by Disha Gandhi
While some people may wake up to the smell of coffee, pancakes, bacon and eggs, I am used to waking up to the smell of my mother’s garam (hot) masala chai, and spicy puffed rice cereals. My mom is usually cooking a savory dish every morning. While I wished to smell cinnamon buns and coffee instead of very spicy and savory aromas, it was probably best that I didn’t eat cinnamon buns and bacon in the morning. Growing up in a vegetarian Indian household taught me to develop quite a taste for savory and spicy foods, become obsessed with everything mango flavored, and to not be afraid of vegetables like bitter melons. It also taught me how to cook very complicated, but delicious, Indian food. So, I would like to provide some information about Indian cuisine with some nutrition facts.
Indian cuisine consists of a variety of foods that differ by the region it comes from. This makes it very challenging to offer a general explanation. However, a few things tend to remain consistent. Every self-respecting Indian cook has a drawer in the kitchen devoted to a spice box that usually contains cups of red chili powder, turmeric powder, cumin seeds, ground coriander, mustard seeds, cardamom, and garam masala or curry powder. In addition to those spices, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, garlic, and onion are essential. The process of cooking almost always begins with heating up cumin, mustard seeds, onion, ginger, and garlic in a pan with oil.
In regards to nutrition, these spices are known to have many health benefits. To name a few, ginger is known to increase gastric motility and prevent nausea and vomiting. Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric powder, has numerous health benefits that have been previously discussed (“Turmeric: The Health Benefits of a Spicy Life“). Mustard seeds are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids and their active ingredient, thymoquinone, has anti-inflammatory effects and benefits against neurotoxicity. Finally, I was surprised to learn that cumin seeds are a great source of iron. All of these ingredients can be found at your local Indian grocery store at an inexpensive price, or if you prefer a more expensive option, the Whole Foods that is a couple blocks away from Tufts Health Sciences campus will not let you down.
These spices are normally cooked with a vegetable or meat and served with a source of grain, such as naan or basmati rice. North Indian food and South Indian food is most popularly consumed, and typically most Indian restaurants in the U.S. serve food from these regions.
North Indian food will normally include a vegetable or meat dish mixed in tomato gravy. For example, palak paneer consists of a spinach puree mixed with buttermilk and tomato gravy that is cooked in spices I mentioned above. Then paneer or curdled cheese cubes are added. This is served with a jeera (cumin) rice or naan. Chicken tikka masala consists of spiced tomato gravy mixed with yogurt-marinated chicken. Again this is served with some sort of grain.
South Indian restaurants will usually serve sambhar, dosa, idli, and tamarind rice. This is also consumed with a variety of chutneys. Sambhar is a pigeon pea lentil and tamarind soup cooked with chopped vegetables including tomatoes, onions, eggplant, carrots, and drumstick pieces. Sambhar is served with dosa, idli, and uttapam, which are made with rice flours and split black lentils. This dish is often consumed with a coconut chutney.
After this brief taste of Indian food, one must ask: what can be possibly wrong living on the Indian food diet that is so rich in fiber, a variety of micronutrients, antioxidants, and healthy fats? As a matter of fact, Indian food has never been as popular as it is now, especially among foodies and chefs. Commonly used Indian ingredients such as turmeric powder and lentils are hyped up by nutritionists and dietitians, as well.
Then why do South Asians suffer from chronic diseases, especially type 2 diabetes? A nutritionist from New Delhi claims that the high glycemic diet compounded with poor eating behaviors is a major factor. While the main dishes will have many healthy veggies and spices, they are consumed with refined carbohydrates such as naan and white rice. The Indian snack items such as samosas and biscuits are highly refined and processed and filled with trans fats. Also, portion sizes served at Indian restaurants are huge, and therefore most people tend to overeat, which leads to excessive caloric intake.
The previous paragraph was not to discourage anyone from trying Indian food; it was written for informational purposes that health professionals might find useful when working with Indian patients. Nevertheless, I hope I have made your mouths water for some delectable Indian food. Thus, I must end with providing a Chana Masala (Chickpea Curry) recipe adapted from Chowhound.
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 medium yellow onion, small dice
- 4 teaspoons peeled, finely grated fresh ginger
- 4 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 2 serrano chilies, stemmed and finely chopped
- 1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes and their juices
- ½ teaspoon turmeric powder
- ½ teaspoon red chili powder
- 2 teaspoons garam masala
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon salt, plus more for seasoning
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- 2 (15-ounce) cans chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
- ½ cup water
- Cilantro leaves for garnishing
Heat vegetable oil in a pan and add cumin seeds. Once cumin seeds start sizzling in the oil, add onion, garlic, ginger, serrano chilies, salt, and pepper. Let it cook until onions are soft.
- Open the can of whole peeled tomatoes and strain the juice in a separate bowl and make sure to save it. Dice the tomatoes and set aside.
- After onions have softened, add garam masala, turmeric powder, red chili powder, ground coriander, salt, and pepper (as you wish) to the onion mixture and cook for about a minute.
- Add the saved tomato juice, diced tomatoes, water, and chickpeas to the onion mixture and bring to simmer. Then lower the heat and let the sauces thicken for about 20 minutes.
- Garnish with cilantro, and then it is ready to eat!
Disha Gandhi is a second-year BMN Student at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Her current goal is to spread the joy of Indian food as well as its nutrition. You can follow her on twitter @DishaG318.