Food & Nutrition

How to Give Your Favorite Indian Foods a Healthy Upgrade

Whether dining in or taking out, these tips will help you make the most of every masala.
Published May 29, 2016

All food is meant to be enjoyed—and Indian cuisine is no exception. Whether you're a complete newbie to Indian food or have a favorite go-to spot, planning ahead for your meal can help you make the most of the occasion and your Points budget. Before you order, take a look at the menu and decide what you'd like and how many PersonalPoints you want to spend. Feeling stumped? Use these tips as your guide.

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Embrace a taste

Rather than sit down for an extensive 3-course meal, incorporate Indian flavors into your meal with a smaller takeaway from a place that specializes in one item, like an order of amazing vegetarian dosa or kadhi from that one spot. If it’s a special occasion that calls for a multi-course meal, split each course a few ways to save on Points.

Look beyond naan

Naan, the most popular bread in Indian restaurants, can easily measure 10 inches across and often comes brushed with ghee (clarified butter). Having one piece is like eating an entire personal pizza crust and comes with a PersonalPoints value of about 8. Unlike naan bread, roti is unleavened and is available in white or whole-grain. A typical 6-inch round has a PersonalPoints value of about 3. Chapati is similar to roti in character and calories, also with a PersonalPoints value of 3. Made on a skillet, it closely resembles a whole-wheat tortilla.

Avoid the app trap

The “pakora,” “samosa” and “bhaji” families of small bites are delicious, but prep typically involves deep-frying. If you’re looking to cut back on PersonalPoints values, keep an eye on portions when it comes to these starters, or opt instead for a flavorful cup of lentil soup.

Try the tandoori

The flavor of grilling with the succulence of baking, tandoori dishes are that elusive combination of flavorful and healthful. Meats are traditionally marinated in spices and yogurt for up to 24 hours, delivering amazing flavor and moisture. Chicken, fish, or meat, this is absolutely one of the best methods of cooking and should be top of your list.

Choose this chutney

On an Indian table, you might find a variety of chutneys as condiments, usually one brown and one green. If you can handle the spice, the green chutney is the best choice. Made with mint, cilantro and spicy chilies, this tangy and fiery condiment brings big flavor, with about 1 PersonalPoints value per tablespoon. If you prefer a sweeter seasoning, pick the reddish brown chutney, which is made from fruits, like tamarind, dates or mango, and comes with a 3 PersonalPoints value for each tablespoon.

Turn up the heat

As with Thai and Szechuan cuisine, Indian dishes can range from mild to very spicy. If you enjoy heat, lean into the spicier dishes. Heat doesn't affect calories or PersonalPoints and most people tend to eat less of a mouth-searing dish.

Cool down with raita

Raita is a cooling condiment of yogurt, cucumber, and cilantro, flavored with cumin, coriander, and other spices. How does it work? “The casein found in yogurt, as well as other dairy products, binds to the capsaicin in the spicy sauces to help wash it away and neutralize the heat,” says Angela Goscilo, MS, RD, CDN, senior manager of nutrition at WW. You’ll find a 1/2 cup of raita dulls spice better than rice or bread and has a PersonalPoints value of just 3.

Decode the cream

“Masala” can mean a rich mix of Indian spices, but in the context of chicken tikka masala, it typically signals the use of cream. Other words that will clue you into a heavier, creamier sauce could be "malai," such as in the dish malai prawns. This refers to a rich, clotted cream with up to 55-percent butterfat. Another one to look out for is "makhani," another name for popular butter chicken.

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Appetizers

Potato samosas

Like most Indian apps, this potato-filled fritter, a common street food and home snack in India, is a fried treat to be portioned. A typical order includes two samosas, but many Indian meals are presented family-style, so you might encounter a tempting platterful. At a SmartPoints value of 4 for each medium-size piece (about 1 oz.), watch your intake. 

Lighten it up: Potato or meat is the most common filling, but you can opt for vegetable versions to pick up some filling fiber like peas.



Vegetable bhajias

Onions are seasoned with spices and peppers, then battered and deep-fried into fritters in this popular street food. One serving (a cup) of these fritters clocks in at 13 SmartPoints value, so we suggest sharing with the table.


