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Clever tricks for healthy Indian cooking

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Manju Malhi Manju Malhi | 14:45 UK time, Monday, 23 May 2011



Recently, as part of BBC Asian Network’s ‘Get Healthy Month’, I made samosas for the Breakfast Show. “What? Samosas and healthy?” I hear you cry. That just doesn’t seem right. But, these were no ordinary samosas; they were the light variety, baked in an oven instead of deep-fried. More often than not, this is a recipe that I get requests for. The challenge was to come up with a snack which is healthy without compromising on taste and I hope I’ve succeeded.

I’ve always felt that Indian cuisine can be one of the healthiest cuisines around and there have been some misconceptions about Indian recipes. Traditionally South Asian diets consist of vegetables, wholemeal breads, rice and lentils, but if you have a lot of fat and too much salt in the dishes, it could make your Indian diet less healthy.

Changes to your eating habits should be gradual. I've found that making changes to my diet slowly have reduced my food cravings for chocolates, cakes, Indian sweets and rich kormas. My father died of heart disease at an early age, so my brother and I have to watch what we eat and maintain good eating habits as well as active lifestyles. He cycles to work, while I go for BodyJam, Zumba and Bollywood aerobics classes (I’m still waiting for that call from a top Bollywood producer to appear in one of their dance numbers!).

If you’re eating out at a restaurant, it’s worth choosing tandoori dishes that are on the menu as they contain very little sauce and the food is baked instead of fried, which is better for your heart. I also find that unleavened flatbreads such as tandoori rotis help me appreciate the taste of curries more than naan breads made from plain flour.

Chickpea curry

In my cooking at home, I use very little butter or ghee in my recipes and believe it or not, sunflower, rapeseed and olive oils work really well with spices. I also find that I use less salt to flavour my food because I want to taste the individual spices. Here are my tips for enjoying Indian food that’s good for the body, as well as the soul:


  • Opt for wholemeal flour instead of plain flour when making chapatis
  • Try to swap white rice for brown basmati rice
  • Replace cream with low-fat yogurt in ‘creamy’ curries
  • Snack on unsalted nuts instead of deep-fried pakoras or bhajis (my personal favourite is almonds)
  • Choose to eat a portion of fruit instead of an Indian sweetmeat
  • Use tofu instead of full-fat paneer cheese
  • Have semi-skimmed milk in a cup of chai instead of full-fat milk
  • Have at least one item that’s green at mealtimes

Are you a glutton for butter chicken or do you look for ways to make your curries healthier? Tell us your tips for making healthy Indian food.

Manju Malhi is a guest chef featuring in the Asian Network’s ‘Get Healthy Month’. Download a PDF of the British Heart Foundation booklet on healthy Asian meals that she contributed to.


  • Comment number 1.

    Thank you for some great tips! I fall into the category of those of think that Indian food isn't amongst the world's most heathliest cuisines- but now I know better!

  • Comment number 2.

    We’ve had some great comments on this subject on the BBC Food Q&A messageboard – many posters questioned the idea that some foods or cuisine types are good for you, and other foods unhealthy. Do tell us what you think.

    Dee: I don't believe that any cuisine is intrinsically "bad" for you and that all our diets should be balanced and varied overall - don't worry too much if one meal/day hasn't been a model of healthy eating. I generally bake lots of things that are traditionally fried (samosas, sausages, fishcakes, for example) because I find it easier and safer and I don't own a deep fryer. Poppadoms are stacked two at a time in the microwave (no need for added oil). How do I ensure that it is good for me? Well, in truth, I don't really. My main priority for any meal is how does it taste? Then followed by balance (that is texture, colour, food groups, etc.). I would generally sacrifice "health" for taste on an individual meal basis though.

    cookalot: When I cook curry at home its generally a veggie one, with plain boiled rice so I reckon that's reasonably good for you. Favourite choices are cauliflower, chickpeas, spinach or mushrooms. When I have a curry out, or takeaway, I tend to go for the richer "treats" such as korma, butter chicken etc.

    Evita: My curries at home are generally healthier than a restaurant. I mix lots of veg with whichever meat I'm using, don't use butter and nuke my poppadoms. When I go to a good restaurant there's no holds barred, I'll choose what I feel like eating regardless of the ingredients and cooking method, but that doesn't happen often.

  • Comment number 3.

