As you get increasingly bombarded with generic junk food, you may have become more used to overlooking the nutritional benefits steeped in the rich food habits of various communities than you’d want. From the choice of ingredients to methods of cooking, there’s a lot to learn from indigenous food culture, say experts.
Nutritionist Sheela Tanna considers makai ki roti and sarson ka saag as one of Indian cuisine’s healthiest combinations. “It works even better for those on a gluten-free diet. The Punjabis’ love for lassi, curd and paneer is worth borrowing from, especially for vegetarians. Also, tandoorgrilling is a terrific form of cooking that cooks the food fast while sealing in all the nutrients. Don’t ruin it, though by adding butter.”
But while jotting notes on delicacies across India, you may have to wait for the right weather. Chef Joy Bhattacharya of Trident says a lot governs the wide spectrum of Indian cuisine — from the locals adapting to the region’s natural produce (abundance of coconut-based seafood on the coasts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala) to foods that suit their climate. “The Kashmiri Wazwan, for instance, is liberal in its use of whole spices that keep your body warm. Likewise, Kahwa (Kashmiri green tea) is a mix of crushed spices which warm your system. While having such Kashmiri staples may not be ideal at other times in Mumbai, you can certainly try them this winter.”
Bhattacharya points out how Rajasthani cuisine, which hovers around accompaniments that last longer, can teach us about beating the microbes. “Since the weather there is dry, Rajasthanis don’t keep their chutneys wet. So, the lasoon ki chutney or bajre ka choorma is kept dry to save it from catching air or moisture, and thereby going stale.”
Foods can be both, delicious and healthy if we retain the authenticity, feels Tanna. “We must not be swayed by this urban fixation to top everything with butter or cheese. While Gujarati fare gets flak for being fatrich, authentic Gujarati food has everything tossed on a charcoal-fired sigdi — wheat rotis, bajra rotlas, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and brinjals.
Being oil-free, these are extremely healthy.” As for choosing oils, food writer Vikram Doctor finds the hoopla over olive oil “infuriating”, given the amazing variety of healthy cooking oils India offers. “People are falling over each other to buy olive oil without knowing if they are buying genuine ones. However, they have neglected the health benefits of various kachi ghani (pure) oils that each community prefers to use, like sesame or mustard oil,” he says.
Bengali cuisine, which uses a lot of mustard oil (good fats, increases appetite), is known for its fixation with fish. “Not only do Bengalis eat a lot of fat-free, first-class protein in the form of fish, they eat it right by using it as a curry with rice or steaming it, which even the Parsis do with their patra fish. By frying fish, you lose out on a lot,” Tanna says. What also underlines Bengali food are the use of coconut milk (strengthens bones) and panchphoran masala (a spice blend of equal proportions of fenugreek, fennel, kalonji, jeera and dry coriander), says Bhattacharya. “Apart from the flavour, all the spices have health benefits. Fenugreek lowers sugar levels, and fennel has digestive properties,” he adds.
Variety in diversity
While the US has one kind of millet, we have almost a dozen such as jowar, bajra, nachni, kuthu, amaranth, jhangora and varai, says Doctor. “While these are often overlooked, you can fortify your diet by making flour out of them, or by cooking them broken or whole,” he says.
Consulting nutritionist Shwetha Bhatia points out the use of healthier rice variants — parboiled rice (ukada chawal) and red rice — in the South. “Maharashtrian and Gujarati food relies on peanuts, which are high in monounsaturated fats, fibre and niacin, and jaggery which is a good digestive,” she says.
In fact, it’s the assemblage of nourishing ingredients that’s common among Indian cuisines. In Maharashtra, misal, for instance, packs in a nutritive mix of pulses like matki, moong and chana. Doctor also stresses on the importance of varied souring agents. “In Tamil Nadu, it’s tamarind. Maharashtrians use kokum, Gujaratis use curd. In the North, it’s anaardana or amchur. Since a lot of our food is starchy, the acid in the sour offsets that,” he says.