The Incredibly Healthy Foods of India

Indian dishes are incredibly healthy, nutritious, filling, and satisfying. Even the vegetarian ones! This write-up is a short introduction to the subject.

Originally published 2010

Why Indian Foods are so Great

Indian food is really healthy, and it’s one of the vegetarian diets that doesn’t force you to “graze” all day to get enough to eat. And if you’re lucky enough to be down the street from an Indian “diner” like Swathi Tiffin in Sunnyvale, you can eat food that is twice as healthy as the foods in most restaurants, at half the cost — and get it almost as fast as a fast food stand.

Indian foods provide a variety of high-protein, high-fiber vegetarian dishes, so they’re filling and satisfying for hours. (In the past, when I’ve tried eating vegetarian, I was always starving an hour after I ate, so I felt like I had to graze all day long to get enough to eat. That’s not a problem with Indian cooking.)

Note:
Not to worry. Many dishes also contain chicken, lamb, or goat — which turns out to be remarkably tasty. (It’s like the leanest lamb you’ve ever had.)

Indian dishes get those qualities from the things that go into them. Here’s a preview of those super-healthy ingredients:

  • Nourishing and satisfying legumes (lentils, chickpeas, and peas).
    Chickpeas, in particular, figure prominently in a soupy dish called dal, named after the legumes it contains, which are also called dal. In fact, it turns out that there are many varieties of dal, with somewhat different characteristics, just as there are many varieties of apples here in the West.
  • A variety of herbs and spices that aid in the digestion and assimilation of nutrients.
    The main legume dish — dal — blends the legumes with precisely those spices needed to digest them. The result isn’t very spicy, either. It’s just keeps you full and satisfied — for hours.
  • Lots of seeds — which turn out to be a powerhouse of nutritional value.
  • Other healthy staple ingredients, most of which are vegetarian.
  • A noticeable absence of chemicals and artificial ingredients.

A Short Dictionary of Indian Foods

These dishes are generally gluten-free. (Recipes vary, though. If in doubt, check first.):

  • Aloo Matar — A combination of Aloo (ah-LOO, potatoes) and Matar (MAH-ter, peas). Wonderful.
  • Briyani — Saffron rice with vegetables and stuff. Terrrific!
  • Chhole — A dish made from chickpeas, potatoes, and onions.
  • Dal (Daal) – A combination of legumes and digestive spices that is nourishing and satisfying.
  • Dosa (DOH-sah) — A crepe made from chickpea flour
  • Kitchidi (spelling?) — a mixture of dal and rice.
  • Mirchi Bhaji — A pepper fried in chickpea batter. Open it up, add onions & ketchup. Wicked good. If you start at the end away from the stem, it’s not hot at all. Right at the very end where the seeds are, it gets hot. Nowhere near as hot as jalapeno seeds but rather tasty-hot. Scrumptious!
  • Raita — Sauce made with buttermilk and fresh, edible vegetables like cucumber, carrot, and tomato. Generally had with Briyani.
  • Sabudhan Vada – Deep fried patty made with chickpea batter, small white tapioca beads, and peanuts.
  • Uttapham — A pancake made from chickpea flour.
  • Vada (vWAH-da) — A doughnut made from chickpea flour.

Note:
“Chickpea flour” is the name I’m using for what seems to be a blend of ground chickpeas (chana), that may include ground rice, potato, and/or onions. Recipes vary, and my knowledge is incomplete. It’s wicked-good stuff, whatever it is — satisfying, with the texture of bread, only without the gluten. (Idea: I’ll bet it would be possible to make a chickpea flour-based stuffing! That would be terrific for a gluten-free Thanksgiving meal.)