    Karadekoolaid: I cook Indian food at home at least twice a week. How do I make sure it's healthy? First of all, I rarely cook meat; vegetables, lentils, yes; fish or shellfish occasionally. Secondly, whilst I don't skimp on the ghee when I use it, I don't use it all the time, especially if I'm cooking South Indian food. I often find industrial rapeseed oil is good; high smoke point, almost no taste. Thirdly, I use very fresh vegetables. Fourthly, I exercise portion control. Whilst I might cook up to seven or eight dishes, it's a little of this and a little of that. Kachumbars (little salads) and raitas are always present, as is rice. Breads are kept to a minimum. Would I sub tofu for paneer? Or brown rice for white? Or low-fat yogurt for full fat? No I wouldn't - I think they all taste ghastly! However, I've got wonderful metabolism and, were I 40kg overweight, I might well look to the subs. My body tend to tell me when I'm full up or stuffed! There are times when I'll simply eat a plate of salad for lunch to balance out the heavy foods of previous meals.

    Mrs Vee: Frankly, I find the idea that some foods are 'healthy' and some foods are 'bad for you' utterly ridiculous. It's a completely skewed way of thinking IMO and does nothing to further the cause of genuinely healthy eating. Healthy to me means having everything in moderation. If I want a curry tonight made with ghee and cream and a couple of deep-fried samosas on the side, I’ll have it; chances are tomorrow I’ll have a salad for lunch and baked beans on two slices of wholemeal for dinner. Moderation in all things, see? The day I start eating foods because they're 'good for me' is the day I need to get out of the kitchen. Permanently.

  • Comment number 4.

    homeend: I am big fan of dal, which is a basic part of most Indian dishes.

    KaveyF: Indian food is not inherently unhealthy. Of course, the ghee-laden dishes that are made for celebrations (weddings and so on) are pretty calorific. And the kind of food made for banquets or at restaurants which are meant to be a bit of a treat. But what Indians make and eat at home is not, these days, so high fat. My mum (Mamta) reduces the amount of fat in many of her recipes, and often uses vegetable oils rather than ghee - unless ghee is integral to the dish. Many of her dishes are healthy and nutritious.

  • Comment number 5.

    Full flavour snacking that isn’t full fat. Great.
    Will check out Manju’s own website now and rustle up a few of her recipes in time for Saturday's live tv football match!

  • Comment number 6.

    We’ve had even more comments on this issue on the messageboard, with many posters making the distinction between ordinary, home-cooked Indian food and anglicised take-away dishes that include heavy curries and deep-fried snacks; many people are also still questioning the notion of ‘healthy’. Do share your view.

    Mamta: Most of my dishes at home are healthy and nutritious when I am cooking for us. As with every other food, if you eat out a lot or cook for parties etc, it can be a bit more fried and with higher fat, sugar, salt, just like any other food. This is not specific to Indian food. People base their conception of Indian food being unhealthy on the 'curries' they eat at restaurant. I hardly ever make fried stuff, roast my popodoms under a grill, as most Indians do in India, don't butter my chapatties, don’t add ghee/oil to dough, eat a lot of vegetables. Even meat-eater Indians do not eat meat everyday in India. So, you apply exactly the same principles of healthy eating to Indian food as you do to any other type of food. No special recipes are required. There is no secret special to healthy Indian food.

    jonnynic: The term "healthy" really gets on my nerves. I hear it everyday from the same people saying to themselves before they eat "hmmm a nice healthy lunch". Big deal. You don't have to sit their and convince yourself that what you're about to eat might be the best thing for you. Everything is healthy in moderation. Bottom line. Everything is good for you. It's only bad for you if you sit their scoffing your face with 10 samosas or onion bhajis which are saturated in oil. I saw a post on this thread saying that they don’t cook with meat to make their curry healthy. I mean sorry but that is a ridiculous comment. When was chicken ever bad for you? Turkey ever bad for you? I myself like to make homemade curries, but I would never sit there and substitute anything for an apparent "healthier" option.

  • Comment number 7.

    meto: It would never have occurred to me that Indian food wasn't healthy except for the occasional poor quality dish which is unnecessarily drowning in oil, though that is hardly representative and easily avoidable by going elsewhere. The dishes I cook at home, usually two plus rice or a paratha, have nothing unhealthy in them. Deep-fried onion bhaji and small samosas are an occasional treat. It seems a shame to downgrade them to dry baked things, some of which taste more like cardboard to me. I don't eat ghee or sweet desserts, although ice cream is usually pretty good in restaurants and is only a scoop anyway. I liked the approach of a lady chef in a programme a little while ago where she cooked dishes with many fewer calories by making similar food rather than by taking a dish and trying to reduce the calorific content of it.

