Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Food : April 30, 2000
Why we eat the way we do
Ruth N. Davidar
The author is a nutritionist and food writer.
When I used to teach in Mumbai, a senior colleague would wonder aloud, "Will my daughter choose Sundance today?" referring to a hip-and-happening eatery where all the city's smart set gathered. Her main worry was the direct bearing her college-going child's dining trends would have on her purse. "Is she eating right?" would have been, in my view, a more genuine fear, given that we were both faculty members in the same department - nutrition.
If you are urban and middle-class, then being upwardly mobile necessarily means having an abiding interest in fitness and food. Nothing alarming really except that it could be fashionable to have Baywatch in mind when you train, and to fret endlessly over whether or not to have melon for afters. In the West debates rage over how foods should be combined ("Starches and proteins cannot be mixed, right? How is that done") and which yoghurt is best ("Pasteuarised or bio?"). These can be safely given a miss if only we stop to consider why we eat the way we do.
Let us start with food combining. The average Indian is basically vegetarian. Health pundits from across the ocean will caution that vegetable foods do not contain complete proteins. Mostly true. All proteins, whether from animal or plant sources, are made up of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Nine of these amino acids are considered essential because the body cannot synthesise them and they have to be supplied in the diet. Animal foods are more likely to contain all of these essential amino acids, while plant proteins could be lacking in one or more of them. This deficiency is, however by the clever combination of food groups. Almost every Indian meal is a mixture of cereals and pulses (dhals). Rice and sambhar, rotis and rajmah, idlis and dosais, dhoklas and khichidi. Few depart from the dal-chawal-roti routine. On the surface, it may appear to be a reflection of the eating habits of the people of a particular region of the subcontinent.
A closer look will reveal that when cereals and pulses are combined the essential amino acid deficiencies of each individual group are compensated for. The soundness of the Indian way of food combining is receiving scientific recognition today, but we have been doing this for centuries.
Experts will also tell you to watch your intake of iron and calcium in vegetarian diets. Here again, typically Indian food combinations help with the absorption of these minerals. True, the availability of iron from vegetable sources is never very satisfactory, but vitamin C, for instance, helps to overcome this problem by assisting in the conversion of iron to the form that is readily absorbed. In aloo aur palak ki bhaaji the iron that is trapped in spinach is released by the vitamin C found in potatoes. Likewise, substances like oxalates prevent the absorption of calcium (and magnesium) abundant in green leafy vegetables. A traditional Indian recipe like palak paneer circumvents this obstacle. While the calcium in the greens remains in the bound form, the calcium in paneer is readily and easily absorbed.
Another food combination of immense significance in our cooking is the use of fish and coconut together. We have all heard that excess cholesterol in our food is not a good idea. But few know that there are good and bad types of cholesterol. High-density lipoproteins or HDL is the good cholesterol because it keep the arteries clear. LDL or low-density lipoprotein is the bad cholesterol which is responsible for heart attacks and strokes. In the body, mature coconut which comprises largely saturated fat is likely to be converted to LDL cholesterol, whereas fish, even oily fish, increases the levels of HDL cholesterol. Moreover, fish has a group of heart-friendly substances called Omega-3 fatty acids. When fish and coconut are the main ingredients in a Goan fish curry, the potential harm that coconut could cause is diminished by the protective shield that fish provides. Even prawns which are rich in cholesterol do not appear to have an adverse effect when eaten in this combination.
Interestingly, curds is used extensively in Indian cooking. It could be assumed that milk was allowed to ferment to make it more palatable because of the lack of refrigeration in the old days. However, it has significant nutritional benefits too. When milk sugar or lactose is allowed to ferment naturally, lactic acid is formed by the activity of certain bacteria. This lactic acid promotes the absorption of calcium especially when phosphorus and protein are also available in the same food. Milk that is converted into curds has all these factors - another reason why getting sufficient calcium from a typically Indian diet is not a cause for concern. Further, curds used as a marinade does not just flavour and tenderise foods like meat. It is now known that lactic acid (as found in curds) is an effective antiseptic when heated (as in cooking). Therefore, meat marinated in curds and then cooked would have fewer micro-organisms.
Thankfully, we are still heavily dependent on seasonal fruits and vegetables. This has the advantage of our bodies receiving the nutrients we need at a particular time, for none of us is truly aware of the subtle changes that take place within that necessitates an adjustment in our intake of food. However, some nutrients like vitamin C are needed every day, throughout the year, and we cannot wait for vitamin C-rich foods like guavas to arrive in their due season. This is where sprouting comes to the rescue. While dried pulses have no vitamin C whatsoever, when they are soaked in water and allowed to sprout, their vitamin C content rises dramatically.
Longer sprouts have more vitamin C. Sprouting has other benefits too. The iron in pulses is largely bound to phytates, compounds that render iron unavailable for absorption. Sprouting breaks this bond, and the iron is readily utilised in the body, especially since the vitamin C also present creates the right environment for absorption. Maltose or malt sugar, a more easily digestible form of carbohydrate, is formed only when grains and pulses are allowed to germinate. Also, proteins are available as amino acids, the fundamental units of all proteins. Sprouting of whole grams is routine in parts of India like Maharashtra, reflecting the sensible eating habits of our people.
