Category Archives: FOOD FACTS

Say no to white bread, eat potatoes in moderation

I tend to be very anti-white bread because I view it as a zero-benefit food, since it is made of white flour which offers no significant nutrients.

This also makes it a high glycemic index food, like potatoes. The risk from these as well as other high GI foods – which raise the level of blood-sugar too quickly – is described here and here. Both stories profile a recently concluded study that links the consumption of high-glycemic carbohydrates to the increased risk of coronary disease in women.

The surprising thing was that the list of high GI-foods includes watermelon, which one might imagine is quite harmless, and brown rice, which one is always exhorted by most informed/medical opinion to choose over white rice.

Just goes to show that probably moderation is the key though with bread I believe it is best to skip the white variety altogether.

And the combination of bread and potatoes – which probably counts as double-trouble, in view of  the science- in bread rolls is what decided my mind against writing the recipe as I completed the post about this dish today morning !

The small bit of good news is that when I looked up “glycemic index” just now, I saw on the Wikipedia link that Basmati rice is listed under “medium” GI foods.

Phew !  That’s one less worry for an Indian kitchen !

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Mesclun

We eat this so often – it is my favorite mix of salad greens – that I thought it merits a mention here.

According to sources such as wikipedia and wisegeek, mesclun (“to mix” in the Provencal language of the south of France) is a mixture of young greens (i.e. harvested while they are young, for a great flavor)  and can include  dandelion leaves, sorrel, rocket or arugula, mache or lamb’s lettuce, other leafy lettuces, spinach, mustard, swiss chard, chicory, frisee and sometimes edible flowers such as rose petals and nasturtiums. The original mix apparently consisted of chervil,rocket, types of lettuce and endive mixed in equal amounts.

A delicate olive oil and lime juice dressing is all a mesclun-based salad needs, I feel, so that the fresh flavors of the leaves are not subdued.

http://www.foodreference.com/html/fmesclun.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesclun

http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-mesclun.htm

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Peanut Butter-The Good and the Bad

The girls – and, I must confess, Shri and I too – have taken to peanut butter in a big way in recent months.  A spoon of it on a crepe, or a slice of bread -or just heaped on the spoon ! -makes for a very satisfying snack. The girls sometimes have a peanut butter sandwich for breakfast now, with a glass of milk.

Hence this post, as  I try to find out whether it is all good or whether there are things about it we need to know.

It seems that trans fats, which are part of the problem  in all processed foods, are the chief villain here too. The mostly fat-derived calories are not such an issue – though eating this food in moderation would therefore be a good idea – because the fat in peanuts is supposed to be the good sort.

From the sources I have looked at so far, it looks like switching to an organic variety should allow us to continue indulging – but only once in a while.

http://www.goodschoolfood.org/mayo.shtml

http://www.peanut-institute.org/070303_PR.html

http://www.drmirkin.com/nutrition/N242.html

http://www.peanut-institute.org/070303_PR.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peanut_butter

http://lowfatcooking.about.com/od/faqs/f/hydrogenated.htm

http://www.askdrsears.com/html/4/T043600.asp#T043602

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Getting to grips with Jowar/Bajra/Ragi

Neelam asked some weeks ago if I knew whether ragi flour is available here. That was the first time I actually looked for the French – or indeed the English – name of this flour since I have never cooked with it.

Turns out it’s called finger millet in English and eleusine cultivee, coracan or koracan in French.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finger_millet

She has also been trying to find out about jowar and bajra, two other very healthy grains that are popular in India but which I have no experience of.

While bajra is another variety of millet – pearl millet in English, millet perlé in French – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pearl_millet ,

jowar, I believe, is a variety of a group of grasses/cereal crops called Sorghum http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commercial_sorghum

I believe millet is very rich in calcium and that’s the reason I remember Harshini used it a lot to make baby food for Kavana.

Now to start the search for these flours here. It would open up whole new possibilities for our daily bread, so to say !

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Vegetarian for a Day…

While I don’t think I am for cultured meat (which is what the story below is about), the first video there , which shows how they separate those poor little chicks from their shells on a separator tray, makes me think about becoming a vegetarian; or at least that I must never again buy industrially produced chicken

http://blogs.howstuffworks.com/2009/11/18/how-in-vitro-meat-works-creating-meat-without-killing-any-animals/

This reminds me of how Noor declared some months ago that she was going to become vegetarian.

The girls were watching me skin pieces of chicken, before I marinated them in preparation for  tandoori chicken that I was planning to make for dinner guests the next day. The sight of a little bit of blood still visible on the leg pieces seemed to affect Noor enough for her to make this statement.

She actually resisted eating the chicken with the rest of us the next day, and even the day after that I was unable to tempt her with the leftovers.

Since then,  though she has gone back to her meat-eating ways, every once in a while she does state her intention to become a vegetarian one of these days.

