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.

Eric Armstrong

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.)

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:

A Short Dictionary of Indian Foods

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

"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:

Desserts, snacks, and sweet stuff:

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

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:

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:

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?)

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.

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:

Basic Dal Recipe

I got this from my Indian friends at work:

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:

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:

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
(cumin seeds and banana are used as a sleep remedy)
also: gaze at the sun for 10 to 30 minutes at sunrise and sunset.
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

--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.

--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




--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 (Dulse?)
--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 chile, as well as cumin,
fennel, ...
--Garam means "hot"
--Masala means "spice"

Healthy Staple Ingredients

These ingredients are used in large quantities in Indian foods.




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