Dear Cousins! Happy New Year!! Well I know its a bit late for New Year wishes..but well it is the new year & so no harm if I wish all of our readers a very prosperous 2013…
All three of us had some amazing moments in the last few weeks of the year 2012 which were loaded with relaxing holidays, including my stay with you didi(Ushmita) at Shantiniketan in Bengal, the post on my ‘Shantiniketan Poush Mela Visit’ will follow soon (if you guys get my meaning of soon!!), non-stop chatter with family & friends, celebrations, lots of photography and of course, gorgeous, lovely food!!
2013 then began with all of us devising new year resolutions. The first one, as it is every year is, that we will eat healthy and stay healthy (18 days have gone by and no exercise regimes have started yet!!). So instead of writing about the amazing array of foods I have already had in this new year, I am starting with a post on origins and health benefits of Indian spices and food.
Over the past 3-4 weeks during my travels personally and as part of DelhiByFoot across Western & Eastern parts of India, I have been wondering on some fundamentals of food, especially, the question of ‘Why we eat, what we eat’?
So definitely nature has a role to play in that, as our food habits are governed by the topography, vegetation and climatic conditions of a region. For example coastal areas like South-East Asian countries or the various island countries like Mauritius or the Caribbeans have abundant rice, sea-food and coconut dishes. Or in colder regions like Europe or Canada where there is a dearth of cultivable land for producing grains or certain variety of fruits, cured or preserved meat and vegetables are eaten. The Americas, have abundance of big game like bison, caribou and wild ox, so they love their chunks of fresh or preserved meats.
Now since India is primarily a tropical country with pockets of arid and alpine zones scattered here and there, its cuisine has also been largely dictated by these factors. What we see today as Indian cuisine has had numerous influences. Traditionally, the Vedas and the Upanishads prescribed a fruitar-ian and a vegetarian diet for all the upper castes(Brahmins/Kshatriyas) while meat was the only choice left for the lower ‘scavenging’ castes, who were denied rights of land and hence farming for grains or vegetables/fruits. These ancient texts were written by sages who lived in tropical areas which were abundant with forests with their fresh supply of fruits and fertile grasslands which yielded grains/rice/pulses/vegetables. As grasslands were ideal for domesticated animal grazing, thus dairy products also became popular. Demands of the hot weather also dictated simple and easy to digest vegetarian diets.
In the higher altitudes of the country, the Himalayas with its cold climatic conditions however, saw people seek out ‘warm foods’ like meat apart from the vegetables, and meat became an integral part of diets in the colder climes. Coastal areas of the country had a higher dependence on fresh produce of the oceans, like fish. Further influences on Indian eating habits, both on the kinds of food we ate and the style of cooking were because of the invaders and foreigners who had settled in our lands since millennia. Who and what influenced which part of Indian cuisine is debatable but we can safely say that many dishes carry close resemblance to their Persian, East-Asian and European counterparts.
Two of India’s most famous spiritual leaders/saints, Lord Mahavira and Lord Buddha who departed from Hinduism to develop their own interpretation of religion, yet were careful to adopt the sattvika mode of lifestyle as prescribed in Hindu philosophy. Later in the 2nd century B.C, great Mauryan Emperor Ashoka popularised vegetarianism and today almost 31% of Indians vegetarian do not even touch eggs, leave alone meats/fish no matter where they are in the world. (Source Report). The sattvika philosophy does not encourage killing and eating animals or destroying their habitats. It supports vegetarianism and shuns the use of rajasic or pungent food items like garlic, onion and peppers as they produce excessive body heat and provoke mental restlessness. However, followers of this philosophy sometimes recommend limited use of garlic and black peppers to open blocked channels and detoxify the body. And obviously Ayurveda asks people to completely stay away from the tamasic kinds of foods, foods which encourage sloth and depression, for example foods which are not fresh, hence stale or have been dried and kept for consumption later on like liqour, (in todays context like canned food). So in India we seem to have achieved a balance of sattvika and rajasic philosophy as our cuisines evolved over years, in such a way that Indian food aims to benefit the human body both with freshness as well as the right amount of aggression. They are a perfect blend of basic carbohydrates, simple proteins (unlike complex proteins of meats), minerals, anti-oxidants and vitamins.
