5 Essential Elements That Make Indian Meals a Healthy Choice

Let me paint a picture for you in words; this is how a home-cooked meal looks in an Indian home (no one-pot-meal wonders here.) At the dinner table, a curried or dry vegetable preparation like this spinach curry or okra takes center stage along with the well-known staple, Daal- an Indian lentil preparation (meat is usually reserved for weekends.)

Accompaniments are varied and almost as important as the main course: a hot-box with warm chapattis or roti- the Indian bread used at most home and warm Basmati rice, a plate of sliced tomatoes, cucumber and raw onion with a lemon dressing, extra lemon wedges and raw green chilies and a bowl of yogurt…

Quite a list, am I forgetting something? Yes, the Indian chutneys and pickles (called achaar) are right there in every Indian pantry; ready to go with any meal.

Home-cooked Indian Meals

Nothing out of the ordinary out here for an Indian family but in the world of food experts and as per the Choosemyplate.gov guidelines, this spread qualifies as a complete meal. Grains (rice, Indian bread), Vegetables & fruits (cooked and raw), lean protein (lentils) and dairy (yogurt) make this ‘one healthy plate’.

Indian food has a lot going for it; healthy ingredients used in balance make it an ideal choice for a home-cooked meal. In this piece, I am going to reveal 5 essential elements that form the backbone of Indian cooking; their nutrition-packed versatility truly pushes this cuisine into the Food Hall of Fame:

Element One: Ginger Garlic paste

To most, its two ingredients…in Indian homes, it’s just one bottle that comes out of the refrigerator every time you cook.

Ginger has been touted for its digestive properties while garlic comes up in the health list most often for its anti-inflammatory ways. This ‘one’ element makes its way in to almost every Indian curry, vegetable and meat dish. Click here and here…and you will see what I mean.

At the end of this post, you will find a simple Ginger Garlic Paste recipe and hints and tips to store and freeze it. Keep this staple in your refrigerator; good to go when the urge for Indian food strikes you.

Element Two: Onion

Onions – the base of most Indian curries

I remember an Indian cooking club gathering at my home, where my friends had a unique complaint. As we cooked, the smell of onion and ginger-garlic had permeated not only their clothes; but even their hair. Fortunately, the delicious Indian food more than made up for our stinky hair and the long shower awaiting us at the end of this cooking experience.

The onion element is inescapable in Indian cuisine; it is the base to most curries and a bed for cooking the spices. Without it, you may have thin soupy curries and raw spices passing off as Indian food. Any benefits to consuming onions? Yes, onions are known to help prevent heart disease and cancer while also being a digestive aid.

Element Three: Garam Masala (recipe here)

Spices that make Garam Masala

Although my article on Indian spices covered Garam masala in detail, it has to make this list.

A list of healthy spices must include the individual wonders of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper…put them all together and you have the quintessential pantry staple in every Indian home: Garam Masala. Regulating body temperature, antioxidant rich, anti microbial, controls blood sugar…the list of benefits is long and leaves you in no doubt that Garam Masala needs to be a part of your meals. But remember, a little pinch goes a long way with Garam Masala.

Element Four: The Sour Element

Lemon, lime, sour curd or yogurt, cider vinegar- especially in Parsi food, tamarind- in south Indian food, Amchur or mango powder and Chaat masala- in west and north Indian food; all lend that essential tang to balance the flavor of spices in Indian food. You will find one or a combination of these flavors in Indian kebabs, curries, Biryani (rice & meat/vegetable preparation) and Daal (lentil preparations.)

The Sour Element – Lemon, Lime, Cider Vinegar and Tamarind

Element five: Cilantro or Coriander leaves

Cilantro or Coriander leaves

I actually heard a prominent cook show host once say that she dislikes cilantro…while that is a matter of personal taste; I was surprised when she suggested replacing it with parsley. Anyone conversant with Indian food will tell you that the unique aroma of the essential oils of cilantro are irreplaceable in this cuisine…and anyone conversant with food in general, will tell you that though the leaves appear similar, the flavors of parsley and cilantro are not interchangeable. Each one is delicious and has a place of pride all their own.

Cilantro leaves (and its seed version, coriander) are natural detoxifying agents with a host of minerals and iron, known for their anti-inflammatory and digestive properties. Here is an amazing article outlining the little known benefits of something as simple as cilantro (who knew cilantro could help with mood swings.) For me, cilantro leaves are the ‘fresh element’ of Indian meals since they are added at the end of the cooking process, so their color remains bright and fresh.

To summarize, I will leave you with this handy formula for cooking Indian dishes: onion + ginger-garlic paste + dry spices + the meat or vegetable + tomatoes + the sour element + the fresh element = One Delicious Indian Curry. See this process in play in this 5 Step Indian Curry.

And now, a short and simple recipe for Ginger-Garlic Paste.

Homemade Ginger-Garlic Paste

Ingredients

4 oz ginger, peeled and cut into ½ inch pieces
8 oz peeled garlic cloves
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon canola oil
1-2 tablespoons of water only if required to grind the paste

Ginger Garlic Paste, an essential element of Indian food

Ginger Garlic Paste, an essential element of Indian food

Directions

Using a food processor, grind all the ingredients to a fine paste. Stir the paste while grinding so you don’t land up with bits of ginger and garlic. Based on the moisture content in the ginger and garlic, you may need to add water, don’t add more than 2 tablespoons of water for this quantity.

