The chill has just hit the plains, but an October’s worth of festive hampers has already announced autumn’s mellow fruitfulness. The problem is that most of them tend to have calorie-dense sweets, which is bad news for those who look askance at exercise. So some gift “health food”(read exotic fruit and packaged juices, a lot of which is imported), possibly spurred by glossy ads on their nutritional status.
It seems we’ve all but buried the local produce—it only remains to write them an epitaph, and ensure the demise of that thrill over the year’s first mangoes or the advent of the short-lived season of palm hearts. But why? The only reason you don’t hear amla is essential to health (but read about an apple a day) is that research institutes abroad don’t have them to hand. We do.
The ‘alternate’ food list
Not every exotic food has a local and better counterpart; but there are usually options that are close, if not superior. And cheaper.
• Cranberries are known for their Urinary Tract Infection or UTI-suppressing abilities. There’s no denying they’re great for your bladder, but so are fermented milk products. A study in the American Journal of Nutrition found women who consumed such products three times a week lowered their risk of UTI. Reach for a cup of dahi or a probiotic drink (preferably sugar-free).
Also Read Food Factors earlier columns
• Yes, salmon has bags of omega-3 fats. But Norwegian fillets don’t come cheap and cod liver pills turn your tummy. So turn to our own rivers and coasts: for mackerel, trout (in season in the hills now), black pomfret, hilsa (wait for the monsoons or you’ll kill next season’s shoal) or kingfish (surmai).
• The bad news for vegetarians: The variety of omega-3 fatty acids in fish is not found in plant foods. The good news: A similar variety is plentiful in flaxseeds, or linseeds (the humble alsi was forgotten and has recently been rediscovered, adding to its cost, unfortunately). They are much healthier than sunflower seeds.
Some indigenous superfood contenders:
• Coconut water: Sodium-rich modern diets store up trouble for our hearts. The answer is potassium (counters water retention, lowers blood pressure). The “water” in one coconut has 500mg potassium, a fourth of your daily needs. Now available in neat packages, if you find nature’s packaging too bulky to bring to work.
• Papaya: This poor pointy fruit seems to have become rather outdated but has nearly 10 times the vitamin C of a peach—more than your daily requirement from just 100g of fruit; plus loads of other antioxidants, beta-carotene, folate, potassium, magnesium, and digestion-promoting papain.
• Amla: This little gem of a fruit has 20 times more vitamin C than an orange, four times what you need in a day! Surprisingly, you can cook amla without putting a dent in its vitamin stocks.
• Custard apple: The myth of iron-rich apples was disproved. But there’s another kind of apple: Also in season now, it has vitamins B and C, potassium, fibre—and iron, calcium and manganese. Who knew?
• Cape gooseberries/physalis: Coming round the seasonal bend, rasbhari is a gold mine that matches its colour with the might of vitamin C, iron, calcium and beta-carotene.
As we said earlier in this column (“Rooting for Red”, 19 August), the colourful critters on grocers’ shelves beat paler produce. Just don’t be led by the stock photos printed in magazines of what are local vegetables abroad: broccoli, colourful peppers, strange greens we rarely find at home. Try instead the bright orange pumpkin, red-stemmed amaranth (chaulai), dark emerald collard (haaq to Kashmiris) or the purple-staining jamuns.
Manidipa Mandal is deputy features editor at Mint.