Restaurant 101: Indian

In the mood for a flavorful, aromatic meal? Look no further than your local Indian restaurant.

India is one of the world’s largest spice producers, and each region has a unique cooking style. In the US, you’ll find mostly an Americanized version of North Indian cuisine, particularly Punjabi-style fare. You’ll also find plenty of plant-based dishes, as India is home to a large vegetarian population.

Here’s a simple guide to ordering healthier eats at an Indian restaurant.


Indian Starters

Look for salads and veggie-based appetizers like tandoori vegetables. If you find that the Indian restaurant offers only deep-fried starters, consider skipping the appetizer altogether. You can always order an extra veggie-based side to enjoy with your entrée.

Avoid: Fried appetizers like samosas and fritters.

Indian Entrées

In general, go for lean meats like chicken and seafood, or plant-based proteins like chickpeas and lentils. Steer clear of dishes made with heavy cream, which can take the calories and saturated fat content overboard.

Also try to include a one-cup portion of non-starchy vegetables in your meal. The extra fiber will help you feel full and satisfied sooner, so you’ll eat fewer calories overall.

Here are some go-to entrées:

  • Tandoori-style proteins like chicken or fish are typically marinated in yogurt and spices, then roasted in a tandoor oven. These are often the leanest protein on the menu at many Indian restaurants.
  • Chicken and fish tikka are marinated with spices, then broiled. (Not to be confused with tikka masala, which is a cream-based dish.)
  • Saag is a leafy green-based dish commonly made with spinach and mustard greens. The greens are stewed with meat or a fresh cheese called paneer. Paneer tends to be high in saturated fat, but the greens provide fiber and antioxidants to help balance the dish out.
  • Dal and chana masala and other bean- and lentil-based dishes have a mix of heart-healthy fiber and plant-based protein. This combo helps you feel full and satisfied without too many calories.

Many Indian restaurants have a dedicated vegetarian section on their menu. To choose a healthy vegetarian dish, keep this in mind:

  • Look for dishes with non-starchy vegetables, such as cauliflower and eggplant. Non-starchy veggies are lighter in calories than starchy veggies like potatoes.
  • Skip dishes with the word “creamy” in the description. This means the dish contains full-fat dairy products, which are high in saturated fat.

Avoid: Tikka masala because it’s a cream-based dish, and biryani because it typically comes with a big portion of white rice.

Choose One Starch

You’ll likely be offered rice or naan (Indian flatbread) with your meal. If you spot whole-wheat roti on the menu, order that instead. Some mixed dishes have aloo (potatoes), which counts as a starch.

Have one starch with your meal and stick to a reasonable portion size. In general, one serving is a fist-sized portion of white rice or potatoes or a pita-sized portion of naan or roti.

Get Spicy

If you can handle the heat, order a spicy dish. The spicy compounds in hot peppers, called capsaicins, may help rev your metabolism. They’re also thought to promote heart health. You can always order a cooling side of raita (yogurt dip) to help balance things out.

Got any tips and tricks for eating healthy at Indian restaurants? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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