There are so many lists of hot foods to eat, the latest superpower foods oozing excitement and immunity, that the mind starts reeling. But unfortunately, many of the foods starring in the widely circulated lists tend to be unfamiliar, since the recommendations are based largely on Western research. Which means they are either hard to get locally, or are exorbitantly priced compared with local produce.
So what if blueberries are potent cancer fighters—do you really want to pay around Rs500 for an imported punnet (125-150g)? Especially when that sum can buy your family a week’s worth of surprisingly healthy, yet neglected, home-grown produce at the local mandi (market)?
You won’t see these native gems in glitzy international magazines, but then you don’t fly to New York to buy a Sabyasachi original either.
The humble kaddu is a filling, yet low-calorie vegetable that is high in fibre and immunity-boosting carotene (pro-vitamin A, which gets converted into vitamin A in the body). Plus, it is a very good source of vitamin C and potassium (lowers blood pressure).
The health equation: 1 cup (200g) pumpkin has less than 80 calories, gives you 6g of fibre (you need 15g fibre per 1,000 calories a day, so that’s 30g for the 2,000 calories an average man might eat)—and it contains a whopping 145% of your daily requirement of vitamin A.
How to have it: Vitamin A is fat-soluble, so a little oil while making subzi is mandatory. Or make a creamy soup of roasted pumpkin. You can also make a warm salad of steamed pumpkin cubes dressed with olive oil, ginger and pumpkin seeds (replete with omega-3 fats). Vegetarians, try pumpkin pie for a custard-like dessert.
2. YAM BEAN OR JICAMA
Why we don’t eat more of this tuber beats us. In West Bengal, it is known as shankalu and in Bihar as mishrikand, though it probably came here from Mexico. It has a wonderful flavour—very crisp, and easy to eat as a fruit or a raw vegetable, though Mexicans also cook it. Besides taste and texture, the main thing in its favour is that it can be a cheap, hardy substitute for citrus fruit, apple or pear.
The health equation: 1 cup (130g) contains 6g of fibre, supplying just a little less than 30% of your daily requirement of vitamin C. Besides, the complex carbohydrates and fibre that are the bulk of this vegetable release energy gradually, slowing the rate at which its sugars are absorbed into the bloodstream. Perfect for those looking to tip the scales in a favourable direction too, at just 50 calories a cup.
How to have it: Peel and munch as a fruit; add it to a fruit chaat or shred it into a salad. Shredded yam bean is nice in a stir-fry for crunch. Or serve thin slices, raw or roasted, with salsa or other spicy dip instead of greasy tortilla chips or bread.
3. BLACK-EYED PEAS
These beans, locally called lobia, are rich in the best sort of fibre—the soluble kind—which helps to eliminate cholesterol from the body. Plus, lobia is a high-potassium, low-sodium food that helps reduce blood pressure. It’s pretty much a perfect food, since it’s low in fat, high in fibre and, when combined with grains (chapatti or rice), supplies high-quality vegetarian protein.
The health equation: 100g of cooked lobia is just 115 calories, very filling (6.5g fibre and 8g protein), tasty and has no fats.
How to have it: If you don’t like the regular curry, make a nice tangy salad with boiled lobia, some pineapple, apple and cucumber. The flavours go well together.
4. GREEN BANANAS AND PLANTAINS
These are excellent at promoting digestion and preventing constipation as they contain pectin, a kind of soluble fibre. They also have the natural mood enhancer tryptophan, to calm and soothe you on a hot, stressful day. Most importantly, they are a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals.
The health equation: 1 cup of mashed (cooked) plantain has around 30% of your daily requirement of vitamins A and C, a good deal of potassium (regulates blood pressure and electrolyte balance) and vitamin B6 (essential for cardiac health). And contrary to the banana’s fatty reputation, it is actually truly a “0% cholesterol” food
How to have it: Just don’t fry them. Instead, brush wedges or slices with some oil and bake. Then munch with a spicy, home-made tomato-based sauce or add to a curry. You can also boil and mash it as a substitute for potatoes or use slices in a subzi instead of potato—the texture is similar. You can also use it as a rice substitute when boiled and mashed, to eat your curries with.