Bhel puri
This cereal-like salad is crunchy and light as air thanks to a foundation of puffed rice, resulting in a SmartPoints value of 6 for a typical 1-cup restaurant serving. Just be aware of the puri and papdi, fried breads often mixed into the Bhel puri, as well as any sugary chutneys drizzled on top or served on the side.


Masala dosa
A crepe filled with potato and chutney and dunked in dipping sauce, masala dosa is the workingman’s breakfast burrito in India. A restaurant-size serving of just one 8-oz. serving of rolled masala dosa can deliver a SmartPoints value of 16.

Lighten it up: Look for a “spring dosa,” filled with raw and steamed vegetables and skip the sauce to save the SmartPoints.

Mains



Tandoori chicken
All tandoori dishes — especially this moist and flavorful chicken — are top picks. This chicken is marinated in yogurt and spices, most notably paprika (which lends the distinctive color), and then cooked in the Indian tandoor (the equivalent of the Italian brick oven) sealing in juices without the need for oil. A skinless tandoori chicken breast has a SmartPoints value of 4, while the thigh and drumstick will have about 6 SmartPoints value combined.


Chana masala
“Masala” indicates any dish with a blend of spices. In the case of this vegetarian dish, those exotic flavors contribute to a simmering sauce of onion, tomatoes and ginger over whole chickpeas. Lightly sauced, with just a bit of oil, this is a protein-packed main course (and a hearty one), and a 1/2-cup restaurant serving has a SmartPoints value of 5. Dal is a similar choice, made with yellow lentils.

Lamb biryani
Biryani dishes are slow-cooked meals of meat and basmati rice, featuring flavors of nutmeg, cinnamon, mint, saffron, pepper, and other spices. 1 cup of lamb biryani is protein-packed but delivers a SmartPoints value of 19, due partly to lots of ghee (clarified butter) and rice.

Lighten it up: While lamb is a tasty and traditional choice, it's loaded with saturated fat. Instead, opt for a vegetarian biryani made from chickpeas and vegetables. A 1.5 cup serving plus a dollop of yogurt on top will total about 5 SmartPoint value.

Kerala pan-fried spicy fish
With a minimalist presentation devoid of sauce, this heavily seasoned fish is more flavorful and less fatty than your typical restaurant breaded fish fillet. Similar to blackened fish, with added fat, this dish can add up to 14 SmartPoints value for 6 oz. 

Lighten it up: This fish is often dressed with coconut oil. Ask your server to forego the oil and you’ll shave at least 2 SmartPoints value. You can also skip the sauce served with the fish and ask for a lime or lemon wedge to squeeze on top.

Saag paneer
Found on every Indian restaurant menu, this vegetarian dish includes a Popeye-size portion of wilted spinach and small cubes of paneer (Indian farmer’s cheese), making it a fairly good choice. The whole-milk cheese is usually pan-fried, but the spinach (which is rich in nutrients and fiber) is worth the trade-off. A 1-cup portion has a SmartPoints value of 8, and you’re likely to get between 1 and 2 cups.

Lighten it up: You can request to have your paneer steamed rather than pan-fried. If that change saves you just 1 tsp of oil/ghee, you'll shave 2 SmartPoints value.

Desserts


Mango lassi
This Indian smoothie is made with milk and yogurt (often lowfat) and usually flavored with sweetened fruit. As far as desserts go, you could do worse: A refreshingly cool 5-oz. serving has a SmartPoints value of just 4. However, you can also do better: choosing fresh mango can be a treat in itself. And that enjoyment comes with 0 SmartPoints value. 


Kulfi
Even at around 7 SmartPoints value for a small scoop (half a cup), this sweet Indian ice cream, made with both whole and sweetened condensed milk, deserves your consideration for unusual flavors you won’t find at your local Baskin-Robbins. Often described as cooling or earthy, aromatic cardamom pods traditionally lend their flavor to kulfi. When it comes to kulfi or other Indian ice creams, refer to regular ice cream on your Tracker.


Cardamom rice pudding
Many cultures have their own version of rice pudding, but India is one of the most inventive, making this a treat worth tasting. Short-grain rice is simmered in milk, flavored with cardamom and rosewater, with pistachios often added for texture. If you managed to resist the rice during dinner, this is a deserved treat when shared among the table — ideally a large table, since a half cup has a SmartPoints value of 9 to 13 (depending on if you add pistachios or not).