Fat-Free Tomato Dal | Phulkas

Fat-Free Tomato Dal

Sauteing in water instead of oil might sound strange and even a little yuck to someone who loves delicious food. In fact, right now I can imagine some of you shaking your heads going, oh, come on! But trust me when I say that it makes almost no difference to the flavor of many Indian foods, like curries and dals. And it can be your waistline’s best friend.

Most Indian recipes start out with a “tadka” or “phodani” of oil, where you heat some oil then add spices like mustard, cumin, chillies, and asafoetida. The oil extracts the flavor of the spices, helping it mingle with the foods.

Most of my Indian recipes start this way too, except — having always been health conscious– I usually cut down the oil to just about a teaspoon or, at most, a tablespoon, which then gets split into several servings. But recently a great deal of research has emerged that shows cutting added fats from your diet altogether (yes, even that teaspoon) can be extremely beneficial to health. Bill Clinton, the first name in veganism today, says he’s done it, and his cardiovascular health has never been better. He’s also lost a lot of weight.Fat-free Phulkas

Now I know that some fat is essential in your diet, but many foods already contain fats– even those you wouldn’t imagine would. For instance, there are small amounts of fats in lentils, beans, grains, and most veggies and fruits, and fairly large amounts in nuts and some veggies like avocados and olives. Soymilk has fats, and so does tofu. So cutting out added fats — even the good ones like olive oil which contain the same amount of calories as the unhealthy fats– is not going to leave you missing an essential nutrient.

Still, I was one of the skeptics until I actually got started with fat-free Indian cooking, mostly after hearing about it from my good friend, Dr. Nandita Shah of the nonprofit Sharan, who travels around India with her Peas vs. Pills workshops. Nandita starts many of her recipes by sauteing in water or stock. So I decided to give it a go, and over the months I’ve made –on and off– several Indian recipes without any added fat that I’ve absolutely loved.

There are some things to keep in mind when you take oil out of the equation while making Indian food, and the chief among these is that you do not– absolutely do not– add raw whole or powdered spices to water. Spices already contain some oil, so if you even toast them on a dry skillet before you powder them, or before you add the water, you won’t go wrong. Garlic and ginger, on the other hand, will do fine when sauteed in water or on a dry skillet. You can even sputter your mustard seeds and cumin seeds in a dry skillet.

As the new year bears down on us, I am trying to find ways to make my diet even healthier than it already is because with each passing year the pounds get harder to shake off. Today, I want to share with you my recipe for a very simple but utterly flavorful dal made with absolutely no fat, but so delicious that no one would know. I like mixing this with some cooked cracked wheat (a delicious, low-glycemic alternative to rice), or just slurping it up like a soup.

This time, I served it up with some Phulkas. Phulkas are fat-free versions of that popular Indian bread, the chapati. Phulkas are rolled slightly thicker, cooked partly on a hot griddle, and finished off directly on the gas burner where they puff up into a ball. Think skinny pitas, but softer.

I didn’t have a chance to photograph my phulkas puffing up on the burner because my photographer, Desi, was not available when I made them and I couldn’t do both jobs– roasting the phulkas and photographing– at once, but I promise to get him to take some pictures over the next couple of days and post them here so you’ll know how they should look. I will also be posting more fat-free and very low-fat recipes over the next few weeks, so if you’re interested in learning more about healthy ways to cook Indian– and other– food, keep an eye out.

Now tell me, what is your new year’s resolution?