Indira’s reaction to the whole thing is more objective/prosaic. She said to me once, when she was 6 or 7 I think, “Well I am sure there are lots of chickens in the world and it’s not as if we are killing all of them !”

Spoken like the meat-lover that she is 🙂

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Pain de Sarrasin- aka Kuttu ke Paranthe!

Talk about it being a small world.

When I wrote recently about buckwheat crepes I had no idea that buckwheat flour , called sarrasin in French or ble noir, is the good old kuttu ka atta that is used all over India to make things like cheelas, paranthas and pakoras for people who are fasting for religious reasons and therefore not allowed to eat grains. But then I have never actually eaten anything made with this flour in India, nor indeed have I seen it, since in our home my Aryasamaji mother and dadi never observed any fasts for any festival or occasion. So, being only very vaguely aware of this flour,  I had never given any thought to it or to what it might be.

My good friend Priti wrote to tell me about it, after reading about the crepes here.

So when I made paranthas today, for the girls’ lunch, with the flour I originally bought to make the very French galette, it felt like I had taken the long way home, in a manner of speaking 🙂

sarrasin-paranthas-002

Kuttu ke Paranthe

I made the dough as I would for any other paranthas – with water but also with some crushed rock salt in this case –  then rolled out and cooked the paranthas in the same way too. I noticed that the flour had a tendency to get sticky so I added water very carefully, only a little bit at a time.

The girls, as they sat down to eat, sniffed at their plates and said, “hey but these smell like those crepes !”

I did tell them eventually why. And though they were evidently not too excited about this new culinary experiment, they did eat them, good girls that they are, without further comment, with some aloo ki subzi , a little pickle and yoghurt.

I have no idea how far from the original these are in taste or look, but they are good enough to eat that I would definitely make them again.

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Tej Patta (Malabathrum or Malabar leaf, NOT Bay Leaf)

All About Tej Patta on Foodista
I made peas pulav for lunch today, and when I added  tej patta (usually – and erroneously, it turns out – refered to as bay leaves by most Indian cooks) to the oil, I found myself wondering yet again how closely related it might be to feuille de laurier ( laurel leaves), a popular herb  in Mediterranean and other western cuisines.

I had always imagined that the two might be related, since they look quite similar. But it turns out that they are very different.

Tej Patta (tamalpatra in Sanskrit and Marathi and often called bay leaf or Indian bay leaf in English) is a tough, three veined, very aromatic leaf that is much used in north Indian cuisine . It does in fact come from a tree – the malabathrum -which belongs to the Laurel or Lauraceae family, as do the true bay/laurel trees (such as the Laurus Nobilis tree grown in the Mediterranean region or other laurel/bay trees like the California Laurel, Turkish Laurel etc.) whose  leaves – true claimants to the term “bay leaf “- are used in western cuisines.

The cinnamomum tamala (malabathrum) tree – grown in both the Himalayas and southern India – is, however, a different genus from that of bay trees, so it is inaccurate to term the leaves of the former as bay leaves.

The malabathrum tree is closely related to the cinnamon tree – they belong to the same genus – and the aroma and the fragrance of tej patta is in fact somewhat reminiscent of cinnamon. This is another way to distinguish between tej patta and bay/laurel leaves – the latter have a fragrance more like pine and lemon. Also, bay – or laurel- leaves are longer and slimmer than tej patta.

Apart from being an important flavoring agent in biryanis and many other meat-based dishes, tej patta is also used in the preparation of a Bhutanese herbal tea called Tsheringma. You can read more about its recipe, and the benefits, here http://www.itmonline.org/arts/bhutan.htm

and here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsheringma

I was interested to see that apart from tej patta, Tsheringma’s other ingredient are petals of the safflower plant. Since this plant is also the source of a cooking oil known to be heart-healthy, I am inclined to think that there has to be a sound basis to the benefits this tea is said to offer, according to  Bhutanese tradition.

The essential oils from the leaf were used in ancient times in India as well as other parts of the worlds for perfumes as well as for medicinal purposes. First century Greek texts mention these leaves as being a major export of southern Indian kingdoms.

Some research has found the oils to have an antifungal property.  Significantly, this property is not adversely affected by temperature or storage, so the use of tej patta in cooking would not diminish this effect, I guess.

Tej patta leaves are also used as a treatment for colic and diarrhoea.

Different parts of the plant are used in many Ayurvedic preparations.