Store the paste refrigerated in a glass bottle, to use as required in recipes. Ginger-garlic paste can be made in bulk and stored in the freezer for 3-6 months.

Tips for Freezing:

  • If freezing use glass bottles and don’t fill them all the way to the neck of the bottle, leave 1-2 inches for expansion; else the bottle could crack in the freezer. 
  • Thaw frozen ginger-garlic paste by leaving it in the refrigerator for 24 hours or in a bowl of warm water for quicker thawing.

 

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Comments

    • says

      Thanks for visiting. It does sum up important elements that run through the Indian cuisine, which is otherwise diverse and region-specific.

      You have a great site too, interesting recipes:)

  1. says

    Thanks so much for your visit to Play a Good Knife and Fork, Peri. I enjoyed stopping by your blog as I adore Indian food. (And not just because my husband is Indian, either. ;) ) Ethnic cuisine of all kinds features prominently in my repertoire, and there are indeed some great healthy Indian dishes that I love to make, too. In reading your post here I just thought I’d point out that whereas ChooseMyPlate made some good advances on the previous nutrition guidelines and graphic — and it’s so terrific to see someone who actually knows the Dietary Guidelines for Americans!!! – you might enjoy reading my piece that compares MyPlate with Harvard’s Healthy Plate, which provides more details on the latest nutrition science. In case of interest, here’s the link: http://blog.pknewby.com/2011/11/15/the-devils-in-the-dietary-details/ Cheers, PK

    • says

      Thanks for visiting and for pointing me to your piece on Harvard’s Healthy Plate, really interesting. Now, that plate makes way more sense than the ChooseMyPlate which you have rightly called ‘simplistic’. I was amazed when it released last year with no mention of healthy oils or whole grains…and to most, the word ‘protein’ is red meat and the word ‘vegetables’ is potatoes! The part about choosing food of different color is so relevant. Do we really have to simplify food in every way…from fast food to processed meals and beyond…

      Glad to have found your site, I have bookmarked it (your piece on whole grains is amazing and well written!) happy to see an Indian connection…Like you, I like all foods and cuisines, always looking for new flavors:)

  2. Saira says

    Pari,

    So amazed to see your cooking blog.
    I am not a big fan of cooking but definitely agree with onion garlic and termuric benefits
    When I cook I make a liberal use of these ingredients
    Interestingly before I started to talk about these natural herbs and products my patients have started bringing me articles on Ginger, garlic and termuric. They wanted my opinion on using it for heart disease, blood pressure and joint pain and arthritis, I usually assure them , encourage them and give two thumbs up.
    Saira

    • says

      Hi Saira, Thanks for visiting the blog, glad you like the piece:)

      I agree that ginger, garlic, onion, turmeric, cumin, cardamom …and the many other elements of south east Asian cuisine have health benefits and are super delicious at the same time!

    • says

      Thank you, dear Ozlem, it a great pleasure to be nominated by someone I admire as much as you:) Your blog is an amazing inspiration to me…and a great post on the cooking class, it looks like so much fun. Miss our days cooking together!

  3. ozlemwarren says

    Peri, what a wonderful article, so informative and so inviting to the Indian cuisine, and you make it look so easy, thank you so much. I had a smile on my face while reading the “onion” element, that’s exactly the case for Turkish cooking too, as we use a lot of onions – I am getting ready for my cooking class now, and the whole house smells onion and garlic!! :)
    Your curry paste is so handy, it shall have its permanent spot in my fridge!

    • says

      Thanks Ozlem…I remember our Turkish and Indian cooking clubs always needed us to take a shower after:) So funny that delicious food makes its presence know! Would so love to be in your cooking class right now…how I wish we weren’t across the pond from each other. Good luck.
      And yes, keep ginger garlic paste in your fridge, bet it will be handy even with Turkish recipes:)

  4. Dhun says

    Peri, not only are you giving us mouth-watering dishes, you are also demonstrating the great values of these basic food ingredients that we use every day in our lives, and have been doing that for generations!! Thanks.

    • says

      Thanks Masi…I agree, our Indian ingredients and techniques for cooking at home are so healthy, we don’t realize the value of our ancient food culture sometimes. Happy to highlight them here on Peri’s Spice Ladle:)

    • says

      Thanks for visiting. Hope you enjoy the recipes, I try to keep them super simple so everyone is comfortable making these Indian dishes.

      Love your site too, especially your latest spring post – such pretty pictures and delicious food. Been to Paris and someday hopefully, will visit Languedoc…the south of France is picturesque and interesting.

      • says

        Hi Peri, we have a great Asian supermarket an hour’s drive awawy, where I can get a lot of the more exotic ingredients. But every Sunday a spice merchant comes to our market, so I try and use whole spices and grind them wherever possible! So armed with a good recipe I can attempt most dishes!!
        Glad you enjoy my pictures and thanks for following!!

        • says

          That sounds like so much fun…spice merchants are great sources of information and ideas, I like chatting with them and coming away with more knowledge on spice mixes. And the best aroma of spices are when they are freshly ground… Glad you have the spices ready to go, now you can pick a recipe and try it out:)

          Look forward to reading your posts about life and food in Languedoc…

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