Just like Indian culture, its food is also the most varied as compared to any part of the world. Each state, religion, community has a food story worth listening to. The best thing is that no matter which part of the country it belongs to, it brings flavour and health in our life. Since the country is celebrating the National Nutrition Month in September, what better than refocusing on our traditional food that is easy to source and healthy to boot! Let's take up regions to highlight each area's food health quotient:
North Indian Cuisine
This would include J&K, Punjab, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttaranchal. This is mainly the wheat-eating belt where other whole grains like makki, kuttu, jau are also commonly consumed. Rice, while popular in the hilly regions, is not so in the plains.
Whole grains are a favourite staple here. Wheat, jau, kuttu, jhangora; all of these are rich in fibre, antioxidants, minerals and vitamins. Dals are an absolute must here and whole dals like rajma, lobia, urad are particularly favoured. Known for their protein content, they are also good sources of folate vitamins, fibre, zinc, magnesium, potassium and phosphorus. No meal is complete without dahi, a probiotic rich in calcium and proteins. Vegetables range from saag of different varieties and not just palak and sarson. So you have bichu ghas of Uttrakhand, haak from Kashmir to all other seasonal varieties like bhindi, karela, pumpkin. Vegetables, especially green leafy ones, are loaded with beta-carotene, folates, vitamin K and iron. All vegetables add fibre and are low in calories. Peanut and mustard oils are the most used fats for cooking. Peanut oil has a near perfect ratio of saturated fats to polyunsaturated to monounsaturated fats and in combination with mustard oil it is one of the healthiest. North Indian cuisine also boasts of rich gravies and masalas. The tomato, onion, garlic base of these gravies adds health benefits and the dry masalas help keep the immunity and digestion in top shape. The only caution here is to go easy on the oils and fats.
South Indian Cuisine
This would include Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Lakshadweep, Pondicherry, Andaman and Nicobar. South Indian cuisine is much more than just idli, dosa, vada, rice and sambar. It is a treasure trove of flavours and variety, which is different in every state south of the Vindhyas. Traditional eating and cooking practises make sure that the nutritional value is maintained and maybe even enhanced.
Rice is the cornerstone of South Indian food. The traditional rice used in South is par boiled rice, which
is healthier than all other varieties of rice because the process of par boiling drives the nutrients into the grain so that when the hull is removed, all nutrients aren't lost. Par boiled rice is a good source of niacin and zinc. It also contains calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium. Ragi, amaranth, sorghum and pearl millet or bajra are also commonly used in the kitchens of south India, all of which are superfoods. Most common dals used are arhar, urad and chana dal. Whole dals are not so popular; an occasional sprout may be used but very rarely. Milk is used for desserts and no south Indian meal is complete without dahi. Non-veg is very prevalent in south Indian cuisine, which is wrongly perceived as a vegetarian diet. Coastal areas consume lots of fish, which is a healthy source of animal protein. Pumpkin, yam, plantain, snake gourd, drum sticks are some of the commonly used veggies. All of these are very nutritious as they bring in beta-carotene, iron, minerals, vitamins, folates, vitamin C, some protein and lots of fibre to the food. Peanut oil and til oil are commonly used, both of which in combination provide the near perfect amounts of fatty acids healthy for our body and heart.
East Indian Cuisine
Let's cover the region from West Bengal to North-East including Odisha. While the traditional Odia and Bengali meals are rich in flavours and spices, as we move towards East, the flavours are less spicy. This entire region is rice-eating teamed with fish, meat, lentils and lots of greens.
The traditional rice used is par boiled rice, which is rich in nutrients. Apart from this, red, black and bamboo rice is also used. These varieties are treasure troves of antioxidants. Meat, fish, chicken and other farm animals and birds are the chief source of proteins. While dahi or yogurt is popular in Bengal and Odisha, milk and milk products are sparsely used in the north eastern regions. From raw banana, banana flowers, to 101 varieties of xaak, the variety of vegetables used are aplenty. These are loaded with nutrients like vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Mustard oil is used extensively along with peanut oil.
West Indian Cuisine
This region covers Goa, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan along with Daman, Diu and Nagar Haveli. These cover the most arid and dry regions of our country and when the summer temperatures soar, it reflects in their traditional eating habits.
Healthy grains like jowar, bajra, ragi are commonly consumed. Rich in fibre and antioxidants, these grains and millets are considered superfoods. They are also rich in minerals and vitamins. Cereals are paired with dried fish in coastal areas and with lentils in most of the other areas. Jaggery is used very frequently and onion, garlic and tomatoes are an important part of daily meals. They are not just used for cooking curries but also for making chutneys and pickles. While Goan cuisine uses cashew nuts in most curry preparations, others use a lot of peanuts instead. Both are healthy fat sources with proteins and antioxidants.
Indian cuisine is healthy as it comprises seasonal vegetables, whole grains, and healthy oils. Let's rededicate ourselves to preserving our food heritage by eating a well-balanced and healthy diet.
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About Rupali DattaRupali Datta is a Clinical Nutritionist and has worked in leading corporate hospitals. She has created and lead teams of professionals to deliver clinical solutions for patients across all medical specialties including critical care. She is a member of the Indian Dietetic Association and Indian Association of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition.