India has at least seven regional cuisines, in part because it was a crossroads for trade between the Far East and Europe. The variety in Indian food is almost limitless. For example, cooks in Northern India usually grind spices before adding them to a dish, and you’ll find many dishes that rely on wheat, basmati or jasmine rice and other grains. In Southern India, spices are likely to be added whole, then ground together with other ingredients to make a paste. Seasonings and flavors become somewhat more tropical as you move south, sometimes relying on coconut milk.
There’s Persian influence in lamb and mutton dishes that may feature dried fruit and nuts; and Portuguese influence in the southwestern part of the nation where you’ll find duck, pork and even goat on the menu. In many parts of India, religious beliefs preclude slaughtering cattle so beef is less common than it is in the cuisines of many other nations. This has resulted in an extensive array of vegetarian preparations, many based on rice, wheat or legumes, including peanuts. Even with so much dependence upon carbs, there’s still plenty on the typical Indian menu to choose from while maintaining a good balance of protein and fiber-rich vegetables—so long as you stay away from breads, rice and other starchy dishes.
Tandoori and More
In the United States, tandooris are the most popular Indian dishes. The name refers both to the dish and the clay oven in which it’s baked. A tandoori oven gets very hot, so the food can cook quickly. Also well known are curries seasoned with a blend of spices and seasonings, including turmeric. You’ll also find kebabs, skewered pieces of grilled meat, and dals, which are lentil, chickpea or bean dishes. Chutneys are the traditional accompaniment for many dishes. Most are sweet and inevitably contain sugar of one kind or another; others are sour.
It’s a good idea to ask what goes into any dish you’re not familiar with because Indian cuisines are complex and contain multiple ingredients. In fact, it may be easier to confirm that a dish doesn’t contain high-carb ingredients such as sugar, flour or starches, than to wait
while your server reels through a staggering list of ingredients. In general, healthy options include kebabs, tandoori and meat curries. Try Raita, which is yogurt mixed with minced cucumbers, to ease the heat of some of the more powerful curries.
Have This Instead of That
- Instead of vegetable samosas, which are pastries, try Shahi Paneer, a homemade cheese in a creamy curried tomato sauce.
- Substitute roasted eggplant with onions and spices for any of the fritters, called pakora.
- Instead of the typical lentil or Mulligatawny soup, order a bowl of chicken Shorba, made with chicken, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, cumin and other spices.
- A vindaloo almost always contains potatoes. Get a tandoori dish instead.
- Enjoy a korma, which is meat in a cream sauce, as a replacement for any biryani, which is a rice dish.
- Substitute any curried meat dish for any of the dals.
- Order meat or shrimp kebabs rather than a saag dish, which is prepared with spinach and spices, but heavily thickened with flour or another starch.