Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
When you think about traditional, staple dishes in Indian cuisine, it’s hard to find options that are dairy-free and Paleo-friendly. You’ll discover plenty of vegetarian and plant-based options, and a whole lot of incredible flavor. But for those with dietary restrictions, creating curries, fritters and flavorful rice dishes is a no-go. That’s why Shivangi Rao, a first-generation Indian-American, has created a wholly new approach to cooking the Indian dishes passed down by her family. She’s making it easy to enjoy Indian-fusion meals that are gluten-free, Paleo and suitable for any dietary or health needs.
Back in 2019, Rao started Raody Recipes on Instagram and created a website of the same name to share recipes with her family and friends. But her unique twists on Indian cuisine wound up resonating with a far larger community of people – and now, her cookbook Mindful Indian Meals is introducing her health-conscious creations to everyone.
I spoke with Rao about the inspiration behind her cookbook, its recipes and her Paleo, gluten-free and clean approach to Indian cuisine. And I’ve got to say that once you explore these delectable dishes, you’re going to want to dive in and make them part of your regular rotation.
Rao’s approach to food centers around health
Funny enough, Rao didn’t set out to become a force in the food world – it was a path she wound up traveling after chronic health issues arose for her. Though Rao grew up enjoying a wide range of different dishes and ingredients from both her Indian and American roots, her chronic health woes began to restrict her diet. But initially, she didn’t know that it was the food she was eating that was contributing to her painful symptoms.
“It took a long time for me to get a diagnosis,” Rao explains. “One of my close friends is a nutritional therapist and suggested cutting out gluten [because it] might be triggering inflammation. I was so desperate because I was suffering from a lot of chronic inflammation – I had eczema, I was losing mobility in my left leg and arm.”
That suggestion wound up not only changing Rao’s life, but improving her painful symptoms rapidly. “I tried cutting out gluten and overnight, I regained my ability to walk,” she shares. “It was really transformational for me; I’d been suffering for so long, and I was at a point where I was losing hope.”
Going gluten-free was exactly what Rao needed to start feeling better. But it wasn’t gluten alone that was behind her chronic health issues. Over time – and with some trial, error and expert insight – she discovered that she also needed to remove other foods from her diet. A friend suggested Whole30 to Rao, and she saw even more success as she fine-tuned the foods she was eating. Ultimately, she wound up adopting a Paleo diet, incorporating more meat into her typically veg-heavy eating approach, in addition to eliminating gluten.
“It was a process,” Rao explains. “There were certain symptoms that went into remission overnight. A lot of the other issues, like digestion, took a while to regain. I’m still working on it. There are periods where I feel great and others where I have to reset a little bit.”
But the most important realization that came with Rao’s dietary experimentation was that mindful choices, both in food and in lifestyle, were key for better health. “It’s been a combination of food and mindfulness,” she says. “I discovered meditation because I realized chronic stress was impacting my health as well.”
From there, Rao set out to revamp her go-to recipes and the foods she turned to regularly, working to make them fit her new dietary restrictions.
Rao is bringing together health-minded ingredients and different cultures together in every recipe
While discovering which foods were at the root of her health issues was a relief to Rao, it also brought some sadness. Raised in Michigan with two Indian parents, she realized she’d have to give up the dishes she’d been enjoying since childhood – and it felt like a loss of her heritage.
“Indian food is filled with beautiful spices and ingredients, but a lot of them were not going to fit the newfound diet that would suit my body. I can’t have basic foods I grew up with; I can’t have a lot of rice or even things like chickpeas or legumes or lentils. These are core staples of Indian food,” Rao explains. “All of the things I learned to cook from my mom and grandmas, I lost. My mom was sad too; it was part of the culture she’d hoped to pass on to me and my kids.”
But Rao didn’t simply give up the foods she knew and loved. Instead, she decided to merge the flavors and dishes of her heritage with her new eating principles and make something entirely different (though familiar!).
“I missed the flavors and foods of my home cooking,” Rao says. “So I started just experimenting, like replacing legumes with root veggies that would give the right consistency. I started making fusion food and incorporating a lot of our spices into foods I grew up eating as a kid in the US, like mac and cheese or burgers.”