Good words to know:

  • Chana — Chickpea
  • Chana flour — Chickpea flour!
  • Jaggery — Unrefined, non-centrifuged, whole cane sugar. Concentrated product of cane juice without separation of the molasses and crystals. 50% sucrose, 20% sucrose that has already been split into it’s constituent fructose and glucose molecules (a 50-50 split). The remainder is fiber and minerals and stuff. So it’s basically 35% fructose, 35% glucose, and 30% healthy good-for-you stuff. That’s a lot better than table sugar (50% fructose, 50% glucose, no fiber or minerals). It’s even better than honey or maple syrup. It’s the lowest-fructose natural sugar there is! It’s a sugar that isn’t that bad you! (See What’s Wrong with Fructose? and understand that fiber and nutrients are good for you.)
  • Masala — Mixture. Example: Uttapham Masala and Masala Vada are a mixture of potatoes and onions and/or tomatoes and other good stuff.
  • Sabudhan — Small white tapioca beads.

Desserts, snacks, and sweet stuff:

  • Besan Laddoo — Tasty treat made with Chana flour, butter, and sugar. Like a dumpling, only better.
  • Boondi Laddoo — Chana flour, sugar, and butter. A terrific dessert for an American meal, which tends to lack the important fibers contained in channa (chickpea) flour.
  • Peanut Chikki — Peanut brittle w/fennel seeds! From the Indian foods store, of course. Contains jaggery.

These dishes are wheat-based. Avoid them if you’re gluten intolerant:

  • Mysore Bhaji — Like Mirchi Bhaji, only made with wheat flour.
  • Rava — This word means “wheat”. Avoid anything that has that word in it.
  • Roti — A flat bread made by mixing the flour with water.
  • Pirata — A layered bread, made by folding the bread over itself in thin layers separated by a coating of oil, so the layers don’t stick to themselves.
  • Poori — A big ball of fried bread.
  • Panpoori — Smaller balls of fried bread.

Note:
Many of the things to avoid start with “P” or “R”, while all of the wheat-free dishes start with something else! (At least, for the dishes I know about so far.) That’s an easy rule to remember!

A Banana, and other Cures for Hot Spices

Indian foods have a reputation for being spicy. The first several times I tried it, it sure seemed that way to me. Here are a few things you can do to avoid that problem:

  • Ask for very mild dishes.
    One lady I went to dinner with told the waiter to have the food prepared “as though for a child”. That was the very first time I ever truly enjoyed Indian food. In fact, I was ecstatic about it. It was so flavorful! It was like my mouth was bursting with flavors. That’s when I found out what Indian food tastes like, to someone from India.
  • Start with Northern Indian cuisine.
    All cultures in warm southern climates use lots of spices. It helps meats to keep longer, kills bacteria, and hides the taste of meat that is a little off. Foods found in northern climates, on the other hand, tend to use fewer spices. Indian foods are no exception. So start your (virtual) visit to India in the North, and slowly travel towards the south as your tongue becomes accustomed to the heat. Eventually, you may find that you prefer the Southern foods. But it may take a while!
  • Take a along a banana.
    A banana is a wonderful complement to an Indian meal. It’s the best cure there is for spices that are too hot for a Western tongue.Note:
    Banana is also a good source tryptophan — the only amino acid that the legumes don’t have in large quantities. So eating a banana along with dal gives you a complete amino acid profile as it cools the tongue!
  • Dairy works, too.
    Milk or yogurt works pretty well.
  • Sugar doesn’t work at all. Neither does water.
    You’d think sugar would make a difference, but it doesn’t. And water just spreads the hot stuff around.

The Lazy Man’s Legumes

Beans and other members of the legume family are healthy sources of protein, soluble fiber, and insoluble fiber. (Soluble fiber slows the absorption of sugar. Insoluble fiber keeps your digestive tract healthy.)

All legumes need to be cooked before they eaten, so they can be digested. But beans need an extra step. They need to be soaked and then rinsed before they are cooked, to get rid of the toxic chemicals they contain.

