You may not buy into the clichés, but you are what you eat, especially during a pandemic. Even though well-balanced nutrition is a no-brainer for building immunity, the onslaught of health-related information online and an overactive WhatsApp university can make the mind numb. So, we’ve broken it down for you–what’s good and how to make it great; and handy tips and hacks from some well-known chefs. After all, nutrition is the sum total of how we taste, savour and behave around food. It isn’t merely about calories, but a reflection of the quality of the calories we take in.
The Gut, the Good and the Great
While turmeric and garlic have received their fair share of public adoration, here are a few extras worthy of the superhero cape. “A major share of our nutrition comes from the plant world: fruits, legumes, beans, lentils and leafy greens. They are the unsung heroes,” says Suvir Saran, a Michelin star chef who’s also on the nutrition advisory board of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School. It is their deliciousness, taste, texture, colour and abundance that keep us healthy, wealthy and wise, he jokes. “What’s more, they are not very expensive, are deeply nutritive, easy to cook and easy on the GI tract. Think berries, tomatoes, spinach, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, peas, chickpeas, rajma, millets, wheat, berries, quinoa, farro, freekeh, besan, brown and red rice, peppers, onions, coriander leaves, hot peppers and such.”
Pick foods that can be enjoyed both raw and cooked since they can be used in many applications. Saran recommends sweet potatoes, cabbage, tomatoes, chickpeas and beans; cook them together or roast and caramelise them to bring out their flavours and make their texture magical. Toss them with whole grains and season with spices and herbs. “Make them simply or layered with the added nuance of rice,” he says. Whether unembellished or ostentatious, wholesome recipes cooked with whole foods never fail to deliver flavour and nutrition, Saran adds. “Cooking food in an earthen pot makes it alkaline, which in turn makes your system more resistant to diseases,” advises Manisha Bhasin, corporate chef, ITC Hotels. She adds sprouted foods as another must-add in your diet. “Sprout black chana, green moong and other pulses and incorporate them in salads or add to raita to source more vitamins. It multiplies manifold in sprouted foods,” she says.
Love local, eat seasonal
Eating seasonal and local brings freshness to the table and also reduces one’s carbon footprint. Indulge in summer fruits such as melons, cherries, plums etc., but opt for local varieties such as the Kinnaur apple or cherries from Kashmir. “As for veggies, there is an abundance of squash and gourds—tinda, toorai, doodhi—which, if made with fresh turmeric and freshly pounded spices will not only boost your immunity but also make the food more flavourful. The essential oils, extracted from freshly pounded spices, have a more beneficial effect on your system than something powdered and kept on the shelves,” adds Bhasin.
Fermented foods are another ancient Indian tradition, which will help to keep your gut healthy. “Add kanji in winter, and lassi, mathas, chaach or buttermilk as part of your summer culinary arsenal. Yoghurt is also a great source of vitamin D which builds up the body’s defence,” says Bhasin.
Prateek Sadhu, the chef-owner of zero-waste restaurant Masque in Mumbai, which recently came in at No. 32 in Asia’s 50 best restaurants, is a huge fan of pickled and fermented foods. Prebiotics are types of fibre that human beings can’t digest, but your gut bacteria can. These types of fibre provide nutrients to the bacteria that support healthy digestion and immune function. “Before you go out and buy expensive prebiotic supplements, remember that many foods naturally contain them such as oats, bananas, berries, asparagus, leeks and onions,” says Sadhu.
Probiotics, on the other hand, are live bacteria found in certain foods or supplements. They naturally contain helpful bacteria. Many of these foods can be made at home or purchased at a grocery store such as yoghurt, kimchi, kombucha and pickles (unpasteurised).
Freshly made lemonades, ambi pannas/sattu drinks and buttermilk, which are cooling go a long way in keeping the body hydrated. But they come with a caveat. “Reduce the dependency on refined sugars, replace it with gur or brown sugar,” cautions Bhasin. A healthy dose of fats like desi ghee, mustard oil and olive oil is a valuable inclusion as opposed to refined oils. Bhasin emphasises keeping one meal based on millets, which she considers a powerhouse of minerals and nutrients.
Of course, for cooking to be nutritious and sustainable, it has to first deliver flavour. “If there is no flavour, there is no health. The diner will be chasing junk foods and the cooking process will be a futile adventure,” warns Saran. But not all of us are natural cooks, which is why ITC Hotels is introducing a wellness menu for summers in their Gourmet Couch programme, a takeaway vertical where all preparations will be available as a meal for two. The basic premise: food and kitchens run like our grandmothers did. Basically “whether you roast, bake, stir-fry, sauté, braise, slow cook, deep fry, puree, pulse, steam or grind, make a little effort in getting to know your ingredients, and you are guaranteed not just appreciation but also added nutritional benefits from your cooking,” concludes Saran.
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