Phulkas, Fat-free Chapatis
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
(Three phulkas per serving)
Recipe type: Bread
Cuisine: Indian
Serves: 6
  • 2 cups whole-wheat chapati flour or regular whole-wheat flour
  • ½ tsp salt (use powdered salt, not granular)
  • Water for kneading
  1. Add the salt to the flour and mix well. Add water, a little at your time, and knead the dough to a firm but pliable consistency. You don't want a sticky dough because it will be hard to handle and the phulkas won't puff up.
  2. Divide the dough into 18  portions, and roll each into a circle, about 4 inches in diameter. You don't want to roll your phulkas too thin because they won't puff up if you do, and you want to roll them as evenly as you possibly can-- which means they should not be thin in some places and thick in others.
  3. Heat a cast-iron or nonstick griddle on the stove, and keep another burner free to finish the phulkas. If you have an electric stove, you can buy a steel grill (it looks like a small cooling rack) at some Indian grocery stores that you can place on top of the stove grill so your phulkas won't come in direct contact with the coils and burn.
  4. Once the griddle is very hot, place one phulka on it and when bubbles start to appear, flip it over and let it go for about 15 seconds.
  5. Light the other burner and using a pair of tongs (preferably something that won't pierce through the phulka) place the phulka directly on the flames. It should start to puff up immediately.
  6. As soon as it puffs up, turn it over and let the other side cook for 15 seconds. Be quick and watchful because you don't want your phulka to turn to cinder. That said, this is all very easy once you've gotten the hang of it.
  7. Store the prepared phulkas while you make the rest by stacking and wrapping them in a kitchen towel. Don't put them in a closed box because they'll sweat.
  8. Eat them fresh and hot. They are really soft fresh but will harden as they stand. To refresh them, zap them in the microwave for a few seconds, but they do taste best just off the stove.

Fat-Free Tomato Dal
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Recipe type: Side
Cuisine: Indian
Serves: 6
  • 1 cup tuvar dal (pigeon peas), boiled until really tender and mushy, preferably in a pressure cooker
  • 2 large tomatoes, finely diced
  • 1 large onion, finely diced
  • 1 tbsp grated ginger
  • 1 cup coriander leaves, chopped
  • 1 tbsp sambar powder (since sambar powder is usually pre-roasted, you don't need to roast this first)
  • ¼ tsp turmeric
  1. Heat a skillet and add the turmeric to it. Roast it for just about 30 seconds, stirring, and then add ¼ cup of water or vegetable stock.
  2. When the water simmers, add the onion, ginger, and half the coriander leaves. Add a pinch of salt.
  3. Saute the onions until they begin to turn translucent and get soft. Now add the tomatoes and the sambar powder and stir them well to mix. Cook, stirring, until the tomato's completely broken down. Add a tiny bit of water if necessary to help it along.
  4. Add the cooked dal and salt to taste. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer and let it cook about 10 minutes. Add water if the dal is too thick.
  5. Turn off the heat and garnish with the remaining coriander leaves.
  6. Nutrition estimate per serving: Calories 82.1, Total fat 0.4 grams, Dietary fiber 3 grams, Protein 4.3 grams, Sugar 0.1 grams
Nutrition Information
Calories: 82.1 Fiber: 3 grams Protein: 4.3 grams


I haven’t posted pictures of my little ones for a while, so I’ll leave you with some very cute shots of Opie, Pie and Lucy enjoying their Christmas treats.

(C) All recipes and photographs copyright of Holy Cow! Vegan Recipes.

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  1. GB says

    Love it! I generally use very little oil – about a teaspoon or so, but now, I am going to be trying to cut it out entirely.

    I have never made chappathis or rotis at home before – they always seems so much more intimidating that the simple idli, dosai and rice that I generally make, but I will give these Phulkas a whirl and see how they turn out.

    Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful recipes.

  2. says

    Are you a mind reader? I recently watched “Forks over Knives” and am really impressed with their fat-free, sugar free veganism. I have started taking baby steps…let’s see how far I go…

  3. says

    I was always under the impression that without oil, I won’t be able to draw out flavor from spices. After reading this ‘myth busting’ post, I am definitely going to make the switch. Looking forward to your upcoming fat free recipes.

  4. Anonymous says

    Hi Vaishali

    Wonderful recipe and cute pics of ur kids :).

    I was inspired by Susan of fat free vegan kitchen (http://blog.fatfreevegan.com/) to try various Indian dal/beans curry recipes without any oil and they taste awsome.