As she began adapting recipes for herself, Rao shared the results on an Instagram where only friends and family could see them. Funny enough, she didn’t really set out to bring her gluten-free, Paleo and Indian-inspired dishes to a larger audience – that was her husband’s idea!
“My husband suggested sharing [my recipes] openly,” Rao shares. “He said, ‘Maybe there’s someone out there who’s Indian and also suffering.’ I found a whole community of people from all different cultures who were suffering from illnesses or digestive issues [and] looking for more exciting foods that fit their journeys and their diets.”
That created a new drive – and a new goal – for Rao. Instead of simply cooking for herself, she decided to create more mindful, healthful recipes for a far larger community.
“I’ve got a masters in public health, and India is one of the countries with the highest rates of diabetes and heart disease,” Rao explains. “I discovered quite a bit of the Whole30, Paleo, gluten-free community. I can count on one hand the number of Indian individuals who’ve found this way of eating. There are many people who can tolerate high sugar, grains, et cetera. But everyone can agree on cutting back on certain ingredients – like sugar, everyone can agree that sugar is probably not the best thing to consume every day.”
And Rao, it turns out, was just the person to speak to this audience. From there, Raody Recipes started to grow, and Rao began exploring, experimenting and perfecting her mindful, gluten-free and Paleo approach to both Indian and American cuisine.
Learning – and perfecting – by trial and error
As Rao tried out different eating approaches for herself, she began to master the basics of cooking with nontraditional ingredients and for her specific dietary restrictions through some trial, some error and some helpful guidance. “Paleo taught me how to bake in a certain way, how to use grain-free flours, basic things like that,” she says.
Gluten-free flours and alternative grains weren’t the only change. “I grew up mostly plant-based. 90 percent of my food was vegetarian,” Rao notes. But when her health issues became particularly problematic, she realized more meat – not less – was beneficial for her unique needs. “I wasn’t a huge meat eater, and all of a sudden I had to have meat as part of my diet,” she continues.
And it wasn’t as easy as simply adding meat into her recipes. Rao went Paleo, which required a whole different kind of learning curve. “I had to figure out what Paleo was and what worked for me within that framework,” she says.
But there was another layer to Rao’s health-minded recipes. She wasn’t just swapping out gluten-filled ingredients for gluten-free alternatives or adding Paleo-friendly ingredients into her favorite dishes. She was taking recipes she’d loved as a child (and well into adulthood) and revamping them, pulling inspiration from her family, her Indian roots and even the American regions in which she lived over the years. Rao was creating an Indian-American-healthful mashup, getting creative with everything from the ingredients to the spices to the flavor combinations – and she made each dish work for a variety of different dietary needs or restrictions.
Throughout her blog and her new cookbook, Rao recreated classic recipes and added fresh new twists. As she explains, “Certain dishes are very traditional and have the same textures, spices, flavors. There are other recipes that I grew up with in the Midwest and South. I [also] love creating recipes from a visual standpoint to mimic dishes that are familiar, like my Indian Caprese Salad. It’s a visual play, but the ingredients make it Indian.”
The Mumbai Shrimp Sliders featured in Mindful Indian Meals are another example of Rao’s creative approach. “The meat is from Goa, where they eat a lot of seafood,” she says. But they aren’t just a Paleo version of these Indian shrimp sliders; instead, she combined them with a recipe she learned from her mother. “One thing my mom made all the time when I was little was shrimp fritters that were freaking delicious. I made small changes, [like using] cassava flour; it’s pretty starchy and will bind everything. I put in the spices that we use. It has the same flavor profile, but I swapped out the flour. It’s simple things like that.”
Ultimately, all of the recipes came back to one key question. “How do I take something I loved as a kid and infuse Indian flavors into it? I’m using these methods I used early on, but then I add all the flavors in there to make it more Indian and more delicious,” Rao says.
Mindful Indian Meals is a cookbook that’s inclusive, diverse and full of rich flavor
After much recipe creation and testing, Rao’s Mindful Indian Meals cookbook came together in a beautiful way – and she even did all of the photography for it!