Here’s where I learnt more about tejpatta

http://www.uni-graz.at/~katzer/engl/Cinn_tam.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bay_leaf

http://www.theepicentre.com/Spices/bay.html

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/56673/bay-leaf

http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Cookbook:Bay_Leaf

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malabathrum

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinnamomum

http://www.worldagroforestrycentre.org/sea/Products/AFDbases/AF/asp/SpeciesInfo.asp?SpID=18024

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Garam Masala

The aloo-palak I made for dinner a couple of days ago didn’t quite taste the same, and I am inclined to put that down to the fact that I have been using a commercial/packaged garam masala for a while now, instead of  the home-made version which I ran out of a couple of weeks ago.

I do keep  a packet of store-bought garam masala handy for use when I haven’t yet had the time to grind a fresh batch of this spice mix. But the store-bought variety doesn’t really make the grade, IMO. It lack the  richness/fullness of taste that homemade garam masala adds to curries and subzis, and even after months of sitting in a bottle, the latter retains an aroma and a flavor that the store-bought kind just can’t match, even when fresh.

Recipes for garam masala vary in India by region and indeed from one family to another even in the same part of India.

This is how my mother makes  it and it is one of those important,basic,essential recipes that I want the girls to find here.

Garam Masala (this recipe is also on Garam Masala on Foodista )

Black Cardamom – 50 gms

Green Cardamom, Cinnamon, Cloves, Black Cumin/Caraway seeds – 10 gms each

Cumin seeds, Black pepper corns, Coriander seeds – 125 gms each (the last is optional since most curries are flavored with some coriander powder as well)

Heat a frying pan/wok to a  high temperature. Put in all the spices and roast for 1/2 a minute, stirring every few seconds. Then turn the heat off and

leave the spices in for another minute, turning them over a few times.

Grind everything together to a fairly fine texture and store in an airtight bottle.

This is a very worthwhile task- despite the sneezes it can induce on account of the pepper- because good garam masala makes up the heart of many an Indian curry or subzi, along with the ginger, the garlic, the onions and the tomatoes.

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Choti/Hari Elaichi(Green Cardamom)

Before I started reading about cardamom in general and black cardamom in particular (a spice I use a lot and about which I posted some days back) I did not think much of green cardamom in that I never considered seriously that it might have significant benefits of its own to offer. I thought of it as the lesser variety of cardamom, used primarily for its aromatic flavor, in Indian cuisine-  in desserts such as gajar ka halwa, kheer and in the boiled tea that is drunk across so many parts of the Indian subcontinent. This spice contributes a very pleasant, almost sweet flavor; and my mother therefore even adds it sometimes to the masala that is the base for vegetable dishes such as baigan ka bharta and palak-aloo or palak-paneer, where the vegetable can often lack natural sweetness and in fact can even on occasion be faintly bitter or coarse to taste.

But it turned out that this green variety of cardamom is thought to offer lots of benefits too, and perhaps this is another reason why it is used so widely.

Green Cardamom (botanical name Elettaria Cardamomum) is the common name for the Elettaria genus of the zingiberaceae(ginger) family of plants. The Sanskrit name is Ela (“elaichi” in hindi) , in Arabic it is called al-hayl , and the Persian name is hel. Grown across South and South East Asia,  it is one of the most expensive spices by weight.

Although India is the largest producer of cardamom, only a small share of the Indian production is exported because of the large domestic demand. The main exporting country today of this spice is in fact Guatemala, where cardamom cultivation was introduced less than a century ago and where all the cardamom grown is exported.

It is a common ingredient in baking in north European cuisines, and it is used to flavor coffee and tea in the Middle East. In fact despite its widespread use in South Asia and Iran, 60% of the world production of cardamom is exported to countries in the Middle East and Africa that have people of Arab ethnicity, where apart from its popular use for flavoring coffee it is also added to spice mixtures such as baharat, ras el hanout and berbere.

South East Asian cuisine also uses varieties of cardamom – Siam cardamom and round or Java cardamom – which are related to but distinct from that used in India.

In India’s Ayurvedic system of medicine, this spice is believed to be very effective in the treatment of a range of conditions- most notably congestion, throat ailments , bronchitis, laryngitis, and digestive disorders such as indigestion,heartburn and flatulence, as well as infections of the teeth and gums and skin and urinary complaints.

Apparently cardamom derives its properties from the presence of a powerful phytochemical called cineole in its essential oil.

Laboratory studies on animals have shown extracts from this essential oil to have anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic effects.

Green cardamom, like the black variety, is best stored as pods because the seeds , once exposed to air, lose their flavor quite quickly.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6WP9-45N43B9-12&_user=10&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=d628e350e3b9f73d7cd6c2a4db799d35

http://www.uni-graz.at/~katzer/engl/Elet_car.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardamom

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elettaria

http://www.bolokids.com/2007/0354.htm

http://www.publix.com/wellness/greenwise/feature/Article.do?id=571&childId=723

http://www.draligus.net/4530-nepalese-cardamom-amomum-aromaticum.html

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So just how bad are sausages- and other processed meats -for you,really?