But the other members of the legume family don’t need to be pre-soaked  and rinsed. Those legumes are the ones that figure prominently in Indian dishes. (Interestingly, beans aren’t used at all in Indian cooking.) Those “lazy legumes” are:

  • chickpeas (garbanzos)
  • lentils
  • peas
  • green beans

Note:
Split chickpeas are known as dal.

In addition to dal (a blend of split chickpeas and spices), many Indian recipes use chickpea flour to make a kind of crepe, pancake, doughnut, or frying batter. So for someone who is gluten intolerant, it’s possible to eat well without wheat. (See What’s Wrong with Wheat?)

Note:
Because so many recipes use chickpea flour, folks from India don’t equate “flour” with wheat. So when I’ve asked, is there any wheat in this? I’ve often heard, “No. No wheat. All-purpose flour.” Oops. All-purpose flour is wheat-based flour! So the best question to ask is “What kind of flour is this?” Otherwise, you could eat some things you shouldn’t, and miss out on many wonderful things you could be eating.

All About Dal

Dal (dal, daal) is a soupy mixture of split chickpeas (also called dal) and spices — very nourishing. quite filling, and very satisfying.

Note:
If at all possible, have a banana, too — the same day, if not in the same meal. A banana is a good source tryptophan — the only amino acid that the legumes don’t have in large quantities. So eating a banana along with dal gives you a complete amino acid profile.

Kinds of Dal

There are many varieties of dal. Here are some of them:

  • Chana Dal — Chickpeas. The basis of Punjab Dal (my personal favorite).
  • Moong Dal (Mung Dal) — Split lentils.
    A light dal that can be cooked in a rice cooker — either alone, or with rice.
    (All other kinds need a pressure cooker or crock pot.
    Pressure cooker is fasted, but crock pot is best, because the dal doesn’t get too soft.)
  • Toor Dal
  • Masoor Dal and many more…

Other Dal Dishes

There are many kinds of dal dishes. I got these recipes from the frozen foods sections of the many Indian foods stores in my area. Here they are, using the spelling found on the packaging:

    • Dal Mahkani
    • Dal Rajastani

The Power of Seeds

The folks I worked with at LongJump in Sunnyvale taught me a lot about Indian foods. (After one meal, I noticed
that I wasn’t hungry for hours! Finding out why produced some great sections in the book about dishes made from lentils and chickpeas (lots of fiber) with lots of spices that aid digestion without being very hot (turmeric, cumin, coriander).

Other things I’ve learned:

  • Indian foods contain lots of seeds.
  • Seeds always contain 100% of the expected nutritional value.
    With plant food, the quality depends on the soil it was grown in, how long ago it was picked, and how it was stored.
    With seeds, none of that matters. If the environment is good, the plant creates lots of seeds. If bad, it creates few. And they keep forever. (Egyptian wheat, kamut, has been grown from seeds found in tombs.)
  • So a farmer who takes care of the land gets seeds in abundance.
    One who doesn’t gets few. But every seed you get is a tiny gem of perfection. Perfect for a diet.
    And Indian foods contain lots of them. (Cumin, coriander, fennel, mustard, …)
  • When you go to an Indian store, you can find big bags of seeds and spices.
    Not the little tiny containers you find in a supermarket. Big bags of them. They’re not very expensive, either.
    Basically, they’re a staple in India.
  • The tulsi plant is holy in Hinduism.
    Looking it up, I read that it is “one of the few plant sources of B-12”.
    Hey! I didn’t know there were any plant sources of B-12. Did you?
    The American meat packing industry sure isn’t spending any money to tell us that.
    Neither is the American medical industry!
    But it India, it’s regarded as holy?
    That’s no accident. Someone over there has known some very important stuff for a very long time.
    Learn more:

  • Indian foods make a vegetarian diet possible, in my book.
    The legumes (lentils, peas, and chickpeas) are high-fiber and filling. (Without them, I feel like I have to graze all day long to get enough to eat.) And it can clearly provide all of the nutrients we need. Even B-12, which we have been told can only be obtained from beef! (I haven’t made the switch yet, mostly because too much cooking is involved. Or a lot of eating out. But I’m inclined to move in that direction.)