“The cookbook was the culmination. I wanted it on paper,” Rao explains. “This was such a huge chapter of my life, and I want my daughter to be able to know our culture and our food, but also how to eat in a mindful way. I hope my daughter can look at this book as a source of inspiration and comfort.”
In addition to creating a lasting legacy and gorgeous memory for her own family, Rao also made a cookbook that deserves a place in every kitchen. While it includes pages of gluten-free, Paleo and Indian recipes, it’s really a kitchen tool that includes a little something for everyone, regardless of dietary restrictions.
“I intentionally wanted a variety of recipes in [the book]. At the foundation, [the recipes] are all gluten-free, but I know that not everyone needs to be eating gluten-free” Rao notes. “There are levels; maybe you can handle something gluten-free with a little starch, for example. I wanted to offer a different set of recipes for people with different issues.”
The biggest takeaway? Even if you’re living with dietary restrictions or health concerns, “… you don’t have to restrict yourself. 10 years later, I’m finding that I can eat more things because I healed my gut,” Rao says. “This cookbook should be a tool or resource for people because if they just had this knowledge, it could really help them. If you pay attention to what you’re putting in your body, it can make a world of difference. I truly believe in listening to your body.”
Additionally, Rao hopes her beautiful cookbook can also bring Indian food to a whole new audience – and mindful eating to more people.
“There’s not a lot of Indian representation in the Paleo and gluten-free worlds,” Rao points out. “I want the [cookbook’s] audience to be Indian and people of all different backgrounds. I want to see more of my culture being reflected in this space. In general, people of color are a group that deserves recognition – I want to be representative of that. I want to show how rich and diverse food can be, and how you can transform it to meet your needs.”
Never cooked Indian, gluten-free or Paleo meals before? Don’t worry – Rao has created not only recipes in Mindful Indian Meals, but also a wealth of resources for those who are new to everything from staple Indian spices to gluten-free ingredients. The first section of the cookbook is dedicated to setting up your kitchen, your pantry and your spice rack, with tips, ingredient suggestions and grocery shopping lists created just for first-timers.
“[In the cookbook] I have a checklist of ingredients I use a lot of,” Rao explains. “You can take this to the grocery store and stock your pantry. It’s filled with things you can use in general for cooking, and it’s helpful for people who are new to Paleo, gluten-free or Indian – or all of these.”
Once you’ve used these helpful guides, you can dive in and make Rao’s recipes for yourself. Make sure to grab a copy of Shivangi Rao’s Mindful Indian Meals for yourself – it’s going to become a staple in your kitchen.
And we’re lucky that Rao shared some of her favorites right out of her cookbook for Clean Eating readers! You can make her Mumbai Shrimp Sliders below.
And when you’re ready for dessert, make Rao’s Kaju Katli Kulfi Bars as a sweet, totally-good-for-you treat.
Mumbai Shrimp Sliders
Shrimp is a beloved ingredient in Maharashtrian cuisine, especially in Mumbai, and it’s often made with tropical ingredients like fresh chili peppers and coconut. This recipe is inspired by Rao’s mom’s favorite Mumbai shrimp fritters, which she prepared with chickpea flour and lots of spices. Rao turned her recipe into a grain-free slider, which is perfect for entertaining. The fritters are also delicious on their own, dipped in chutneys.
- Combine the serrano peppers, cilantro, ginger, garlic, and lemon juice in a blender or food processor and pulse until a paste forms. Add ¾ of the shrimp to the mixture in the blender and pulse until combined with the paste.
- Transfer the paste to a large bowl and add the garam masala, turmeric, salt, and black pepper. Stir until the spices are well blended.
- Chop the remaining shrimp into small pieces and mix them into the shrimp paste. Add the cassava flour and mix it thoroughly into the paste. Using clean hands, grab ⅓ cup of the batter and form it into a 1/2-inch-thick patty. Repeat until all of the batter has been formed into patties.
- In a large pan over medium-high heat, warm the avocado oil. Add as many patties as you can, without crowding them, and fry on each side for 5 to 6 minutes, until golden brown. Remove to a plate and repeat until all of the patties have been fried.
- Place the patties on the grain-free buns or in wraps made with the lettuce. Top with the tomato slices and onion, and serve with the chutney or aioli of your choice.