Indian food isn’t known for being the kind of cuisine you can cook or even eat in a hurry, but quick-service restaurant Merzi in Penn Quarter is trying to start a “food revolution” to change that.
“Merzi” means “choice” in Urdu, Hindi, and Punjabi, and the open-ended menu lets you build meals to your liking, starting with your choice of a base (rice bowl, naan bowl, roti wrap, chaat, and salad), then protein, and warm sauce or cold chutney.
“I really like Indian food—it’s highly flavorful food with lots more herbs and spices, which provide healthy phytonutrients that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects,” says this week’s expert, Jared Rice, MS, RD, HFS. But Rice says overall Merzi not the best restaurant for someone trying to eat healthy.
“One thing about Indian food is there’s lots of starch—whether you start with rice, or naan, or have starchy vegetables like potatoes, peas, and carrots,” Rice says. “I feel like the menu is missing cold vegetables.”
We asked him to show us how a healthy eater could handle the meals at Merzi—and how a less conscientious eater might order. (We’ve also included the meal bases in order of most to least healthy). Check out his picks below, and pay attention to his implied guidelines.
Worst—tandisserie chicken (white meat) and cilantro-mint chutney: “Neither [white nor dark meat] tandisserie chicken is a healthy option, and that’s most likely because of how it’s cooked,” says Rice. The tandoori chicken is cooked rotisserie style and has 320 calories and 15 grams of fat (4.5 saturated) by itself. All together, the meal contains 48 percent of your cholesterol for the day and nine grams of saturated fat.
• Best—lamb and tamarind-date chutney: “The lamb is actually a pretty lean meat and is almost identical to chicken in terms of nutrition,” Rice explains. This lunch is a snack-worthy 220 calories but still provides a satisfying 24 grams of protein.
Worst—tandisserie chicken (dark meat) and creamy tikka masala: The word “creamy” should always tip you off to high fat content—it’s likely made with cream and/or ghee, a clarified butter. And we’ve already mentioned the tandisserie chicken, which in this case has five grams of saturated fat on its own.
• Best—“vegetarian” protein and yogurt sauce: Chaat is a vegetable base of chickpeas, potatoes, onions, and red peppers, which Rice says is a great source of fiber and protein. “I’m not sure what is in the vegetarian protein—probably tofu—but either way, you’re getting full protein, and the yogurt sauce adds a little fat to balance it out.”
• Worst-—beef and creamy tikka masala: It’s not the worst thing you could eat, but with starchy rice, fattening sauce, 23 grams of fat (10 saturated), and 110 milligrams of cholesterol, you can do better.
• Best—grilled chicken and onion-tomato masala: It gets high marks for including a lean meat with a vegan sauce. It’s a fairly well-balanced meal overall, although it could use more veggies.
• Worst—lamb and red chili chutney: “Even though lamb is one of the healthy proteins, if you pair it with naan and red chili chutney the sodium is so high it seems like a typo,” Rice says. The naan alone is 470 milligrams of sodium, or 20 percent of your daily value, and the red chili somehow contains 1,140 milligrams of sodium. All told, you’re eating 1,770 milligrams of sodium (or 74 percent of your day’s worth).
• Best—grilled shrimp and onion-tomato masala: “I don’t know how big the naan is, but regardless of calories it’s all refined carbs,” Rice explains. “So I chose the leanest meat and one of the healthiest sauces.” The salty base is still a problem, but the zero saturated fat, 17 grams of protein, and only 340 calories make up for it.
• Worst—tandisserie chicken (dark meat) and buttery makani masala: At 310 calories, the roti wrap is by far the poorest base at Merzi. That said, combining it with the poorest meat option and highest-calorie warm sauce is not a good idea.
• Best—vegetarian protein and tamarind-date chutney: The meal is a solid 435 calories, and you’d have to pair this with the absolute best choices to keep the calories, sodium, and fat down.
Jared Rice is a wellness coach at Wellness Corporate Solutions.