How to make South Asian dishes more nutritious: Chef’s advice, nutritionist

  • Insider spoke with a dietitian and chef about how to add vegetables to South Asian meals and reduce fat.
  • Ethnic food is not inherently “unhealthy,” and using cultural recipes can add important nutrients.
  • Balancing carbohydrates with vegetables and protein, and reducing fats can lead to long-term health benefits.

As a Pakistani-American health reporter, dinner time can sometimes seem like a mystery.

I want to eat the food I grew up with while getting all the nutrients and fiber. Pakistani food, along with all ethnic foods, is not inherently “unhealthy”, but some dishes can be heavy on rice and oil, and low on fresh vegetables.

Eating nutritious foods is especially important for South Asians, who make up 60% of the world’s heart patients and are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. A balanced diet reduces the risk of both chronic diseases.

I spoke with Nassima Qureshi, registered dietitian and co-founder of The Healthy Muslim, and Mehreen Karim, chef and editor at Bon Appétit, about ways to make South Asian food more nutritious while maintaining its traditional flavour.

Here are five dietitian and chef-approved ways to balance your plate of South Asian food while keeping it delicious:

1. For dishes rich in carbohydrates, add more vegetables and protein

One of the biggest trends in South Asian diets could be their reliance on refined carbohydrates and whole grains that come from rice and bread.

The carbs in rice and bread get a bad reputation from health influencers, but these cheap staples contain important nutrients like iron B vitamins, and eating carbs helps strengthen and rebuild your muscles when you work out.

Tandoori broccoli recipe ingredients

Soaking the broccoli before roasting adds flavor and texture.

Allana Akhtar/Insider

Curry over rice with a side dish roti (flat bread), however, does not provide you with the fiber, protein, and nutrients from vegetables that you need. Eating a lot of carbs can cause your blood sugar levels to spike, which eventually leads to a crash and leaves you sluggish and tired.

Qureshi said reduce your rice consumption to about a cup while you fill half the plate with fresh, cooked vegetables.

2. Soak vegetables in yogurt and spices for extra flavor – be careful not to overcook them

The most popular South Asian dishes are okra, spinach, eggplant and other vegetables, all of which are important sources of vitamins and minerals.

When preparing vegetable dishes, Qureshi said not to overcook vegetables. Overcooking strips vegetables of their bright color and can strip them of nutrients, although cooking them properly can add health benefits not found in their raw state.

Marinade for tandoori broccoli

Using similar seasonings throughout the meal keeps the dish cohesive.

Allana Akhtar/Insider

I usually add one seasonal vegetable to my South Asian meals, but garlic brussels sprouts can feel out of place alongside spicy chicken.

To keep the meal cohesive, Karim recommends soaking vegetables in yogurt, lemon, and traditional seasonings. “I realize that any kind of yogurt dressing works on more than just poultry and fish,” she said.

Karim said you can even mix ground cardamom, coriander seeds, black pepper, and other whole spices together and use the mixture as a rind on the squash for extra texture.

3. Try air frying and roasting over deep fryer for crunchy crunch

Karim said that when people look for a “healthy” dish but don’t want to sacrifice flavor and delight, they often look for a “satisfying texture.”

She adds that fried foods taste good no matter what they’re fried in part because of their crispiness. Instead of deep frying, Karim said he achieves crunch by air frying, roasting or grilling.

Tandoori broccoli comes out of the oven

Roasting adds texture to the vegetables.

Allana Akhtar/Insider

“Any dish that has a frying component, it’s a good idea to use an air fryer instead or toast in a specific location where it’s seasoned to the same flavors but stuck in the oven rather than sizzling in oil.”

I’ve seasoned the broccoli with yogurt, lemon, and spices and grilled it for a few minutes for a caramelized and slightly charred exterior.

4. Make use of vegetable proteins, which are traditionally used in South Asian cooking

Add protein to your plate with lentils, chickpeas, and other plant proteins (not to mention cheap ones).

Throughout history, the people of South Asia have made dozens of different species D (Lentils) using red, yellow and black varieties. In my house, lentils served as an easy and cheap protein when we ran out of groceries.

“Lentils are becoming more and more popular in Western cooking, thanks to the rise of the Western vegetarian style, but I would say vegan and obviously vegan. [in South Asia] “It preceded the Western obsession with it,” Karim said. “So they have mastered a lot of ways to use lentils in their cooking.”

chaat masala salad ingredients

Plant proteins are rich in fiber.

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The added vegetable protein from Quraishi contains a lot of fiber, which is a non-digestible carbohydrate that helps with gut health and can regulate blood sugar levels.

Using their advice, I chose a Chula Chat (Hummus Street Food) – A salad inspired by adding extra protein and vegetables to my plate. I gathered tomatoes, cucumbers, a can of chickpeas in the back of my pantry, and lemon and a ready-made spice mix for a quick side.

I added a spicy mix of nuts on top when serving for extra texture.

Chat Masala Salad

My salad is inspired by the popular street food of South Asia.

Allana Akhtar/Insider

5. Use a little oil and butter, but you don’t need to cut it completely

The fat adds undeniable flavor, and a cream would never suggest a chef cut it out entirely. Ghee, a form of clarified butter, and coconut oil are of cultural and religious significance in parts of South Asia.

Chicken with ginger cooked in a little oil on a frying pan

Fry the marinated chicken with a teaspoon of oil.

Allana Akhtar/Insider

The trick to fat, Qureshi said, is to reduce the amount. Reduce the oil to a teaspoon or find spray bottles to distribute it evenly over the pan. Karim recommended adding shredded cottage cheese or mashed avocado in a creamy or buttery dish to add nutrients.

And keep fried foods like samosa (vegetarian or meat-filled dumplings) and pakoras (Fried vegetables) as occasional treats instead of daily staples, Qureshi said.

Non-Western foods are healthy too

Balanced South Asian Meal

A balanced and nutritious dinner consisting of South Asian cuisine and flavours.

Allana Akhtar/Insider

Karim and Qureshi’s advice did the trick – I kept the Pakistani flavors at dinner, but successfully balanced out the carbs and fats by increasing the veggies. I felt full for the rest of the night and couldn’t wait to wake up the next day for leftovers.

Qureshi said you don’t need to sacrifice cultural foods to eat a balanced diet. Small changes made over time can lead to long-term health benefits. “You don’t have to turn everything upside down in order to be healthy,” she said.

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