The flames have all died down and shop-front sweet-box displays have been put away till Diwali season arrives again in India next year. Our local sweet shop did so much business this year, that it encroached on the sidewalk to set up an assembly line for its colourful array of shiny-pink-wrapped boxes of milk sweets. Post Diwali, the papers are filled with features about fasting and detoxing from festival binges. But is that really enough? How are we eating the rest of the year? We earnestly believe that foods prepared naturally in our homes are nourishing, and that junk food is the resident evil turning us into zombies.
The Hairy Bikers: Mums Know Best on the TLC India feature hard-working mothers with some of the tastiest looking, but also some of the starchiest, cheesiest recipes. Most of the foodies arrive at the Mums Know Best carnival tent with a cooked-up personal favourite and a side-serving of childhood memories. So blame childhood for the skewed reasonings we carry around without serious examination. My fondest memories too revolve around delicacies from the age of innocence.
I remember late afternoon tea as that time of day when sweet milk tea always had accompaniments like buttered pita bread dipped into south Indian theeyal curry. According to Indian custom, my mother would usually boil the dark tea-leaf pellets on the stovetop along with a generous splash of milk. These tiny pellets are the cheaper remnants of the tea industry, known as CTC (crush, tear, curl) tea, and these shrunken former tea leaves can put up with being boiled, unlike the more delicate, refined leafier teas.
My mother often whipped up an upma, which is basically cooked semolina, tempered with black mustard seeds, sauted shallots, curry leaves, salt, if need be a pinch of turmeric for a more golden result. The fluffy upma (up meaning salt, ma meaning cooked dough) recently put in an appearance in MasterChef Australia. It is strangely bemusing when things from our daily lives make an appearance on global prime time, and, just for a moment the mundane is elevated to the exalted. Upma is a savoury south Indian cereal, and it is as quotidian as it gets on breakfast tables in southern India.
If we could brush aside these warm memories from the nest, we would begin to see that most grain-based home-made recipes, even minus the preservatives and fancy chemicals, are still almost as harmful for overall heart and brain health as junk food. As an urban species, we are not bungee-jumping every day to burn off the amount of starches we consume as a result of our agriculture-induced lifestyles. But even that notion may just be a popular misconception. A lot of people I know harbour the belief that it doesn’t matter what they consume, as long as they burn it off running on the treadmill. Though exercise will help in overall calorie balance, it will not negate the side-effects of excessive insulin spikes, which latest research points to as the root cause of many a modern ill.
As a child, I had bad health, and after years filled with visits to doctors our family was none the wiser. It did not help that we lived in an apartment with limited opportunities for play or exercise. Now, I believe our grain-heavy Indian diet was to blame. In this country, we tend to rely on grains and legumes for starch and protein. Rice, roti and daal _ this is the triumvirate dominating the average Indian dining table. And the average Indian dinner plate will be three-fourths rice or wheat, with tiny portions of vegetable and legume accompaniments.
Type 2 diabetes is commonplace, and the newspapers have a tendency to blame the epidemic on junk food. My uncles were suffering from diabetes long before junk food emporiums invaded the semi-urban area they inhabited. We are not yet ready to admit that the culprit may lie in the heart of our homes, it may be vast quantities of rice and wheat consumed three to four times on a daily basis. On an evolutionary scale, grains probably fuelled the fast flight of little birds. But after humans discovered agriculture, we did not sadly evolve wings to work off the starches we began to consume by the generation.
As simple starches became evil, whole grain came to the rescue. Food brands in India have been sinking millions into the whole-grain idea, no questions asked, with the latest ready-to-eat products touting the back-to-the roots mantra. As yet no one mentions the problems of phytic acid, lectin and other anti-nutrients in whole grains, though gluten has recently made it to urban Indian’s consciousness. Dutifully, I too followed the whole-grain advice, and couldn’t understand why I always had a problem stomaching brown rice, millets and whole wheat. On one occasion, I went to the trouble of fermenting brown rice, in lieu of par-boiled rice, for the popular Indian breakfast dish idli. A few bites into the fruit of my labours, my throat closed up in a severe allergic reaction.
Whole wheat, and millets, leave me with unexplained headaches, hangnails, tooth ache, patchy roughened skin, and joint pain especially in the case of whole wheat. I find millet roti (flattened pan bread) made with either bajra (pearl millet) or jowar (sorghum) a little more palatable and dentition-friendly in the presence of dairy. This perhaps explains the traditional North Indian Punjabi combination of whole wheat chapati with ghee and paneer. It was only when I came across the website of the Weston A. Price foundation, and began reading up on how phytic acid in whole grains impedes the absorption of vital minerals in the gut, did the light bulb turn on in my head.
Mainstream advertisers latching on to the latest fads don’t realise that even our ancients were wary of whole grains. In the north of India, people found a way to make unleavened whole-wheat roti more digestible by combining it with dairy in the form of home-made butter, made from milk of grass-fed cows, and paneer, a home-made cheese, easily precipitated out of milk by using a little whey or lemon juice.
In the south, ancients discovered par-boiling as a way of making rice more acceptable to the gut. The south Indian breakfast dish idli is made by steaming saucer-shaped batter discs of ground, fermented par-boiled rice and sticky black gram daal, which has been soaked overnight. Par boiling probably makes the b-complex vitamins in the grain available for absorption. After par-boiling, the rice is husked and milled thereby getting rid of the bran with all its anti-nutrients.
I add a couple of seeds of fenugreek to the sticky black gram lentils as it soaks overnight. This is supposed to attract wild yeast to the soaking liquid. And sure enough, the next day, the mixture is frothy and smelling pleasantly yeasty. I have tried the same trick with the soaking par-boiled rice, but for whatever reason, the yeast seem to prefer the lentils. I wonder if this has anything to do with the nitrogen in the lentils, or the rhizobium harboured in root nodules when the plant was in the ground. Fermentation of the ground batter eliminates more of the phytate content remaining in the grain.The idli batter is also rich with the residue of bacteria and yeast involved in the overnight fermentation, possibly adding to the nutritional value of the eventual idli or dosa made from the batter.
But even after all this, there is just so much of this treated rice-and-lentil wonder that I can stomach without feeling a tightness in the gut by late evening. The only way out of the malaise seems to be to go easy on the grain, even if it is impossible to sidestep it altogether in a grain-centric culture.