This fragrant fruit is often not favoured by dieters who equate anything sweet with weight gain, but in reality a single lychee has only 6.6 calories, so you can eat 10 for just 66 calories—not bad compared with the satiety value of many 100-calorie snacks. Also, lychees give you a large dose of vitamin C and contain flavanoids, a type of antioxidant thought to prevent breast cancer.
Peel your dessert: Ten lychees give you more vitamin C than the same weight of oranges.
The health equation: 10 fruits (100g) provide 72mg of vitamin C to help fight seasonal colds and flus; in comparison, the much-touted orange has only 50g vitamin C per 100g.
How to have it: An excellent dessert, resolving a sweet tooth much better than many pastries and biscuits. Carry them unpeeled, as the peeling slows you down and prevents you from overeating. The peeled and deseeded fruit can also be frozen.
The health benefits of this red, roughage-rich vegetable are enormous. For starters, it is nutritious, somewhat sweet yet low in calories. 1 cup of chopped beet (around 170g) has 10% of your daily requirement of vitamin C, a key antioxidant, as well as a large dose of fibre (3.5g), 34% of your folate needs for the day (it is essential for a healthy cardiovascular system and to produce red blood cells), and potassium—and has only 70-odd calories.
Gimme red: Roughage-rich beet is nutritious, somewhat sweet, yet low in calories.
The health equation: 1 cup of shredded beet has 35% of your daily folate requirement. Another group of nutrients present in beetroot are flavanoids, which give them that deep red colour (buy the ruddiest bulbs you can) and are powerful cancer fighters.
How to have it: Grate raw into salads, hot or cold. Bake or boil and purée into soup. Add chunks to make some colourful dal and subzi. Purée and add to chapatti or paratha for festive colour. Marinate steamed or roasted baby beet in lemon juice, olive oil and fresh herbs to eat as a side dish to grilled meat or fish.
7. FINGER MILLET
Extremely high in calcium, iron and protein, ragi makes a great gluten-free flour. It is a whole grain, so high in satiety too (from the fibre). Gluten-free ragi is also a great bread substitute for people with gluten intolerance. Being naturally sodium-free also makes it better than bread or packaged cereals for hypertensives.
The health equation: 100g ragi has 330 calories—and 344mg calcium; the same quantity of rice has comparable calories and only 9mg calcium. The high iron and folic acid are good for people who are anaemic.
How to have it: It is most convenient to eat as a porridge or in thin crepes. You can enrich regular wheat flour (atta) with ragi flour for more nutritious chapattis and bread.
8. JAMUN (JAMBULAN OR JAVA PLUM)
This seasonal fruit is commonplace at roadside stalls, but many overlook this astringent mouthful for sweeter, plumper imported plums. Yet, not only is the jamun a tasty treat, it is packed with nutrients, including bone-building calcium. A cup (130g) will also give you 24mg vitamin C (almost 30% of your day’s quota).
The health equation: 1 cup has just 80 calories and is a great digestive (since it stimulates the liver to secrete bile) and also excellent for diabetics, because it helps lower blood sugar by controlling pancreas functions (it contains a substance called jambolin, that blocks the conversion of starch to sugar).
How to have it: They are easy to munch, but you can also add them to salad or desserts. Purée or make into juice, which can be frozen or added to a light sugar syrup to make a preserve, if you want to enjoy them when they’re not in season. The purée can be used in frozen desserts or as a tart sauce for a sweet salad, swirled into pancakes and the like.
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Experts: Jyothi Prasad, chief dietician, Manipal Hospital, Bangalore; and Daljit Kaur, head of department—nutrition and dietetics, Escorts Heart Institute and Research Centre, New Delhi.