Seemingly commonplace aspects of Indian cooking like roasting spices and condiments to prepare typical spice mixes such as garam masala (North India), panch phoron (West Bengal) or sambhar podi (South India), on analysis, suggest instinctive nutritional knowledge. A substance called acetylcholine which assists in the transmission of nerve impulses in the body is released or developed only when coriander and cummin seeds, black pepper, cardamom and the like are gently roasted.
Another feature that distinguishes Indian cooking is tempering (tadka/bhagar/thallikkiruthu). Tempering involves heating a little oil to which small amounts of mustard seeds, cumin seeds, black gram dhal, curry leaves, asafoetida or other spices are added. The result is an undeniably Indian flavour and aroma. But tempering has more to offer. Just as there are essential amino acids, so also essential fatty acids have to be supplied in the diet. The vegetable oils used in tempering and ingredients like mustard seeds and black gram dhal have these essential fatty acids. Additionally, certain vitamins, namely, vitamins A (or its precursor carotene), D, E and K, found in foods like carrots, greens and cauliflower, are soluble only in fats, and require a medium to release and promote their utilisation in the body. Tempering once again proves invaluable. The carotene in curry leaves, a popular tempering ingredient in the South, is automatically transferred to the food by this process. Many of the vegetable oils used in tempering are also rich in vitamin E. Tempering of gas-forming dhals with cummin seeds and asafoetida is to benefit from their carminative properties.
Traditional cookware once enjoyed pride of place in our food practices with very good reason. Iron vessels like karhais help to increase the level of iron in the food, thereby averting anaemia. And when acid foods like tamarind, tomatoes, mango powder (amchoor), lime juice or vinegar are added to foods being cooked in iron vessels, even more iron is mobilised and its absorption is also enhanced in the bargain. Fermented food like curds also favour iron absorption. Today, health professionals warn that too much diet-related aluminum could be entering our bodies because acid foods are cooked and stored in aluminum pans. Along the West Coast and elsewhere in India, fish curry is always cooked in earthen pots, not just for the distinctive flavour, but also because they are non-reactive to tamarind, a common ingredient and a highly acid food.
Traditional garnishes are another characteristic of our cooking. In the South, freshly-grated coconut is the usual garnish. Besides the tempering exercise, fat-laden coconut helps to release fat-soluble carotene from a carrot or keerai poriyal, for example. In other parts, fresh coriander leaves provide the mandatory finishing touch. Coriander leaves, rich in carotene and vitamin C, are doubly useful. Tempering liberates carotene from coriander leaves while vitamin C makes iron from pulses in a chhole or saabat masoor available.
Regional cuisines also show great culinary wisdom in the choice of ingredients. It is well-known that ginger is a potent analgesic and anti-inflammatory agent. The fact that these properties become more pronounced as fresh ginger is dried is hardly common knowledge. Kashmiri cooking makes abundant use of fresh and dried ginger (south/ chukku), an indication that ginger keeps the pain and stiffness out of arthritic joints in the cold months. In summer, in North India, an onion marinated in vinegar is likely to be tucked between rotis in a lunch box. Reason: onions are believed to prevent sunstroke.
Charring food is harmful because substances that could cause cancer are formed. Even exposing rotis to the open gas flame is a form of charring. Moreover, when the fat from fatty meat and the oil used in basting drip onto live coals, unhealthy chemical compounds are created which mingle with the rising smoke and coat the food. That puts us in a spot because tandoori cooking is so much a part of being Indian. However, the ingredients used in tandoori cooking, and the accompaniments, could save the day. Curds, garlic, onions and turmeric, used as marinades, are regarded as protective agents. Tandoori chicken is always served with raw onion and wedges of lime. Mutton tikkis and fresh mint or coriander chutney go together. Many of these foods have high amounts of vitamin C, carotene and fibre, which play a crucial role in offsetting the detrimental effects of charring. Paradoxically, some foods like onions do not suffer much even if they themselves are charred. Onions prevent heart disease by reducing the stickiness of blood thereby lowering the chances of clot formation. Even onions browned crisp retain the factor that inhibits platelet aggregation. Why should it come as a surprise, then, that nicely fried onions are stuffed into aloo paratha, and fried rice is usually topped with them?
Add to this our ritual fasting and feasting, directed by religion or otherwise. Some of these observances are meant to rest the system, others to kick-start it. Either way, you stand to gain. What better way than to eat the Indian way?
If our cooking is to be denounced, it is our extreme dependence on deep-fried foods (even our sweets like gulab jamuns are fried!) and high-salt, oily preparations like pickles that will have to take the flak. Both make for unhealthy food choices.
So, the next time your child suggests Sundance, say she can eat there once she earns her own living. Chances are that the headcount around your table will rise dramatically, not just over the weekend. And you will not have to watch what the brat puts away. Indian food practices are not just about culinary excellence. They have sustained generations who have eaten this way, and nobody is complaining. Indian food sense will work for you too. Stay with it.
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