In other parts of the world most of the snacks available are non-vegetarian in nature like fried insects of Bangkok or hot-dogs of New York. But traditional Indian snacks are largely vegetarian. You would recall that when McDonalds/KFCs of the world first began operations in India, about 10-12 years back, they had to turn out a largely vegetarian menu to appeal to Indian palates. That is because more or less India is still dominated with vegetarian food eaters, either due to religious reasons mentioned above or economic reasons, wherein a meat-centric diet is beyond their daily budgets.
But the fact is and I can proudly claim that maybe that no where in the world does any country have such a diverse variety of vegetarian cuisines! Pao-Bhaji, Chillas, Chaats, Kadhi-Chawal, Rajma-Chawal, Chole-Kulche, Bhel-Puri, Aloo Bonda, Sambar-Vada, Parathas, Kachori, Medu Vada, Savory Banana Hot Chips and I could drool on and on…These lighter foods especially street-snacks that one eats today in the lanes of Chandni Chowk in Delhi or the Chowpatty in Juhu, Mumbai or the Marina Beach in Chennai are a very good example of such a mix of variety of cuisines and styles, yet are very closely related to the natural balance of our local lifestyles. I can very safely say that probably in India we have more than 100 vegetarian snack foods, finger foods, chaats, and that’s a very conservative estimate! To this when one adds the kebabs and other meat dishes that came with the Persian settlers, we are left with a long long list to eat our way through! The list stretches even more when we include the chaats developed by smart entrepreneurs like Chinese Chaat, Aloo Tikki-burgers, Patties and Masala Buttery corn. Considering the snacking habits of Indians, even big food giants like KFC or McDonald have invented the ideas of nibbles conforming to flavours & forms loved by us Indians, like the KFC Popcorns or KFC VegStrips or the McNuggets.
My unusually glorious words for vegetarian food should not alarm you guys, as you might think that I seemingly have adopted the path towards a life-long dedication towards vegetarianism or any such sort of ‘dangerous’ thoughts!! It is just that while exploring the street-foods of Delhi, Rajasthan, Gujarat & Kolkata during my travels of past many months as part of my work for DelhiByFoot, I have realised a lot of new foods and secret benefits of a vegetarian cuisine, as found in India!
Take for example a papri chaat from the Chaat Corner at the nearby DDA Markets. It is made of small discs made of flour and ajwain or carom seeds. Flour kneaded with salt and oil is a good source of carbohydrates and ajwain has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties that are good for the intestinal tract. It also releases anti-oxidants and minerals that clear wind-formation(flatulence) in the digestive systems. It is served with yoghurt and boiled white chickpea that are high in carbohydrates and protein. Yoghurt is also beneficial for digestion and helps in cooling down the body’s temperature – which is a lifestyle requirement in the dry, hot climate of Northern India.
Some chaat makers like Ashok Chaat Bhandaar(Chawri Bazar in Delhi) have a special chutney made of raw potatoes that plays another interesting role which possibly even the makers don’t realise, as they have been simply following a traditional family recipe to spice up their chaats! Raw potatoes are sliced into thin slivers and fermented in a Imli-chutney (Tamarind-based sweet and sour chutney locally called ‘Saunth’), which itself is an excellent anti-oxidant that assists good digestion. Raw potatoes have a starch that cannot be digested, called the ‘resistant starch‘, which is beneficial in keeping the colon healthy, releases anti-oxidants that help in stabilising free-radicals and has potassium which normalises blood pressure. The hot chilli powder in the chutney makes the body sweat, again cooling down the system.
Finally, the papri chaat is garnished with ginger juliennes(Adrak sliced thin), roasted and powdered cumin seeds(Zeera Powder) and coriander leaves(Dhaniya Patta) which have multiple health benefits. Ginger is a wonder herb/root/plant – when eaten raw, it detoxifies the blood, improves its circulation and benefits the heart and the arteries. It also helps in quick digestion, as a result of which there is a boost in the energy levels. On the other hand, as you guys very well know, if you cook ginger it works in a different manner. It heats up the body from inside and fights flus and inflammations. Cumin is rich in iron, increases immunity and helps in digestion. But most importantly it has relaxing properties which induce sleep. Possibly this is the reason why chaats in India are traditionally consumed in the evening as the spices included in them prepare the body for a good night’s sleep. For a complete set of advantages of cumin seeds/powder see this.
