Cooking for health

(Cooking with whole, unrefined, or minimally refined plant ingredients)

Indian cooking – Eliminating the dairy

In Indian cooking we find dairy almost everywhere. However it’s easy enough to eliminate it and still have similar dishes that taste great.

Ghee – Most Indian vegetable dishes and daals can be cooked in oil instead of ghee or butter.

Cream – If the recipe calls for cream, the cream can be replaced with cashew-nut paste – made by lightly roasting the cashew-nuts and then grinding them into a paste. If needed water may be added to the ready made butter to get the desired consistency. Ready made cashew butters are also available in health food stores. Dakini makes a good cashew nut butter. The advantage of a nut butter over cream or oil is that it is made of the whole substance and so also contains fibre. It gives the flavour with lower calories for the same volume.

Curds – If the recipe calls for curds, you can replace it with peanut or soy curds or coconut milk. For example – curd rice is easily made with peanut curds. Raitas can be made in coconut milk or peanut curd, Chaas can be made with peanut curds, Kadhi can be made with peanut curds or coconut milk.

Milk in desserts – This can be easily replaced with coconut milk or with nut milks for kheer type desserts. Some deserts can be made with coconut milk and sesame butter for the thickness. Most Indian sweets available in the market contain too much sugar and should be avoided.

Eliminating sugar

In most Indian cooking jaggery can replace sugar without any problem. In desserts one can make kheers with raisins and dates and other dried fruits for the richness and avoid jaggery altogether. Date syrup is now available everywhere (Lion Brand) and can also replace sugar. Both jaggery and date syrup have more nutritive value than sugar, which has just caloric value. Both contain iron, and other vitamins and minerals but lack fibre. Both are refined (not whole) products and should be used minimally.

Eliminating frying

Nowadays we see many ‘healthy snacks’ available in health food stores made crisp in the oven. We find baked sev, baked dals, baked puris and chakris instead of the fried versions. Also we have many roasted snacks like chana jor garam, spicy peanuts. Sprout bhel, poha, sabudana khichdi, idlis, dhosas etc., can be made with minimum or no oil and are tasty options, as well as our famous vegetable sandwiches which can easily be made without butter and on whole wheat bread. The trick is to put coconut in the chutney to give it the richness and the fat that butter gives.

It’s also possible to make many ‘fried’ foods in the oven. Tikkis can be placed on a lightly greased tray and turned instead of frying. Koftas and pakoras can be made by the following method – mix ingredients according to your favourite recipe and adding a pinch of baking soda. Then steam them in the mini idli maker. When cooked brush lightly with oil or place on a greased tray and bake. Turn over once to cook both sides evenly. This will make them soft on the inside and crisp on the outside.

Tadkas can also be done with no oil, just heat the pot, put in the mustard seeds and they will pop. Then add the other ingredients. Or use just a drop of oil. Karen Anand gives the following tips in her books ‘Lean Cuisine Curries.’ Masalas can be roasted over a slow flame on a heated thick iron pan or tawa stirring gently with a wooden spoon till their color changes. This will bring out their flavour. Roasted masalas can also be stored in an airtight container.

She also recommends roasting onions and garlic in the oven to brown them instead of frying them. To do this, place them whole, without peeling in the oven. To prevent sticking they can be brushed with a little oil. They roast slowly – taking about an hour. Large quantities can be done together and they can be stored in the fridge till needed for about 10 days. Remove the outer crispy layer and chop to use only as needed. Garlic cooks a little faster than onions. She recommends that whenever you read ‘fry onions till golden’, replace them with the roasted ones.

Dr Bimal Chajjar ‘fries’ his chopped onions in the pan with no oil whatsoever. He stirs, and adds water in the place of oil, whenever they get too dry or are in the risk of burning. Water can be added as needed and it should be stirred till they brown or become translucent. It takes a little longer but gives the dish the right flavour without the oil.

Karen Anand recommends steaming vegetables. For this only a small quantity of water needs to be put in the steamer, to which lemon juice, garlic, onions and herbs can be added to impart a delicate flavour to whatever is being steamed. The process is very quick. Vegetables should not be overcooked, but left a little crunchy.

Karen also suggests keeping an onion broth or vegetable stock ready in the fridge. An onion stock can be made by chopping 6 onions and putting them in a pot with 15 cups of water and some peppercorns, a bay leaf or two and a couple of cloves. This is boiled and simmered till the liquid is reduced to half. This can be strained or used as is. This can be used to impart flavour to the cooking in the absence of oil.

Keeping the fibre

For healthy cooking it’s important to keep the ingredients as whole as possible. It’s the fibre that cleans the intestines as well as helps the arteries remain free of cholesterol. Many vegetables and fruits that are commonly peeled need not be. Gourds, potatoes, carrots, cucumbers all need not be peeled. Also white rice and white flour (maida) are devoid of many nutrients due to the removal of the outer coating. Sugar, oil, and many other substances are refined products and are devoid of many nutrients. As far as possible, all foods should be eaten whole.

One good way of imparting the flavour of oil is to use oilseeds in cooking. For example cooking vegetables Maharashtrian style with grated coconut and peanuts is a great way. Sesame seeds can also be used. Another way is to add peanut butter or sesame butter or other nut butter to the dish. Some of our recipes like the Gado Gado, Tahini and Cookie Recipe, and Almost Sinful Walnut Desert are examples of this.

Exotic cooking

Besides the Indian subcontinent, all of Asia never traditionally used dairy, not even our closest neighbors like Srilanka and Burma. Once you have got something vegetarian in the Asian menu, it is necessarily vegan. Many of these dishes are easy to make and healthy. You will see several Eastern recipes.

One usually identifies Western cooking with a lot of non-veg, and dairy, but this is not necessarily mandatory. You will see several Western recipes with alternatives. Nutritional yeast – which is not easily available in India but widely available in the West, is a good substitute for the cheesy taste, and several such recipes have been included. One of the best tasting brands is Red Star Nutritional Yeast. This ingredient is light easy to carry, and easy to store, so you can always try to get some and store it.

Meat alternatives

Sietan and soy protein provide the high protein and the texture of meat, which is essential to some during the transition. Protein is like an addiction – our body does not need as much protein as we take and in fact it is harmful. Seitan is made from wheat gluten, the protein of wheat and soy protein can be had in the form of tofu, tempeh, soy nuggets and soy milk and curds. In the West they are easily available as more and more people become health conscious. Here we can buy soya milk and tofu but we are still waiting for other products. Meanwhile we can make them ourselves. You can find these recipes in the chapter on vegan dairy and meat. It will not be long before many of these foods will also be available in our markets as healthful eating becomes more and more popular.

In conclusion

To a novice all this may seem very complicated but in reality most households have 7 – 9 favourite dishes that they make over and over again. These recipes here are just to give you ideas. You do not have to follow them exactly, in fact you are encouraged to play with the ideas and make dishes suitable for your own palate. Cooking is a creative art form, and not everyone can be a chef, but just as all of us can doodle even though we are not artists and all of us can cook food, which is fun, healthy and appetizing! You don’t have to be a professional. It just needs some will to spend a bit of time and look after your own well-being and that of your family.