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From haldi doodh to turmeric latte: Indian food wisdom comes full circle

For a few months now, a warm yellow beverage has been making waves across the world. From Sydney to San Francisco, via the cafés of Berlin and London, turmeric latte is being hailed as the miracle drink of the times.

The Guardian showered high praise on it, calling it “a drink fit for Midas, with an ochre colour so vivid it doesn’t need an Instagram filter”. In that, and in other such articles, there were various benefits attributed to turmeric, from anti-inflammatory to antioxidant properties, thanks to its key ingredient curcumin.

If you are wondering why this sounds familiar, it is because you have probably had haldi doodh—or been forced to have it—some time in your life. Of course, turmeric latte is a bit more complex than just adding a pinch of haldi to warm milk; the real McCoy is cold-pressed turmeric juice added to hot or iced non-dairy milk made from soy, almond or coconut.

And at those prices (starting at $4.5 generally), it had better be something special (but as a filter kapi addict, I do draw the line at this being called the healthy alternative to coffee, even if some places sell an espresso shot turmeric latte).

While it has not quite hit the mainstream café scene yet in India, a few standalone cafés offer their own version on the menu. Some “golden milk iced coffee” perhaps, from The Pantry at Kala Ghoda in Mumbai? They do promise that it has “the greatness of coffee with the goodness of turmeric”.

Yoga studios such as Yogisthaan in Bengaluru have turmeric latte at their café, with a pinch of cinnamon and cardamom thrown into the mix.

Along with this, savvy companies in the ready-to-drink beverages seem to be cashing in on this craze for curcumin.

Milk Mantra, an Odisha-based company, touts curcumin as the secret superpower in its Moo Shake range of flavoured milks. RAW Pressery from Mumbai has also recently added HEAL to its basket of cold-pressed juices, a blend of coconut milk, pineapple, cayenne and, you guessed it, turmeric.

This is not the first time a slice of ancient Indian wisdom has been celebrated at home only after gaining currency in the West. And this is not about food alone.

Yoga—which some historians believe existed in some form more than 5,000 years ago in India—was pushed aside in the past couple of decades in favour of sweating it out on the treadmill and training the wobbly core with Pilates. It took a multitude of hot yoga studios in San Francisco and £50 a pop ashtanga lessons in London to make it popular in India again.

(As an aside, yoga is also recently being used as a politico-religious tool: agencies such as the Hindu America Foundation want to “Take Yoga Back”, while in India, the International Yoga Day, as declared by the United Nations, has stirred up more controversy than mental calm.)

Then there are other Indian ingredients like ghee and coconut oil, which have been for long getting a bad rap locally for their supposed harmful properties (due to high saturated fat content) linked to cholesterol and heart disease. Yet coconut oil is being extolled in the West as the most marvellous “superfood” of them all—for clear skin and good digestion, to strengthening the immune system and, wait for this, reducing total cholesterol levels in the body.

Ditto ghee, traditionally considered by Indians as the better butter, and also acknowledged by Ayurveda as a crucial component of any meal. However, it has taken articles in The New York Times and books published in the West like The Goodness of Ghee and OMGhee, for Indians to sit up and take notice of it as an ingredient not harming but promoting health.

“Be it yoga, Ayurveda or food in general, we have always been swayed by endorsements from the West. Yes, I would say that is responsible, to quite an extent, for them to be back in vogue in India,” says Nandita Iyer, a popular food blogger from Bengaluru.

Does this mean the likes of ghee and coconut oil are set to make a grand comeback in India as super ingredients?

In her latest book on Indian “superfoods”, celebrity nutritionist Rujuta Diwekar has listed ghee as one of them—after all, Charvaka philosophy has said centuries ago, “Rinam kritvah ghritam pibet (Go into debt if you must, but have ghee).”

Diwekar has long been a champion of locally grown and available foods (some of the others that find a mention in her book include rice and coconut), encouraging people to choose them over their (alien to Indian stomachs) Western counterparts. Therefore, chikku over kiwi, bajra over quinoa, sesame oil over olive oil, and so on.

Of course, if you go back a while, even the likes of the chikku and the humble sweet potato (not to mention tomatoes and chillies) are all imports of a sort from the Americas, spread across the world by eager European explorers. However, it has been a few centuries since that happened, and all of these have been adopted into Indian agriculture and the average person's diet.

For it is true that Indians of a certain socioeconomic level have been looking to the West for wisdom on nutrition, spending megabucks on Andean quinoa and American kale, all the while ignoring home-grown millets and the dozens of varieties of local greens that pack a punch.

Chef Floyd Cardoz of Bombay Canteen, who has been particular about using local ingredients in his food—one of the surprise bestsellers at his restaurant is the barley and jowar salad—rues the fact that Indians have been eschewing traditional food wisdom.