    Thank you for sharing ur recipe with the minute details :)
    Wish you and your family a very happy new year :)

  5. Anonymous says

    Hi vaishali,
    I am also a beleiver that every and any food can be prepared using the least amount of oil or no oil altogether. Phulkas are everyday affair in my house. sometime I treat my family with parathas, puris etc. But m also in favour of Ayurveda which says little fat(undoubtedly the healthier version) is must for the body because it acts as a lubricant. What is ur take on our ancient Ayurveda?

    God Bless

  6. says

    GB, chapatis are really easy once you get the hang of the rolling-out part. Good luck!

    Meera, It’s amazing how much research has recently emerged showing the benefits of fat-free veganism. I’ve always cooked healthy, and I don’t think I can ever give up all fat, but I like the idea of eating like this most days.

    Gayatri, I felt the same way for a long time. But toasting the spices really helps extract the flavors.

    Anonymous, thanks, and a very happy new year to you.

    Priya, thanks!

    Nisha, Kudos to you — you sound far more disciplined than I am. I love most of the Ayurvedic tenets on food, but I do disagree, very strongly, on the use of ghee– many Indians will argue that ghee is a “good fat” and that it can actually help weight loss and reduce cholesterol. But that claim is as ridiculous as it sounds– ghee is an animal fat, high in cholesterol, and just as bad for you as any saturated fat. In fact, studies in the West have found a high risk of heart disease in Indian immigrant populations because of their ghee consumption. That said, I do try to follow the Ayurvedic idea of incorporating all five flavors into food in almost anything I cook — flavor-wise, it’s always a win-win.

  7. says

    this is a great post vaishali.. with my mom constantly complaining about the need for some extra oil in the food and then complaining that she cannot shed the few excess kilos.:)

    though i dont need to get any skinnier. not cooking so muchi n oil sure does eliminate the need for the processed oils we end up using for food.
    new year is all about eating the old way.. the way we were brought up.. eating local and seasonal.. it feels good to have a super small footprint when your food comes from the farm like a mile away from you.
    love the kids pictures! have a great new year!

  8. Anonymous says

    Wow this dish looks amazing and tasty I look forward to trying it. I adore Indian food but am trying to lose weight so this fat-free version is very appreciated thank you :)

  9. Anonymous says

    Hi there,

    This is my first comment after following your recipes here for quite some time.

    I just want you tell you how glad and appreciative I am for your new fat-free recipes! I confess I’ve stayed away from a lot of your recipes because of the higher fat content and such and am so happy for this new consciousness because you are one of my favorites when it comes to the style of your cooking.

    Cheers & Happy New Year,


  10. GB says

    I tried this yesterday with a variation. it being New Year’s day, instead of the tuvar dal, I used fresh black eyed peas and collard greens. It was quite tasty and we didn’t miss the oil one bit.

    I had a hard time with the Phulkas – had to call my husband for reinforcement, but between the two of us, we got it all done.

    The kids loved the Phulkas – so did our new rescue lab mix Saphie – who had her own special itty bitty phulka.

    Looking forward to making more fat free recipes.

  11. says

    Richa, I hear you– moms always seem to think that more fat is somehow better. :) A happy new year to you.

    Anon, glad you find this useful. :)

    AMA, The stock really helps build up the flavor.

    Carol, I’m glad you like the new fat-free recipes. I do try and keep fat to a minimum in most of my recipes, but I am really enjoying cooking this way. A happy new year to you.

    GB, Saphie sounds so adorable– I can just imagine how cute she must be with her itty bitty phulka. :) Mine love all breads too, for some reason. I think it’s the carbs: no creature can resist them.
    Love the idea of collard greens and black eyed peas– appropriate indeed for a lucky start to the new year. A very happy new year to you and your family.

  12. says

    Sounds great. I’ve been “stir frying” with water for some years. It means no atomized oil in the air, no build up of grease in the kitchen besides.

  13. says

    The Dal looks amazing (actually the phulkas do too)! Just wanted to chime in regarding the ghee: it’s a highly processed animal fat that’s loaded with cholesterol and saturated fat. Definitely not healthy.

    Great tip about not adding powdered spices to water, I never would have thought of just toasting them in the pan. Awesome!

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