On the event of India’s 65th Republic Day tomorrow, I considered scanning through various food habits and diverse food preparations in India and write about the most healthy food choice from our country’s varied assorted cuisines.
Indian food is usually considered to be ‘rich.’ That term comes from the use of generous quantity of nuts and dry fruits in some parts of the country, or copious use of ghee, oil and cream. But irrespective of these rich ingredients, food preparations are largely influenced by geography, climate and culture thus justifying their use in different parts of the country. Hence the absence of wheat in most traditional southern cuisines and its prevalence in northern cuisines.
With so many states and their various foods, let’s begin the journey from the north and touch upon a few healthy selections from some of the states:
Jammu & Kashmir: The ever refreshing kahwa — an intricate blend of Indian spices, consumed as a hot beverage — is our very own traditional detox tea honed to perfection. When it comes to food, though most of the Kashmiri preparations revolve around rice the ‘hak’(a green leafy vegetable found in the Valley) is a healthy delicious Kashmiri dish either cooked with mutton or fish or just by itself. And the walnut chutney can be used as a delicious salad dressing or a dip or just an accompaniment with the meals.
Punjab: Sarson ka saag is certainly one of the most delicious and healthy dishes in Indian cuisines (you got to watch the ghee and oil though). It is usually accompanied with makai ki roti (although I am not an admirer of corn, considering it’s glycaemic index), one can always replace it with any other cereal. Furthermore, the extensive variety of pulses in the daily routine (the restaurant cooked dal makhani and anything butter masala is not a daily routine), but consciously prepared rajma and chola help to bulk up fibre and add proteins to the diet along with taste, as do the numerous meat and poultry dishes. Also, cooking methods used here such as the tandoor are an excellent way to cook food fast, requiring less oil and seals in all the nutrients.
Rajasthan: This is one of the glaring examples of geography influencing cuisine. With limited scope of growing fresh vegetables in the desert, ker-sangri is one such under-rated commonly cooked preparation of Rajasthan. It has a distinct flavour and taste along with being rich in Vitamin C and is best consumed with an iron-rich bajra roti.
Gujarat: Gujarati cuisine is primarily vegetarian and distinctively sweet in taste. Today’s Gujarati cuisine marries a very modern style of cooking with traditional recipes, giving rise to some very healthy dishes (and far too many unhealthy ones!). Such as using steamers to make protein rich dhokla from a variety of dals, or microwaves to make jowar khichu (a high fibre dish made from jowar and vegetables). The routine cooking involves lentils as a common preparation of which osaman is a high protein low calorie dal which can be had as a soup. Of course, Gujarati food also includes a frightening number of fried, sweet and just generally unhealthy farsans (yes, that includes all the yummy fafdas, gathiyas and muthiyas), there are also a number of healthier, low calorie snacks, and crispy khakras have got to be one of my favourites (make sure you give them a try!).
Maharashtra: Maharashtrian cuisine ranges from being mild to very spicy, keeping cereals and lentils as the integral part of cooking. The ubiquitous zunka bhakar defines itself as a complete meal. It is a mixture of protein rich dals and high-fibre jowar, packed with lots of flavour. So is thalipeeth, a mixture of cereals and lentils with additional spices and rolled out like a chapatti. It can be had with the famous garlic chutney or with a simple raita.
Goa: Seafood, rice and pastes are the main ingredients of Goan delicacies. Abundantly available fresh fish marinated with spices, steamed or grilled and served with mild to very spicy pastes are the healthiest option of this state.
Karnataka: This state’s cuisine is largely influenced by the neighbouring states. Though bisi bele is a famously known rice preparation, some of the nutritious options of this state are kosambari, a moongdal preparation which is a delicious salad option and majjige huli (a cucumber based preparation) served with yoghurt is low calorie and easy to digest.
Kerala & Tamil Nadu: Coconuts and rice are abundantly available in our southern tip and they dominate the cuisine of both states. Wise choices from these cuisines include appam and idlis. Combine with yoghurt or a wholesome stew and you’re set.
Assam: The cuisines in the North Eastern states of India are a mixture of unique styles with cultural influences from neighbouring states and countries. Predominantly rice paired with meats and fish are the main ingredients for all preparations. However, from the Assamese cuisine pitika is a signature dish (mashed roots or vegetables, combined with anything from chillies and eggs to tomatoes). The sewali phool (night jasmine) has great medicinal values and are a popular ingredient in making tasty and healthy curries.
West Bengal: Fish is undoubtedly a well-known obsession for Bengalis. Although there is nothing more delicious than fish curry with rice followed by scrumptious rosgolla and shondesh, Bengali cuisine does offer nutritious options to select from. Machher jhol (wok fried fish with traditional spices), which can be had by itself minus the rice. There are interesting cooking styles to prepare fish such as ‘hilsa’ which include wrapping the fish in a pumpkin leaf — it helps release more flavours using minimal oil. Another ingredient commonly found in eastern food is the bamboo shoot, which is rich in protein and has lots of great values.
Every cuisine has a range of options, from healthy to not so healthy to heart attack on plate. The challenge lies in selecting the best options to eat. The obvious things to avoid, regardless of cuisine, remain the same: anything buttery, deep fried, overcooked, excessively sweet, needlessly milky or dry-fruity… Keep yourself happy with one bite, if you must. To eat healthy, it’s really not that difficult.
Indian food and Indian food habits are as similar as they are diverse. And a true reflection of the amazing wonder that is our union of 35 very different yet very similar regions.
Eat something from all of them… And Stay Healthy!