“People are forgetting why we eat certain things at certain times of the year or with certain other foods—like kokum with meat, because it helps in digestion,” he says. “Similarly, our great grandmothers knew why we cooked rice and dal together as khichdi—it is a complete meal for vegetarians. Why substitute that dal for new, fancy things?”

However, traditional Indian ingredients and cooking techniques are slowly making their way back into Indian kitchens, thanks to various concurrent factors. Apart from the influence of the West, fitness experts and nutritionists, chefs and food writers in India have been acting as catalysts. Many of them have not just been propounding the benefits of such foods, but also recommending—and using—local substitutes, which were probably used by our grandmothers.

As Iyer says, “Moringa leaf powder is sold abroad for a lot of money (varying from $30 a kg on Amazon to some more expensive varieties), while drumstick leaves are a humble superfood, easily available and very nutrient-dense, which can be cooked in a variety of Indian dishes from dal to poriyal to parathas.”

Sheela Krishnaswamy, a diet and wellness consultant from Bengaluru, talks about how she recommends locally grown and freshly prepared foods to her clients. “Quinoa can be replaced by amaranth seeds, chia seeds by sesame seeds, olive oil by any of our traditional oils, margarine by ghee, and fruits like kiwi, imported melons, imported apples can easily be replaced by Indian varieties locally grown,” she says.

This is the same sentiment expressed by Vishakha Shivdasani, a Mumbai-based doctor specializing in nutrition. 

“Quinoa has become such a fad, despite the carbon footprint associated with it. Our locally grown amaranth is not only higher in protein but higher in micronutrients as well,” she says. “Similarly, chia is such a rage. Instagram is full of fancy chia puddings and desserts touted to help lower cholesterol, help in weight loss, and alleviating acidity. Our Indian equivalent sabza or takamaria has been used for decades in desserts like falooda and has similar properties.”

She adds, “Kale chips and zucchini fries are other examples of aping the West. Our humble sweet potato is tastier, and with a better nutritional profile.” (And if like me, you have ever had the chance to bite into a few expensive kale chips at a Starbucks in the US, you will find yourself nodding in delight).

Cardoz suggests getting creative with local greens, squashes and grains. “I discovered phonk (green jowar) while browsing in a local market in Mumbai, and that is what led to my salad,” he says. “I definitely try to keep away from ingredients not native to our land, like basa (fish) and broccoli, and I think people are also beginning to realize that local Indian foods are best suited for us, whether young or old.”

For instance, he notes, “For whatever reason, there is a revived interest in souring agents like kokum and kudampuli (Malabar tamarind).” It could be that the advice given by popular nutritionists is being taken seriously, or that such chefs are providing inspiration to savvy home cooks. Or it could be that news about Chicago-based energy drinks brand Sant selling Garcinia Indica (kokum, at $10 for a 50gm pack) as a “superfruit” that promotes health in all possible ways, has filtered down to our country.

Speaking of basa, another young and successful chef, Manu Chandra (Toast & Tonic, Monkey Bar), says, “Sure, eat salmon, but because it is delicious and not for omega 3 fatty acids. Because, local mackerel has four times as much nutrient value and is much cheaper and more easily available.”

According to Chandra, people buy quinoa because “they don’t know any better”. He says millets use a fifth of the water and are more nutritious and gut friendly than wheat, but like other foods that have fallen out of favour over time, they “need to be made cooler, and perhaps influencers, including chefs who are driven and committed to the cause, are slowly making a difference”.

Meanwhile, I am off for my evening fix of a hot beverage this Sunday; a latte please, and hold the curcumin.

An easy two-minute creamy turmeric salad dressing (courtesy Nandita Iyer)

Ingredients:

Ground turmeric (1 level tsp)Tahini (1 heaped tsp)Honey (2 tsp)Lemon juice (also add zest of the lemon) (3 tbsp)Grated ginger (1 tsp)Salt (0.5 tsp)Ground pepper (0.5 tsp)Water (0.5 tsp)

Steps:

1. Place all ingredients in the small jar of a mixer or a food processor and blend until thick and creamy. 

2. This dressing keeps getting thicker with time, so whisk in some water to dilute it, if required.

3. If you don't have tahini, then grind 2 tsp of white sesame seeds with a touch of oil until you get a fine paste and then add the remaining ingredients and process until thick and creamy.

4. This dressing can be saved in an airtight container for three to four days. If it gets too thick, whisk some water in before using it.

Read the original, along with Nandita's blog post, here.

Charukesi Ramadurai’s life mantra goes ‘travel, write, drink filter kapi; rinse, repeat’.

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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