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Revisiting traditional Indian healthy food habits

Food and nutrition is a subject of specialization now; so many new theories and studies are published every day about what to eat, how to eat and what not to eat. But when looking back at the thousands of years-old traditional Indian food habits and dietary regulations, one cannot help but be awestruck by the level of knowledge Indians in those times had about food and dietary science. One may note that every single spice used in our food, including those in the popular digestive, muksuddhi, has science and reason behind it to be included in the complete dietary plan followed by Indians, which essentially changes with season, geography, age and in compliance with nature (people never were against the nature). Today it is possible to search on the internet and find out the tremendous benefit of the spices like turmeric, coriander, red chilli, green chilli, cumin, clove, cardamom, cinnamon, and many more used daily in Indian dishes. The food we eat, how we eat, what ingredients it contains and how it is prepared is essential for the wholesome development (both mental and physical) and wellbeing of a person. Recently researchers have found how chemicals secreted from different food items help in combating stress, anxiety, depression etc. Depending on the needs of the region, this has been done in the Indian kitchens since the olden days. For example, a daily serving of bitter gourd and green vegetables, fish and small pieces of lemon in West Bengal or curd and buttermilk in Punjab, seems very ordinary to locals but works wonders in increasing one’s immunity. An extra dose of red chilli powder in the Rajasthani diet is said to help combat the extreme temperature there. Growing up in Bhopal, I have seen people dealing with the heat during summer, especially the life threatening, ‘nau tapa’ heat waves in May by including raw onion, plain curd and aam panna (a traditional cool drink prepared from roasted raw mangoes, rock salt, mint and spices) in their daily diet and then braving out in the sun for work.Applying a paste made out of haldi (turmeric), Neem leaves and mustard oil on the body before bathing, and then wearing yellow clothes and eating yellow food on the occasion of Saraswati Puja is not only joyous but there is a whole lot of science hidden behind it. Turmeric and Neem leaves are antibacterial herbs. The yellow colour signifies the brilliance of nature and the vibrancy of life. The same festival is celebrated as Basant Panchami (celebrating the arrival of spring) in some parts of India. During this time the yellow rays of the sun falling on earth indicates prosperity.The custom of eating preparations made out if til (sesame seeds) and gud (jaggery) is famous all over India, especially during winters. Sesame seeds and jaggery help to keep the body warm and increase immunity at the same time. The oil present in the sesame seeds helps generate heat and keeps the body temperature from dropping.  Vitamin C and iron present in jaggery increases immunity and is also helpful for respiratory disorders and throat problems.Going down south to Andhra Pradesh, any meal whether it’s the daily regular meal at home or the meal at a grand wedding, it compulsorily ends with curd rice. Curd is a natural pro-biotic, and when used with rice it’s good for heart, builds immunity and reduces weight. The famous rasam (a traditional South Indian dish) is a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals and facilitates digestion. Tamarind is rich in antioxidants and helps in reducing weight.Even today I have a clear and vivid memory of my grandmother boiling, deseeding, adding rock salt and then sun drying amla (gooseberry) so that it could be stored and consumed year long till the next season. Having this homemade amla candy every day after lunch and dinner was made into a habit; a fantastic way to receive vitamin c and iron and increasing immunity in the body. Can any vitamin tablet replace the benefit received naturally? We know the answer is NO. Let me share one more personal experience. I am talking of the time when I was in my B.Sc 1st year final exams (1994).  I was going to college, driving a borrowed scooter, early in the morning at 6.30 am when I met with an accident. My scooter crashed with another scooter and I fell down along with it. But I got up, picked up my scooter, gave a ride to a friend of mine on the way who was waiting for me, reached college in time, appeared in the exam and came home after dropping off my friend. I didn’t tell anything to mother about the accident, otherwise she would have made me return the scooter, and finding public transport that early in the morning would require getting up twice as early, which wasn’t possible when every extra minute before exams matter. As a result I couldn’t go to a doctor nor get a painkiller, but I was in a lot of pain nonetheless. Fortunately, turmeric powder from the kitchen mixed with milk, taken twice a day saved me. Our tradition also has a complete step by step plan for introducing adult food to a baby. Special laddoos (made from dry fruits, spices and many other specific items) are made and given to women who have recently given birth for her recovery and healing; even her overall diet has some specifications because she is breast feeding. These specifications may change with geography in India according to climatic conditions and availability of items in that place but people know what to eat in the specific situations. Whichever part of India one travels to, the traditional food habits passed down from generations to generations is scientific, well rehearsed, and perfect for one’s overall wellbeing. Just because the western countries are more urbanised and industrialised doesn’t mean that everything is good about them – yes, we do need to learn discipline, cleanliness, dignity of labour, importance of hard work, punctuality etc. from them, but definitely not at the cost of forgetting our own strength. We should be open to improving and beginning, but we also need to be proud of our own culture and traditions and instil them in our children, who are the future of our country. For their sake, it is time we revisit, revive and share our old traditional food habits.

About the Author:Nivedita Mukherjee

 After completing her Master’s Degree from Bhopal, Nivedita has had the opportunity of staying in cities like Jaipur, Hydrabad, Pune and Mumbai before finally coming to Kolkata. In the past she has worked in various organisations including the Times of India and a premier school in Kolkata and feels that life is the biggest teacher. She is currently a homemaker enjoying the growing up years of her three kids.

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