I just know this is going to be one of those rambling posts…don’t go away!
When I went to grad school in the US in the late 90s there was much that impressed me. Common knowledge of everyday science was not the least of them. We didn’t get hungry – we experienced a sugar-low; we didn’t need a cup of coffee or tea – but our bodies were craving caffeine. The chemistry behind food and digestion was common knowledge. I, on the other hand, had never thought of food or hunger in this manner ever.
Fancy cafés just outside the Campus walls were great places to hang out and enjoy that giant cup of java, and a mammoth cookie. There was no Starbucks where I was! And I was in Manhattan! Kansas .
When I returned four short years later, I had modified my teenage dream (though not a teenager anymore) of owning a bookstore. I now dreamed of a bookstore with a café.
Yes, America changed my dream. As it is doing for all of metro-India right now. In my opinion, the US, with it’s bindaas culture and lifestyle, appeals to the resurgent Indian like no other country does. Interaction between cultures is not new; it usually works towards the development of all involved.
While I traveled across half the world and spent a few years there before my dream altered, the present media driven change is so fast paced as to be almost sudden. Accents are changing as we slip into Levis. And our attitudes to food are changing too.
We’ve come a long way from how our mothers and grandmothers cooked and fed the family. But then our lifestyles too have undergone drastic changes. What did they know about fat and calories? Do we cook smarter today? Are we healthier today?
I have thought about these questions more since I started to write this blog. Some of the recipes that have found their way here are ones that I have enjoyed since childhood. They are as delicious as their memories, even in their lower-fat avtars. But I noticed that I was cooking the fried goodies less often; poories only once or twice a year!
While that’s all fine and dandy for a sedentary worker like me, what about my active teenage son? He’s a lean and thin fellow who is grossed out by the sight of oily tiffin boxes of his classmates (he shudders that B brings oily subzi with her parantha), an attitude that obviously we are responsible for.
Even I can take a lesson in moderation from him. Irrespective of what’s for lunch, his portion size does not change. Okay, I’ll admit, he eats less if I serve khichdi . But serve him poories, aloo paranthas, biryani, or just plain roti-subzi, he eats only till he is full. He loves mutsch but you cannot make him overeat. I did do something right somewhere.
But why doesn’t he get some of his favourite foods more often, like we used to in our childhood? He’s more active a kid than I ever was! And I didn’t turn out too bad. I’m no waif, but I wouldn’t call myself fat. Nor does TH (dare). Though I do like to tuck in on these aforementioned meals!
Is it because somewhere along the line I decided that poories are unhealthy? Are they? Made with whole wheat fresh-kneaded atta, fried in good old peanut oil, and served with station-bhaaji, and maybe some mustard-oil based pickle, why should they be unhealthy? The only unhealthy bit, by today’s standards, might be the amount of oil in that single meal. But will a weekly greasy meal kill me?
For a healthy person (with no major medical conditions):
Whole wheat atta: super healthy
Peanut oil: super healthy – unsaturated fat, zero trans-fat, zero cholesterol, ideal for deep frying.
Boiled potatoes: one of the best ways to retain all the goodness of this wonder veggie that is full of nutrients and fiber.
Spiced with cumin, turmeric, hing, green chillies, and coriander leaves (as far as I know, all super spices with health benefits some of which are being admitted by modern medicine as well)
Salt: indispensable to the optimal running of the human machine, more so in India where it is hot.
It seems to me that a brunch of poori-bhaji and similar food is super healthy even when consumed once a week . That’s what my son would like to hear.
We (Indians) are good consumers of knowledge, but we need to question the relevance and applicability of Western research to us. Let us take the example of olive oil that has gained popularity in the United States. The Indian middle-class with its love of everything ‘Westernized’ is the next big market. But, is olive oil a better choice for us? Olive oil is being pushed as the healthier cooking medium. Healthier in comparison with saturated fats like butter and lard, not in comparison to peanut oil or mustard oil!
As long as you’re using fats and oils sparingly in your cooking and preparation, it would be fine to use any one of the following “good” oils. All of the following oils are low in saturated fats and trans fats. Some have high concentration of monounsaturated fats such as olive oil. Choose corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, soy oil or canola oil if you wish to fry foods as these oils have higher smoke point. It is best not to fry with olive oil as its smoke point is only about 190C/375F (meaning it will catch fire before it is hot enough for us).