    Bozorghmehr: I am Anglo-Indian, so I eat Indian food fairly regularly at home, but I don't know why so many people see Indian food as intrinsically unhealthy, except that it might be something to do with takeouts giving it a bad reputation. But how to ensure the diet is healthy? I eat a lot of lentils and chickpeas. However, I never use any fat like olive oil just because it is 'more healthy'. I always insist on ghee.

  • Comment number 8.

    A good thing to watch out for is vegetable oil - often one is unclear as to what vegetables are used to make the oil which could include heavy coconut oils.

  • Comment number 9.

    I too changed my diet and am experiencing enormous health benefits. I just love samosas. we get great ones here in Dubai.

  • Comment number 10.

    What are the fillings in the samosas in Dubai? Are they any different to the peas and potato ones in the UK and Asia?

  • Comment number 11.

    Thanks for the healthy-eating tips, Manju. As someone who's partial to the occasional curry they're invaluable!

  • Comment number 12.

    Great article Manju! I don't cook Indian food too often because it always seems like more work than throwing some salmon in the oven, but I do cook a mean curry in a crockpot, and it's virtually grease-free. My first few attempts came out tasting boiled and bland, but things changed when a friend suggested that I sautee all the ingredients before slow-cooking. The 8-10-hour cooking process brings out all the flavour in the meat, and if I put it on in the morning, it feels really nice to come home to a delicious meal after work.

  • Comment number 13.

    I DISAGREES & AGREES With Ms.Manjus Comments & findings as a Chef Of experiene & Done Research In LowGlycemic Foods & Spa Wellness Cuisine

    I suggest Steaming & Poaching Are the Todate Best Healthy Cooking Method

    as Baking or Roasting Involves Minimum amount Of fat which can Be saturated or

    Unsaturated,But in Moderate Level is accepted

    I had Given Below a Recipe Of a Steamed Bread from Southern India

    IDLI & Chutney

    1 cup urad dal
    2 cups rice (ponni in south Indian)

    Soak rice for around 4-5 hrs. Then let the water go by spreading it on cloth for around 30mins. When all water is gone, grind(without any water) to a coarse powder (of coarse sand consistency).

    Soak dal for around 4-5 hours.
    Grind it to a very smooth paste (Do not add too much water, just add as much as needed). Touch the batter and no pieces of dal should be felt. The more it is ground, the better. Once it is ground very soft, some bubbles can be found on the surface, the more the bubbles, the better is the batter.
    When dal is completely gound Mix with the rice batter with a beating motion to trap air inside to aid natural fermentation
    Keep the batter in a warm place overnight. I keep it on warm gas stove, after all the cooking is been finished.
    Check in the morning if the batter is fermented. The volume would have increased. If it looks same as the previous day, it is better not to steam it, the idlis become like stone and everything has to be discarded. Instead make some dosas with the batter. There is no point in keeping it for one more night, because the idlis would become sour.
    Grease the idli pan with oil . Steam them for around 10mins (if using cooker, do not use the weight). Leave it for around 5-10mins before serving (Idli pan check in Web if you dont came across)
    If you dont have a idli maker try in putting small ramekins & steam in a DIM SUM Steamer



    Fresh Grated Coconut 200 Gm
    Red Chilli powder 1 1/2 tsp
    Small Onion 20 Gm
    Mustard 1 gm
    Oil 20 Ml
    Broken Chilli (Red) 1 no:
    curry leaf 1 Sprig


    Grind the coconut with crushed red chilli and put some salt if needed while grinding. (Grind well untill it become purre)
    Take a pan and heat the oil and put some mustard and dried red chilli,Curry leaf and put some chopped small onions.Wait untill the onion become brown color.
    After this pour the grinded coconut into the pan and heat it.
    Chammanthy(chutney) is ready and can be served with Idly or Dosa.
    NB: Green chilli can also be used in this chammanthy. Instead of crushed red chilli if you put green chilli while grinding coconut you will get white color Chammanthy(chutney).

    Disclaimer or its affiliated sites are Not responsible for the Results of Recipe Given it may differ according to the equipment,climate,product & chefs Skill.

    High regards


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