Distinguished for its complex and robust flavors, Indian cuisine artfully pairs spices with foods in ways found in no other cuisine. For its love of spice, you are rewarded with an extraordinary array of highly potent antioxidants. But which dishes should you order at restaurants to get the most health benefits? What is the healthiest Indian dish to eat?
Whether it’s dine-in or takeout, the answer isn’t cut and dry.
Each restaurant prepares their dishes differently. You could order traditional Indian food, Biryani, from one place that is spiced differently from another. Or one may be soaked in 500 calories of unhealthy oil, while the other is not (hint: to get the lowest calorie meal, request less oil).
This means there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, though we do list our 3 best suggestions below. Our suggestions include those with meat, as well as vegan and gluten free options.
That said, if you know which spices and ingredients to look for, you will be prepared to find the healthiest Indian dish to eat at any restaurant. Keen an eye out for these desirable things when ordering…
7 options you should seek
This spice should be the first thing on your radar when dining out.
Curcumin is the primary pigment in the curry spice turmeric. It is an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory molecule with a similar structure to resveratrol, which is found in grapes and red wine, and is also related to the catechins that give green tea its health-boosting properties.
A major component of the curries that are predominant in Indian foods, turmeric is comprised of around 10% curcumin. The average Indian consumes about 125 mg of turmeric daily and it is thought that turmeric could be a contributing factor to India’s low rates of Alzheimer’s disease (1).
Though curcumin is readily absorbed into the bloodstream, it is also rapidly converted to a form that makes it easy for the kidneys to filter from the blood. Additionally, the “tagged” form of curcumin has more difficulty getting across the blood-brain barrier and into the brain. However there is a patented curcumin supplement that passes through the blood-brain barrier.
To circumvent this limiting factor and make curcumin more reliable and useful as a supplement researchers have developed several formulations of curcumin. One such formula was tested in a clinical trial and found to lower cholesterol and inflammation levels, as well as reduce the amount of degenerative protein strands, known as beta-amyloid protein, in the brains of study volunteers (2).
Many dishes will have turmeric, ask your waiter which have the most and make those your short list. Then, followup with questions on these other super spices…
This spice, which appears in almost every sauce recipe in North Indian cuisine, contains an active oil component called eugenol, that has chart-topping antioxidant levels.
On the ORAC scale – a rating scale of antioxidant activity – clove essential oil has been measured at over 10 million. By comparison, most compounds considered to be powerful antioxidants have ratings in the 10,000’s to 100,000’s in ORAC value. But you don’t need its extracted oil to experience a high ORAC with clove – in its basic form, clove is the 2nd highest on the ORAC chart, coming in at around 290,000.
Additionally, clove contains high levels of flavonoid antioxidants as well as manganese, a nutrient mineral that is necessary for proper functioning of the antioxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase, SOD. One of the most powerful antioxidants in your body’s arsenal, your liver relies on SOD to detoxify your body on a daily basis.
These antioxidant benefits also contribute to its anti-inflammatory effects. Research suggests that clove oil may be useful in combating the symptoms of arthritis (3).
There has been research which suggests that chronic and acute respiratory conditions, such as colds, the flu, asthma, sinusitis, and bronchitis, might respond favorably to clove oil, though further research is necessary to know for sure (4).
Its antioxidant activity also gives clove potent antimicrobial properties against a range of pathogenic bacteria and molds, including Staphylococcus, Salmonella and Aspergillus (5). Clove oil has historically been used as an antiseptic in toothpastes and mouthwashes and for treating inflammations and infections of the eye lids. It can also be used as a safe, nature food preservative.
Featured prominently in curry dishes, ginger is widely known for its anti-inflammatory benefits, many of which can be attributed to the high antioxidant levels of its active component gingerol. Research suggests ginger may protect the stomach lining from inflammation that can lead to ulcers, a condition which can trigger intestinal cramping and nausea (6).