Good Cooking Oils:
o canola oil
o flax seed oil
o peanut oil
o olive oil
o non-hydrogenated soft margarine
o safflower oil
o sunflower oil
o corn oil
Mustard oil is not even on the list. So naturally, you may assume, it’s so bad it is out of competition. That is only because most of this expensive research is done in the Western world where it is has not been discovered yet. But mustard oil is even better – not only does it have all the good qualities of peanut oil, it also has the optimum proportion of omega-3 versus omega-6 fatty acids.
So, as we open ourselves to the goodness of olive oil in India we must remind ourselves that it may not be best suited for our cooking methods. How many Indian recipes can you think of that do not start with, “Heat oil in a karahi…!”
Then there is the daily warning regarding the dangers of consuming red meat, how we ought to replace it with white. In India, red meat means goat, which is the leanest of meats. You cannot cook it without adding a liberal amount of oil, unlike beef which is much fattier. I flipped burgers in the Students Union, I should know. Therefore, red goat meat is not as bad for you as you have been led to think. Besides who in India eats meat at every meal?! According to FAO, per capita consumption of meat in India is 5kg (for 2002)! An average American consumes 123kg of meat (1998 figures) in a year! So cutting back on your red meat is a relative thing. I (and my son) need to eat some more mutsch I think!
Indian goat meat is also more ethically sound than our chicken. For North India, Rajasthan is the main provider of meat. Almost 70% of Rajasthan is desert, and the rest categorized under arid and semi-arid zone, where rainfall is uncertain and never more than 450mm. In such a harsh landscape, livestock farming, especially goat rearing, is the primary source of livelihood for small and marginal farmers. Goats are reared on common lands so they could be termed free range. The less said about our ‘eggy’ industrial-farm raised chicken the better. I don’t know what they are being fed, or injected with in those cramped places.
So, we need to do our own thinking before deciding which is the healthier meat for us.
Let’s get to the maligned carbs now. Obesity is on the rise in Indian metros. McDonalds and Pizza Hut with their fast food offerings heavy on refined carbs are adding to the problem. Jostling with obesity are other newer food related disorders. Anorexia. Everyone wants to be unnaturally waif thin and we’ll try all the fads to get there. With Atkins, welcome the low carb diet trend.
I cannot imagine ever being on a low carb diet! That thali is going to look very forlorn if I take out the rice or roti from it. And I’m going to look very unhappy (which will stress me further and then I’ll need to reach out for the sugary cookie… ). Rice and wheat have been our staples forever; our systems have evolved to deal with such diets. As Barbara notes, “Asians can stay slender on high-carb diets that include a great deal of rice and vegetables, while many Americans will grow fat if fed a great deal of carbohydrates.”
So, while it may be good to replace the refined starches with whole grains, it may not be in our best interests to resize our carbohydrate proportions just because the West has concluded so. It has concluded so for its people.
Inclusion of jowar (sorghum) and bajra (pearl millet) into our diet would, then, seem like what the doctor ordered. They are our ‘survival’ grains that can grow even in areas that have not been touched by the ‘green revolution’, where water (irrigation) is scarce. It might be a good idea to stay connected to these grains also because water scarcity will soon enough be a real problem.
And what about the heart-healthy grain that urban India is being pushed to include in their daily diet: Quaker Oats? (Not to mention Kellogg’s Sugar Bombs for kids ) Oats have been certified by the American Heart Association as a food that can lower the risk of a heart failure. But has anybody researched the ‘poor’ grains mentioned earlier? Who knows it might be better for us to reintroduce ourselves to ragi (finger millet) and sattu; maybe they lower the heart risk even more. These will probably never be grown by the big agricultural corporations and therefore, their health benefits never researched.
Shall we, then, ignore the nutrients behind the food and think about larger ethical issues? In our rush to mimic the affluence of the West we have picked on the superficial aspects only. The widespread awareness about food and its connection to land and people is reflected in the common American citizen’s involvement in ideas such as Farmers’ Markets and Community Supported Agriculture that are becoming strong movements, while we are moving from the weekly rehri bazaars (street markets) to the air-conditioned supermarket to buy our bananas.
These are ethical questions which we can try to answer or ignore. I just want to put them out there.
But I do think we should think about food as we always have. Food is not just nutrition for the body; it is nourishment for the soul. Take a little time with your food: while cooking, while eating. Listen to science; but listen to your senses more. Science changes everyday, reversing directions often.
Are you still with me? I can’t leave you without a recipe just right for a party with old friends! Come, have some poori-bhaji – A Mad Tea Party is one year old!
(To be continued tomorrow…)