On the Table

On the Table: Easy ways to eat more Indian dishes

Contributing CorrespondentMarch 4, 2014 

— A food revolution is underway in India, and it’s transforming the way that people prepare meals.

As families grow smaller and more people live alone, they are buying fully prepared meals instead of fixing them from scratch. I reported on this trend a few months ago and the rise of the fast food industry here.

Basic Indian foods such as dal and chana masala – a chickpea entree made with onions, tomatoes and spices – are staples now at the supermarket. They’re sold in the freezer section or in aseptic packages that need no refrigeration.

The evolution of convenience foods in India started with changes in the ways that raw ingredients were sold. For example, it used to be common to get whole spices ground freshly on the street or lentils and beans processed into flour.

Now those ingredients are sold preground or as a partial product, such as batters for pancake-like idlis and dosas.

Next came the outsourcing of tedious prep work such as cleaning and chopping vegetables. Instead of shelling your own peas, you can buy them preshelled and frozen, or buy carrots that somebody else peeled and diced.

You can also buy the fully prepared product.

Examples include papadum – large, flat, crispy, peppery crackers – condiments such as chutneys and raitas and appetizers such as samosas.

The upside to all of this convenience: Plant-based Indian meals are rich in healthful ingredients such as legumes, grains and vegetables. Better to eat a quick and nutritious meal at home – even if you bought it ready-made – than to rack up big bills and calories at a restaurant.

The downside: You’ll pay more for ready-made, though for small households, that cost may be offset by less food waste, since larger quantities of ingredients often spoil before they can be used. Nuances found in home-cooked meals may also be lost in mass-produced products.

But in India, shoppers have deemed the convenience a tradeoff worth making. Fortunately for us, those products have also come to U.S. supermarkets and specialty stores such as Trader Joe’s.

The bottom line: It may cost more, but you can still eat healthful traditional Indian foods without spending hours in the kitchen. They’re doing it in Delhi, and we can, too.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor of health policy and management at UNC-Chapel Hill. Reach her at suzanne@onthetable.net; follow her on Twitter, @suzannehobbs.

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