Indian, Peruvian, or Vietnamese food may be just the thing to give your diet a dose of interest and fun.
Vietnamese pho with shrimp is tasty. But stick to small portions of noodles to avoid spiking blood sugar.
Following a healthy diet doesn’t have to be boring. Take your palate on a culinary adventure by sampling world cuisines that are new to you. “Variety can add taste as well as vitamins and micronutrients you may not be receiving from your standard diet,” says registered dietitian Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
A good way to investigate new cuisines is to try them first at a restaurant. Follow the rules of healthy eating: avoid creamy and deep-fried foods; go for fresh vegetables, legumes, grains, seafood, and poultry; and sample red meat only occasionally if you wish, since too much raises the risk for heart disease and some cancers. With those rules in mind, consider the following cuisines.
Staples: Lentils, chickpeas, basmati rice, coconut milk, yogurt, tomatoes, chicken, potatoes, aromatic spices (such as coriander, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, cloves, and cardamom), peanut and sesame oils.
Popular dishes: Dal, a legume puree; vegetarian or meat dishes with curry, a type of sauce made with aromatic spices; tandoori chicken, which is marinated in yogurt, seasoned with spices, and roasted in a clay pot; and baingan bharta, roasted eggplant mashed together with other vegetables, served with flatbread.
Keep in mind: “Indian food really shines with its spices, which are full of antioxidants,” says McManus. “And many dishes feature legumes, which contain protein and fiber, and are low in salt.” You won’t find beef or pork in Indian food, but you will find other sources of saturated fat, such as lamb, some fried foods, dishes made with heavy cream and clari-fied butter. Breads called naan have unhealthy refined white flour. A better choice: dishes made without sauce, such as tandoori, tikka, or bhuna dishes.
Staples: Corn, quinoa, hundreds of types of potatoes, rice, beans, avocados, beef, seafood, and chili peppers.
Popular dishes: Chupe de camarones, a shrimp chowder with potatoes and chili pepper; lomo saltado, stir-fried beef slices with tomatoes, onions, chilies, soy sauce, vinegar, and cilantro; and pollo a la brasa, marinated roast chicken with black mint sauce.
Keep in mind: “Legumes and fresh vegetables are an excellent basis for diets, with lots of fiber. But the popular Peruvian dish ceviche, a mix of raw seafood and fish marinated in citrus juice, is not fully cooked and may pose a risk for listeria,” says McManus.
Staples: Crunchy vegetables; broth-based soups (called pho); steamed white rice; rice noodles used in soups or as the base of a dish; grilled pork, chicken, and beef; pickled vegetables; lemongrass; and sauces such as sweet hoisin, spicy sriracha, and fish sauce, a briny liquid that comes from fermented fish.
Popular dishes: Pho with rich beef or chicken broths, noodles, vegetables, and meats; spring rolls, which are rice paper wraps filled with rice noodles, crunchy vegetables, and sautéed shrimp, served with peanut sauce; and stir-fried lemongrass chicken served on rice.
Keep in mind: “Rice and noodles are more likely to spike your blood sugar. Small portions are acceptable. But many dishes are high in salt, because of the fish sauces that are often used,” says McManus.
Easy way to go big on world flavor: Start small
Don’t want to try a whole meal from another cuisine? Consider using a condiment or spice, such as the following items.
Harissa is a tomato-chili paste that’s a staple in North African and Middle Eastern cooking. “A dollop of harissa enhances soup, and it’s great as a dipping sauce for fish and poultry,” says Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. If you have a sensitive stomach, look for mild versions.
Chimichurri is a South American sauce or condiment similar to pesto. It’s made with fresh parsley, oregano, garlic, oil, vinegar, and a little bit of chili pepper. “This is wonderful with pasta instead of tomato sauce, or on whole-grain breads,” says McManus. “But chimichurri is mostly oil, which can add calories quickly, so watch the amount.”
Curry powder is a south Asian spice mix usually made up of coriander, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, and chili peppers. “These spices are very healthy for you, and many have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties,” says McManus. Try curry powders in stews or on vegetables.