Seeds Used in Indian Foods

Cumin (aka Jeera)

  • improves digestion, reducing gas
    (one compound stimulates saliva, another stimulates gastric secretion)
  • boosts metabolism, increases body heat
  • facilitates the absorption of nutrients
  • strengthen nails, make hair shiny and glossy
  • improves memory and mental function
  • tranquilizing/relaxing, improves sleep

Natural Sleep Remedies

  • Cumin seeds and banana are used as a sleep remedy, in India.
  • Another useful practice is gaze at the sun for 10 to 30 minutes at sunrise and sunset. That practice activates the pineal gland, which secretes melatonin — a natural sleep aid.

Coriander (seeds) aka Cilantro (leaves) aka Dhania

  • stimulant and tonic for the stomach
  • improves digestion, reducing gas
  • helps to discharge phlegm
  • contains and anti-bacterial compound that fights Salmonella
  • stimulates secretion of insulin and lowers blood sugar

Fennel

  • Great taste, if you like licorice
  • Improves digestion

Use of Seeds:

  • optional: Soak in cold water for 10 minutes, then drain to revive aroma
  • grind with mortar and pestle
  • keep in a pepper mill for fresh powder

Other Herbs and Spices

Most of the seeds qualify as herbs or spices. But since they’re used whole, I have them listed under “seeds”. Here is a short list of some the many other herbs and spices used in Indian dishes, along with their beneficial qualities.

Turmeric

  • active ingredient is curcumin
  • anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antibacterial
  • raises metabolism
  • burns fat
  • speeds wound healing, repairs skin
  • helps w/ psoriasis and other inflammatory skin conditions
  • improves detoxification processes in kidneys in liver
  • use with fish, meat, lentils, onions, potatoes, cauliflower

Cinnamon

Ginger

Garlic

Saffron

  • blood-purifier and anti-inflammatory
  • oxygenates the blood, improving energy
  • rids the tissues of lactic acid, easing fatigue and muscle inflammation
  • mild sedative, good for insommnia and depression (cf. bananas and cumin)

Tulsi

  • one of the few plant sources of Vitamin B-12
  • regarded as sacred in the Hindu religion (no wonder!)

Garam Masala

  • Blend of Indian spices that includes clove and chili pepper, as well as cumin, fennel, and other spices
  • Garam means “hot”
  • Masala means “spice”

Healthy Staple Ingredients

These ingredients are used in large quantities in Indian foods.

  • The Lazy Man’s Legumes: Peas, Greenbeans, and Chickpeas (garbanzo)
    Legumes that don’t need to be cooked, rinsed, and re-cooked. High in both soluble and insoluble fiber, and high in protein.
  • Coconut
    Source of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) that metabolized like sugar, without raising insulin. (They’re burned for energy, rather than being stored as fat first, as other fats are.
  • Tomatoes and other Vegetables
    Much Indian cooking is vegetarian. All vegetables are good. Raw tomatoes have some kinds of healthy phytochemicals. Cooked tomatoes have another kind. Indian foods don’t tend to be quite as tomato-rich as Mediteranean foods (another healthy choice), but they are frequently used.
  • Dairy Products
    Soothing yogurts, butter-based desserts, and milk or cream are used in many dishes. Fried cottage cheese is also used in some. That turns out to be more solid than tofu, and a lot more tasty — more like cheese than cottage cheese, whose texture throws me off.Those dishes are something of a problem for those of us who are gluten intolerant, because the very first effect of gluten is to erode away the parts of the digestive tract that secrete the enzymes that digest dairy products! You can tell if that’s you, because your nose will be stuffed up after eating those dishes. (But after being gluten free for a couple of years, I’m finding that the stuffy-nose problem is becoming smaller and smaller, until it has almost vanished.)

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