It has been claimed that this sweet and pungent herb boosts immune function and helps to protect against pathogens such as E. coli, Staphylococcus and Candida (7). Ginger may relieve arthritis pain and has also been known to demonstrate anti-cancer properties in a study involving rats (8). Gingerol thins mucous and is used as an herbal expectorant in soothing respiratory symptoms from colds, flu, bronchitis and asthma.
The seed of the cilantro plant, known as coriander, as well as the plant itself, are used widely in Indian food and contribute considerable antioxidant benefits. Described as pungent, citrusy and with a hint of sage, coriander is added as a seasoning to curries, chutneys and other dishes.
Coriander is regarded as a medicine in the traditional ayurvedic system, where it has been used to treat headaches, mouth ulcers, indigestion and painful urination.
Science has identified numerous antioxidant compounds in coriander and cilantro, notably carotenoids, as well as polyphenols and essential oils, with the leaves measuring higher in antioxidant activity levels than the seeds. Coriander and cilantro antioxidants provide antibacterial and antifungal benefits and are stable to the high temperatures used when cooking many meals (10). In a study involving rats, this spice demonstrated cholesterol lowering effects (11). Cholesterol is one of the precipitating factors of atherosclerosis.
This spice adds a sweet, citrusy note to curry spice is also a primary flavoring in the spice blend garam masala. It is also drunk as an herbal tea and added to coffee. A member of the ginger family and native to India, Nepal and South Asia, studies on cardamom show that an essential oil contained in this spice exhibits significant antioxidant properties.
A study suggests cardamom may increases levels of glutathione, an important antioxidant enzyme used by the liver (9). Historically, cardamom has been used as an herbal remedy to alleviate sore throats, tooth infections, stomach, respiratory and kidney problems. It has also been used as an antidote for spider and snake bites.
A component of the traditional Indian spice mixture known as garam masala, licorice is also eaten by Indians after meals as a digestive aid.
Licorice possesses considerable antioxidant activity via its flavonoid compound known as isoliquiritigenin, which has been used under experimental testing for possible anti-cancer properties and treating cocaine addition (12).
Licorice’s antioxidant activity has suggested it may be useful in the support of numerous health conditions, including asthma, psoriasis, eczema and intestinal irritations. It may also help maintain the health of the liver, making it a useful herb for detoxifying the body (13).
That all said, men in particular should be aware that licorice is a potent phytoestrogen. It’s not appropriate for every diet.
7. Antioxidant-rich staples
When it comes to the main ingredients in Indian cuisine, these are the best for you:
- Grains, beans and legumes such as millet, lentils and red kidney beans comprise a significant portion of the macronutrients in the Indian diet and these also contribute notable quantities of antioxidants.
- Curry leaves come from a small tree known native to India and Sri Lanka. Curry leaves have been measured to have greater antioxidant power than spinach.
- Root vegetables such as carrots and beet root, offer nutritional value.
- Guava, which contains antioxidant levels more than 20 times that of pineapple is a good choice for desserts.
3 dishes that have everything
You will be hard pressed to find a single entree which contains all of the above. However here are some noteworthy contenders which come close…
1. Murgh makhani (moghul butter chicken)
Typically contains 5 of the 6 aforementioned super spices: turmeric, clove, ginger, cardemom, coriander. Sometimes all 6!
is a mixed rice dish which comes in countless variations, both meat and vegetarian versions. Some are known to have 5 of the 6: turmeric, clove, ginger, cardemom, coriander. Some places will have dairy-free and vegan versions of this.
3. Dal bhat
Known as Nepal’s favorite dish and because it comes with a variety of items, there’s a good chance you will have the 5 aforementioned spices, maybe even all 6. If we had to vote for one, this would be the healthiest meal to eat at an Indian restaurant. For those with gluten allergies, nut allergies, or have other dietary restrictions (e.g. vegan), ask the waiter to sub out any items that don’t fit your preferences.
If you skip the roti and naan, you should be able to order these as gluten free, or at least easily modify them to become such. Don’t forget to request less oil if you want the lowest calorie option. Those who consume these foods can reap health benefits, as a side effect of this colorful and flavorful cuisine!