Our hidden superfoods
Look beyond Western imports like quinoa and broccoli rabe. The Indian kitchen is well stocked with nutrient-rich food—and most of them are everyday items
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At the time of writing this article, barley was trending on Facebook and starring on food blogs and Instagram feeds. The good-old jau, as it’s called in Hindi, is being touted as the next superfood—it helps lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Before this we had haldi (turmeric latte, remember?), bitter gourd, ghee, millets—all of which have been touted as superfoods.
Besides being rich in nutrients, these items have two more things in common: They are found in almost every Indian kitchen and their “super” qualities became known once again after the West embraced them. “We all grew up listening to our mothers and grandmothers say that ghee, grains, spices and vegetables are all good for health. No one gave them an umbrella term like ‘superfood’, but they were, and still are, essentially superfoods,” says Mumbai-based nutritionist Rujuta Diwekar, whose new book, Indian Superfoods—Change The Way You Eat, was released in May by Juggernaut Books.
In the 80-page book, which is available on Juggernaut’s app and Amazon, Diwekar talks about how, for instance, Western trends are influencing the country’s eating patterns, and how health authorities and researchers, in India and abroad, keep changing their stance in all matters related to health (for instance, debates about a vegetarian diet being healthier than a non-vegetarian diet, or how fat intake is important even while trying to lose weight).
A major part of the book, however, is dedicated to the benefits of home-grown superfoods that are yet to become part of a health fad. These include kokum, kaju, ambadi, aliv and jackfruit. “Future foods are local foods. It’s vital to understand that the food we produce is in sync with our climate and ecology. If, for instance, a farmer starts growing quinoa in Andhra Pradesh, it is replacing a local millet like ragi, which offers similar nutritional benefits. It would mean wiping out a culture and a way of life,” says Diwekar.
Enormous and prickly on the outside and fleshy on the inside, this superfood hasn’t received the recognition it deserves. “Jackfruit’s flesh is high in fibre. It helps prevent heart disease and controls diabetes. The taste and texture make it a great fruit for jams, candies, cakes and other sweet preparations,” says Daljit Kaur, senior nutritionist at the Fortis Escorts Heart Institute in New Delhi.
Kathal, as it’s known in Hindi, is a storehouse of antioxidants that can fight carcinogens, according to Diwekar. “It’s great for maintaining the health of the colon and gall bladder too. A popular way to eat it is by preparing it like usal (a traditional Maharashtrian recipe of pulses) and having it with rice, garnished with coconut,” she adds.
A popular spice in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Kerala and Karnataka, kokum, or Garcinia indica, has therapeutic values as well. It can be used in vegetables, as a flavouring agent in pickles, even in sherbet. It is also grandma’s go-to herb for acidity and bloating. “It’s something that you would reach out for in the kitchen when you have overeaten, under-slept or are just plain under the weather,” writes Diwekar in the book.
What’s more, it’s rich in vitamin C, potassium and magnesium, says Kaur. “It helps convert excess calories into glycogen, so it’s good for obese people. An active ingredient in kokum (garcinol) is an anti-bacterial and antioxidant agent,” she says.
Being a good source of dietary fibre, kokum is also good for digestion and aids in weight loss, says Ritika Samaddar, head (nutrition and dietetics) at Max Hospital in the Capital. “Various studies have also highlighted its cancer-fighting abilities,” she adds.
The cashew, or kaju, has always had a bad reputation, for reasons ranging from the fact that it leads to an increase in cholesterol or results in weight gain, so it is often shunned. Yet, “if you are losing sleep at night and spend the day feeling anxious and dead tired, this is the nut that you need to crack (because kaju contains amino acids that help in the production of serotonin, the natural sleeping pill),” writes Diwekar. “It is packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and is rich in ‘heart-friendly’ monounsaturated-fatty acids that help lower the harmful LDL cholesterol while increasing the good HDL cholesterol in the blood,” adds Samaddar.
But yes, you might want to watch out for the quantity, warns Kaur, as cashew nuts are rich in calories (100g would provide about 550 calories). “Like with everything else, too much of anything is bad,” she adds.
Gongura in Telugu, roselle plant in English and ambadi in Marathi, this green-leafed, red-stemmed plant is a rich source of folic acid and iron. “Its leaves help cool any inflammation and heat in the blood. It also helps stimulate the stomach and clean the intestines,” says Kaur.
Ambadi bhaji is usually eaten with breads made of jowar (sorghum), bajra (pearl millet) and ragi (finger millet), which means it’s a food combination that’s low on the glycaemic index (which measures the effect of carbohydrates present in food on blood sugar levels), writes Diwekar. Essentially, this means a reduced risk of non-communicable diseases like diabetes, obesity and cancer.
In the West, roselle tea is used as a detox drink and an alternative to caffeine drinks, says Diwekar. “It can also be consumed as salad, or in the form of sauces, pickle and vegetables,” adds Samaddar.
Rich in essential fatty acids, aliv, or garden cress, seeds are best eaten when they are combined with grated coconut, ghee and jaggery and rolled into bright red laddoos. The seeds can also be added to chutneys, soups, salads and sandwiches, says Diwekar. “Aliv helps keep post-partum blues at bay and helps fight PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome),” she adds. “It is rich in iron, folic acid, calcium and vitamins A, C and E,” adds Kaur.
“Our superfoods are our local foods, foods that are grown in the Indian soil, that are in sync with our country’s climate,” Diwekar drives home the point. “Why are we waiting for the West’s approval to recognize the goodness of our own food?”