used in Indian cooking are said to have strong nutritional properties. According to the American Journal of Epidemiology, a diet high in curry (including turmeric) may help the aging brain. Cinnamon contains anti-inflammatory compounds and ginger reportedly aids digestion.
Many Indian dishes are prepared using yogurt or coconut milk. If you’re cutting down on dairy or interested in lightening up a recipe without trading taste, use low-fat for full-fat dairy products to cut down on fat, saturated fat and calories. While you have swaps on the mind, switch your basmati rice from white to brown for an extra serving of fiber and whole grains. You can even swap regular naan, which is a hand-stretched, leavened flatbread baked in an oven at extremely high heat, for a whole grain version, such as Stonefire Authentic Tandoori Whole Grain Naan.
Try some of your own Indian cuisine at home with these recipes:
Indian-Spiced Butternut Squash from The Perfect Pantry
Curried Turkey and Cauliflower Stew from Diets In Review
Indian Lentil Soup with Fenugreek from Herbivoracious