Some of the other popular ingredients used in the famed chaats of Delhi are mint leaves (coolant, detoxifier, cleanser, digestive) used as a garnish or served as ‘Hari chutney'(literally meaning Green Chutney) and even in the spiced water for the golgappas which also includes liberal doses of asafoetida (anti-flatulent, clearing the lungs). Raw mango pieces go into most of the chutneys (Hari Chutney for example) and the golgappa water(vitamin c, iron and antibacterial) and lime juice (antibiotic, antibacterial, digestive, coolant and vitamin c) that adds tang to the fruit chaats or the bhelpuri and kulche choley. These provide a perfect platter to beat the heat in the summer.
The coriander on top of many of the chaats/street foods acts as an appetizer and stimulates senses to fight anorexia. It is also rich in iron, minerals and increases the immunity levels of the body. Therefore what we simply eat as a snack actually turns out to be a super-nutritious ensemble of freshly prepared foods and spices. But the most important benefit of eating a plate of papri-chaat on a hot sunny day is its cooling effect on the body. The entire combination of herbs, spices, yoghurts, the chutneys and the paapri releases a fair amount of anti-oxidants which cool down the body.
One must note that the average layman believes that all these spices and condiments make vegetarian chaats heavy on the tummy and also that the zing in chaats is from an excessive usage of garam masala. But thats a whole lot of stories, not to be believed! The word garam although meaning hot in Hindi, means that mix of masalas which is heavy for the stomach in terms of its essence. In saatvik philosophy cardamom, cinnamon, fennel, cumin, coriander, fenugreek, ginger, cloves, nutmeg and bay leaves are mild spices, but when added with the rajasic spices like the black pepper they produce heat and increase mental activity. In reality, garam masala is mostly non-existent in these chaats but can be found in ample amounts in the kebabs and other meaty tid-bits available as quick snacks in the streets of Hyderabad, old Delhi or in Ameenabad of Lucknow.
But that does not mean that meat dishes are simply preparations with lots of fiery hot spices, herbs and copious amounts of ghee thrown in, just meant to create flavourful, rich Mughlai/Awadhi/Hyderabadi cuisines. There are meat dishes like the Nihari which was actually created by the Hakeems (traditional Ayurvedic & Unani doctors) of the Mughals/Nawabs/Kingly courts to help patients suffering from the Flu/Cough/Cold/Pneumonia/Asthma albeit in a flavourful way! Nihari is meat shanks cooked with garam masalas and black pepper overnight on a slow fire, to be had as breakfast thus fortifying a person against the chilly/muggy Delhi weathers of winters/monsoons respectively.
While talking with the owner and now a good friend who runs one of Delhi’s most famous buff-meat Biryani maker, Mota Pehelwaan’s Masala Biryani shop, we came to know that their masalas for the Biryani do not change throughout the year. But what changes is the way the masalas are included in the ghee during the cooking. In summers the masalas are roughly grounded and added, while during winters it is the other way round, wherein masalas are added in chunks and not in powdered form.
Well I could go on & on, since the balance achieved by Indian cuisines in terms of spices and weather or the food items itself is beyond compare with any other cuisine in the world, but rather than an one-off post, which rambles on and on about the health benefit of practically anything and everything edible under the sun will be a separate 1000-page blog in itself!! So I believe its a better idea that both of you cousins highlight the positive impact of masalas or combination of a spice and the food items being cooked in your culinary explorations from here on for 2013….
Soon I will be with Dakhina, as I am just a flight away from Melbourne….and after the rich experiences of food in Shantiniketan, Bengal, India with Ushmita Didi, I am equally eager to now see you Rinki, cook and learn from your food experiences in Australia 🙂
Till then, Shalom….Love…Ramit/Daibi