Fall is the season of Diwali, one of the biggest holidays for practitioners of Hinduism. The five-day celebration, also known as the Festival of Lights, symbolizes the victory of good over evil, according to Share America, a website run by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Global Public Affairs. Food plays an integral part in any celebration, and Diwali is no exception.
The holiday is typically celebrated with a variety of traditional Indian dishes. If you are not of Indian heritage, you may prefer to experience the food by dining out. Like any other cuisine, Indian food that’s prepared in a restaurant differs from dishes that have been prepared at home — often because added fat, salt, and sugar make them significantly less healthy.
But Indian food naturally has a few things going for it that can make it a great option when dining out. It offers an abundance of flavors and pairs them in unique ways. In fact, after analyzing more than 2,500 recipes from an online database, researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology Jodhpur found that the key to what makes Indian food so appetizing is the unique flavor combinations. Many of the spices common to Indian dishes, such as turmeric, have beneficial health properties as well.
Indian food also has plenty of vegetarian options, which tend to be lower in saturated fat than those with meat. Of course, there are still plenty of dishes that are fried or served with creamy sauces, so it helps to know how to navigate the menu when you’re looking for health-conscious choices.
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How to Order a Healthy Meal at an Indian Restaurant
Indian food is typically enjoyed family style with many dishes instead of three courses. A popular way to order is what is known as a “thali meal,” which is a sampling of small dishes from appetizers to desserts.
“There are typically three or four curries in a thali, plus yogurt, chutney, veggie crudités, roti, and rice,” says Madhu Gadia, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian based in Iowa and author of The Indian Vegan Kitchen. “I will ask what curries are included and if it is possible to change a creamy curry with another dish. If not, I will just have two bowls of the same non-creamy curry or extra salad.” Gadia says a thali meal may be too much food, but you can always pack up leftovers to take home and eat at another time.
Naan (tandoor-oven-baked flatbread) is often served with the meal, but as delicious as it tastes, it is typically made from refined flour so is best enjoyed in moderation. The same goes for samosas (deep-fried, potato-stuffed pastries) and pakoras (chickpea-battered and deep-fried onions or veggies).
In general, you’re best sticking with a vegetarian or bean-based dish with a tomato-based sauce instead of a creamy one. Here are some more good choices to order at an Indian restaurant:
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The 8 Healthiest Dishes to Order at an Indian Restaurant
This unleavened flatbread (meaning it is made without yeast) is made from whole-wheat flour and commonly accompanies other dishes. Typically, you tear off a piece of roti and use that to pinch and scoop up any of the other foods at the meal. One piece has more than 3 grams (g) of protein and more than 4 g of fiber, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data. For that reason, roti is a better choice than white rice because it will help keep you full longer. Research has also found that fiber such as the kind found in whole-grain wheat is what is known as a prebiotic and can help promote beneficial bacteria in the gut, which may have all kinds of health benefits that science is still uncovering.
2. Chana Masala
This dish features chickpeas (“chana” in Hindu) stewed in a sauce made from onions, tomatoes, and spices (masala). Research shows that a diet high in legumes like chickpeas is associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes and obesity, and eating chickpeas specifically has been shown to improve heart health. These effects may be due to the plant protein and fiber chickpeas contain, according to USDA data. This dish tastes great with a whole-wheat roti or fluffy basmati rice. You can also find chickpea-based cakes (dhokla) or rice and lentil cakes (idly) on many menus.
This is another bean-based dish, which means it has plenty of plant protein and fiber, per USDA data. And kidney beans (rajma) specifically contain tons of antioxidants, which help fight compounds called free radicals, which are associated with aging and disease. In fact, in one definitive ranking of foods with the most antioxidants, published in The Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry, kidney beans came in third. Here, they are simmered in a spiced onion, ginger, and tomato sauce and classically served with basmati rice.
“Daal” is the generic Hindi term for both raw and cooked split lentils. Typically daal is made from cooked split lentils simmered with spices such as cumin seeds or mustard seeds, turmeric, and garam masala, and garnished with cilantro. It is often enjoyed with rice or roti. Like legumes, lentils are rich in plant protein, fiber, and prebiotic carbohydrates, and regularly including them in your diet has been associated with a reduced risk of diseases, including diabetes, certain cancers, and cardiovascular diseases, most likely due to bioactive compounds known as polyphenols, according to a November 2017 study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.
5. Baingan Bharta
This dish is made from oven-roasted eggplant that is peeled, mashed, and cooked with spices, garlic, and tomatoes. It pairs well with roti. Eggplants are naturally low in calories, high in fiber, antioxidants, polyphenols, and other nutrients. The nutrition profile makes this dish a good option for heart health and blood sugar management.
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6. Aloo Gobi
This popular vegetarian dish features aloo (potatoes) and gobi (cauliflower) cooked with onions and seasoned with spices such as cumin seeds, turmeric, and chili. In addition to being a good source of fiber, cauliflower is a cruciferous vegetable, a group that has been well studied for its anticancer benefits, likely due to a compound called isothiocyanates, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. The generous addition of turmeric may have additional benefits, although more research is needed.
This yogurt sauce or dip is similar to tzatziki seasoned with spices and herbs. There are a variety of raitas, but one of the most common ones you would find at a restaurant is cucumber raita. It is a perfect, cooling, and refreshing accompaniment to a spicy meal. Yogurt provides protein, calcium, and potassium, according to USDA data, and is also a good source of probiotics, live cultures found in many fermented foods that may boost immunity and overall health, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Cucumber contains both vitamin C and caffeic acid, which may help with decreased swelling and water retention.
8. Tandoori Chicken
This dish, which features chicken marinated in yogurt and spices, then cooked in a clay oven called a tandoor, is a healthier alternative to the popular chicken tikka masala, a dish of cubed chicken served in a rich, creamy sauce. The yogurt adds extra protein without a lot of added calories from fat.