India is a vast country. And this vastness presents within it an eclectic mix of culture that can make even an Indian overwhelmed with the diversity of it all. With so many different languages, beliefs, religions, regions, rituals, and traditions, it is only natural to find that the food too of India is visibly different in look, feel and taste every few miles. If chhole bhature is part of an Indian menu, so it the idli sambhar, if bhakar vadi is eaten with relish in some parts of the country, so it the aloo posto.
It is therefore extremely difficult to generalise the food of a particular part of the country as the staple diet of the 1 million people and then tag it as healthy or unhealthy. But for the sake of argument, if we really did want to find out if the delectable platter of Indian food was healthy or not, we could define the thali as a perfect representative of the multitude of Indian dishes.
A thali whether it is served in the state of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab or Kerala usually has a rice dish, a wheat item, green vegetable, optional non-vegetarian curry dish, a veg curry, a lentil dish, some fried snacks, a curd dish, varied chutneys and pickles and a sweet to end the feast. Even if the everyday home meal is not this elaborate in an Indian home, it still has most of these dishes and it shows that Indians prefer to include every essential nutrient in their meal even if they are not consciously referring to the food chart.
The Ancient Secret
India’s food is more often than not, not a recipe printed in a cook book but more like grandmother’s gift that are passed on from one generation to the other like heirloom jewellery. If you go back in time and really wish to know the source of all these diverse food the secrets lie with Ayurveda.
The makers of this ancient science respected nature as the provider and the healer. They were particularly curios about the different effects of natural herbs, trees, fruits, roots, flowers etc. As their knowledge about these natural sources increased so did the richness of the food of India.
These practitioners of Ayurveda soon realised that the food that was eaten for the maximum benefit of the body, mind and soul was one that had all the elements of taste in place -sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. They did not analyse food as a whole in terms of calories but rather minutely dissected each and every ingredient that went into the making of the food and its role in the body functions. And so, haldi or turmeric powder was put to fight inflammatory bowel diseases and for liver protection. Ginger was added to relax blood vessels, stimulate blood flow and relieve pain and also to ease nausea and inhibit vomiting. The rice and chapattis were the main carbohydrate and mineral source, the bowl of dal, the essential protein source.
The ultimate result was a platter that contained food that integrated all principle guardians of health – the proteins, carbohydrates, minerals, fats, vitamins, fibres and the water needs of a person. And though with time regional variations have given importance to one item more than the other, the basic formula of an Indian food platter remains that same even after so many generations have passed by since the advent of Ayurveda.
The Hot and Spicy Myth
“Indian food is spicy.” Those who have often been heard saying this have definitely never tasted the sweet Gujarati kadi, the appam and coconut milk stew of Kerala or the tomato mishti chutney of Bengal.
Indeed Indians are liberal towards their spices. We do use the cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, cumin, fennel, mustards seeds in most of our dishes but it is not an overzealous attempt of adding extra spice to our lives but an intelligent and well thought out process of including and excluding spices to enhance the taste of a dish and blend in the healthy goodness of the spice with it.
There is a reason why nature chose the South Asian belt to be home to the best spice gardens of the world. It is because just like the climate suits the spices to grow well in these regions, it also makes the people living here more vulnerable to heat strokes, gastro- intestinal problems and more. Therefore the spices, herbs, chillies added to the dishes only provide a guarding blanket from all the illnesses. Cinnamon is anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory. Cumin is an excellent source of iron, it aids digestion and it has cancer-fighting properties. Coriander helps control blood sugar and helps lower cholesterol.
Those who are used to the bland, salt and pepper taste of food may definitely find the spicy route that Indian food takes, very hot and revolting to their digestive systems but here it is as much a matter of health as a matter of taste.
Clarifications about the Butter
Ghee or Indian Clarified Butter as it is known in the western world does not gather the same love and affection there as it does in India. It is hounded as a fattening agent and there is no denying that ghee is the least favourite food product of the calorie conscious. But again in India, ghee is not merely a substitute for oil or butter. It transcends the realms of food and is used in religious ceremonies as well as for healing.
Ghee is primarily composed of saturated fat. It contains 14 grams of fat per tablespoon and therefore definitely no advised for those with high cholesterol, with cardio vascular problems and with conditions of the heart running in the family.
But the advantage of using ghee is that even if you do not cook the complete food in ghee and just add a few drops of it as an end-of- the-cooking-garnish, it enhances the taste of the food like nothing else. Where you might need 4 tablespoons of oil or butter, just a single tablespoon of ghee is enough to add to the richness of the meal. And most households do use ghee in exactly that way, whether it is for giving tadka to the dals or for augmenting the taste of the biryani. There was a time when the aroma of ghee whiffed from the kitchen while creating each and every meal, but now that extravaganza is limited to feast meal preparations and for special occasions in most Indian homes.
Ghee is said to stimulate the secretion of stomach acids to help with digestion, while other fats, such as butter and oils, slow down the digestive process and can sit heavy in the stomach. It is said to help with ulcers, constipation, and increase the health of the skin and eyes. Many home remedies include ghee as it is also said to promote learning and increased memory.
Healthy Indian Food
Most Indian restaurants in Western Countries are typically North Indian joints serving chicken tikka masala, and spicy kebabs, Punjabi chhole and their own version of biryani. If that is your definition of Indian food, you have just known the tip of the iceberg.
To really enjoy the authentic, you have to enter the homes of Sikkim where thukpa is being prepared by a caring mom. Or you have to go to Karnataka to enjoy the charismatic taste of besi bela bhaat. You might travel to the homes of Goa to become a fan of the authentic vindaloo masala or you may go to Gujarat to get heavenly delight eating khandvi and undhiyo.
Giving importance to each and every taste bud and each and every nutrient required by the body, Indian food is healthy and heavenly all at the same time.