A few years’ ago, there was a public health campaign warning of the dangers of heart disease. It featured a middle-aged everyman who’d let himself go, a couch potato who drank too much. At one point, Everyman shovelled the contents of an Indian takeaway container onto a plate.
The message was clear – drink too much, smoke, don’t exercise, and eat badly, and you’re right in the heart disease firing line.
I remember being surprised by the choice of an Indian meal as the emblematic Evil Takeaway food.
Asian food isn’t that unhealthy, is it?
As in all things, it depends who you ask, and actually, what the question is. Of course, a diet consisting of nothing but takeaway curries, swimming in ghee and light in vegetable content is not going to do anybody much good, but an Asian diet packed full of pulses, lentils, grains, vegetables is an entirely different proposition.
The problem here is that we Britons associate Asian cooking with a small canon of very tasty, but very heavy and rich dishes that I suspect we also eat in far larger portions than is perhaps advisable.
There is hope, though, as the breadth and diversity of Asian cooking is showcased more and more as a counterpoint to the ‘traditional’ Asian menu. Restaurants such as the wonderful Prashad quite happily and effortlessly address any sense of imbalance with some very fine and delicious cooking.
This book, Saffron Soul, by Mira Manek, further challenges that idea of Asian food as fundamentally unhealthy. It’s a problem that seemingly dogs Manek:
“The common reaction when I mention healthy Indian food is: ‘Is there such a thing?’ Well, yes, there is. And it’s all down to the ingredients and the way it’s cooked”
And this is the crux. It’s about finding that balance of ingredients – spices, pulses, vegetables – and cooking them in a sensitive and intelligent way.
Manek continues by noting that “it is the addition of excess cream, oil, sugar and colourings, along with the fried snacks we find at those quintessential Indian restaurants, that have defined our idea of Indian food”. It might be what we’ve got, but we’ve only got it because it suits our tastes, and it isn’t the whole story. The rest of the story is worth consideration.
Saffron Soul is a great introduction to vegetarian Asian cuisine. Manek builds on Gujarati staples and interprets them herself, adding her own twists and riffs. There are some lovely recipes here – a masala chana chaat, a chaat built around potatoes and chickpeas, layered with the sweet tartness of apple, the tart crunch of green mango, and served with tamarind and date chutney and pomegranate seeds, or a glorious dish of whole green chillis, stuffed with a chickpea masala filling and cooked in a tomato based sauce. It’s hard to describe a dish like that without using words such as ‘robust’ or ‘gutsy’. Superb.
Manek’s book draws heavily on her Gujarati heritage, an area renowned for its vegetarian cuisine. It’s often claimed that Gujarati food is the healthiest in India, and with a foundation of main dishes based around steamed or lightly cooked vegetables bombarded with spices, it’s a not unreasonable position to take.
There’s an endearing simplicity and openness about Manek’s food. This isn’t pretentiousness, far from it. It’s somebody simply building on what she knows and creating some new, exciting food with its roots firmly in tradition. And really, this progression and development, this incremental and respectful change, is what cooking is all about, isn’t it?
It’s about time I diversified my repertoire of Asian dishes. This is just the book to start with.