Nutritionist Drew Price investigates the state of food on high street Britain to find out what we’re actually eating.
A lot has changed since Saik Deen Mohamed opened the first Indian restaurant in England back in 1809 next to London’s Hyde Park. The Hindostanee Dinner and Hookah Smoking Club ultimately spawned a £3.5 billion-a-year industry consisting of some 10,000 restaurants – some amazing, some extremely bad.
And although there’s been a rise in authentic styles and supposedly healthier options recently, most restaurants still serve the thick, buttery, bastardised “curry” born of our typically British desire to drown all our meat in gravy. These dishes, as the manager of my local curry house explained to me over a pint of Cobra, bear little resemblance to traditional Indian cuisine. What’s more, menus tend to feature a huge array of options – a sign that the ingredients are unlikely to be especially fresh.
The fat of the matter
Anything that tastes as good as a curry can’t be good for you, right? Well, the news isn’t all bad. Most dishes feature plenty of healthy spices and a decent amount of veg in the gravy base. The phytonutrients in both offer a range of benefits, from antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds to chemicals that can aid fat metabolism.
Unfortunately, many of the flavour compounds in these spices are fat-soluble: in other words, to have an effect they have to be cooked in fat. This means chefs tend to use a lot of it, mostly in the form of ghee, a type of clarified butter that’s around 62% saturated fat. And while current research suggests that most types of fat (including saturated) aren’t as bad for you as previously thought, it’s still much more calorific than protein or carbohydrate, and consuming large quantities will ramp up your calorie intake quicker than you can say chicken korma. A typical tikka masala contains 50g of fat and 800 calories – 50% more than a Big Mac.
Salt is another issue, and although nutritional attitudes to it have relaxed a little in recent years, it’s worth remembering that at 3-5g per dish, a curry can contain way over half your 6g RDA, and that’s before you add salty breads, side dishes and chutneys.
So what are the healthiest options? Ideally you should avoid gravy-based meals and opt for equally delicious dry-cooked dishes such as chicken tikka or tandoori, as this is an easy way to cut out some of the fat – as well as the added sugar that sauces also contain.
Often the main problem isn’t on your plate, but next to it. At over 500 calories per portion, a naan is almost a meal’s worth in itself, and two onion bhajis can contain as much as 500 calories and 30g of fat – nearly half your RDA. There’s better news with rice – basmati is high in amylose, a slow-digesting starch that helps to control blood sugar levels – but a fat-drenched pilau can easily add another 480 calories. One option would be to choose a fibre-rich side such as chapati instead, which can also help reduce your overall carb intake by up to 40%.
How many calories are there in a curry?
- Tikka masala: 800 calories
- Naan: 500 calories
- Pilau rice: 480 calories
- Two onion bhajis: 500 calories
RECOMMENDED: Lamb jalfrezi with basmati rice and chapati recipe – 630 calories all in
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