I have held this vague notion for a long time that this form of meat, as well as other processed meats, are just not a healthy food choice.

So I have been thinking for a while that I need to find out exactly why they say that processed meats, including sausages, aren’t good for you. Is it the additives and preservatives? Is it the high amounts of salt? In the case of sausages, is it the cuts of meat used to make them? Are there are some kinds that are better than others? Should I relax the rules at home about not eating processed meat too often?

One suspicion commonly held against processed meats is that they cause cancer. But I found mixed evidence of this.

In 2006, researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden seemed to find a connection between processed meats and stomach cancer.

They analyzed the results of 15 studies, of patients suffering from stomach cancer, published over the last 40 years across Europe, and North and South America .

They found that, compared to the normal population, those people with stomach cancer were more likely to have processed meats in their diet – foods like bacon, sausages, hot dogs, salami, ham, land liver pate, and that the highest risk factor among these was bacon.

But as can happen with scientific studies, this one was not conclusive because it was felt that it could well be that people who ate processed meats led a lifestyle that predisposed them to cancer from other causes, rather than it being that the processed meats were the cause.

But the results added to a growing body of other evidence linking processed meats to cancer. Last year in a study they were linked to pancreatic cancer, and in other earlier studies, to cancers of the colon and rectum.

So how might the consumption of processed meats lead to cancer?

This brings us to two controversial ingredients of processed meat; the additives and the preservatives- the latter are the nitrates and the nitrites which are added to meat to retard rancidity, to stabilize flavor, and to establish the characteristic pink color of cured meat, and because they are antioxidants.

As with the link between processed meat and cancer, the news on nitrites is somewhat mixed.

The concern really centers around nitrosamines, or the compounds derived from the nitrate and nitrite salts, which are known to be carcinogens.

One reason those barbecued sausages may not be a good idea- apparently the high heat at which sausages and bacon are sometimes cooked aids the formation of nitrosamines.

And nitrites, and by association cured meats, are linked to the incidence of chronic pulmonary disease (though a conclusive causal relationship has not been established.

But there are also studies reported in scientific journals which say that nitrites may protect the stomach from ulcers; topical nitrite preparations are known to be effective in wound and burn healing; there are studies which indicate that nitrites may help improve recovery after a heart-attack (demonstrated so far only in animals), and there is some expectation that dietary supplementation of nitrites and their topical uses will be effective and inexpensive therapies to help decrease the incidence and severity of heart attack and stroke or enhance recovery.

Interestingly. vegetables have high levels of nitrates too. But the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) says that someone on an average daily diet of fruit and vegetables is unlikely to consume a dangerous level of nitrates.

Whatever the truth of the matter, nitrates and nitrites certainly have a negative connotation and therefore some manufacturers have apparently begun to make “nitrite free” products though these often get around the problem by introducing nitrites in the meat through the use of additives such as  celery and cane sugar juice,as well as selected types of salt, which are high in “natural” nitrate.

The other additive to look out for in sausages is E128, also known as Red 2G. It is banned in some countries such as Japan already and in 2007 the EFSA recommended that it cannot be considered safe for humans because it gets converted in to aniline in the body, which is a substance known in lab studies to cause cancer in animals.

Another risk, associated with eating salami and other raw sausages (found by a 2001 study done at  Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology) is that a bacterium in these foods, which is resistant to antibiotics (and which could be transferred to humans consuming these kinds of meats and other raw foods such as some kinds of cheese) can render consumers of such foods non-responsive to antibiotic treatment.

The source of this is the antibiotics that animals like cows are given in their food, and against which the animals gradually develop genes resistant to them.

(The scientists who carried out this study did intend to try and find out next if the same can happen through plant foods).

As for what goes in to making a sausage- many people’s reservations are related to the use of offal – “anything on the floor”, as some have said.  (Offal is the term used to describe the entrails, internal organs and extremities of an animal – the parts that fall off when the carcass is butchered. For a detailed discussion on what exactly makes up offal, see http://www.offalgood.com/site/what-is-offal and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Offal).

After reading those links, I quite understand how this would make some people squeamish, and certainly I won’t be looking at a sausage too fondly the next time ! For aficionados, though, and people who believe that it is a waste to not use all parts of an animal, I believe the saying goes “you can eat all of the pig except the squeal” (For an amusing read on one lady’s experience of eating the very popular French sausage called Andouillette, see http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/sally_peck/blog/2008/02/16/offal_rejection).

Of course, as with everything else, one can always make one’s own (http://homecooking.about.com/library/weekly/aa030298.htm).

The other option I guess would be to buy discerningly, from speciality sausage makers who promise only prime cuts of meat.

As for me, I guess I am going to err on the side of caution and continue to skip processed meat as much as possible, or I’ll start to think about what kind to buy and where. Those nitrites – especially the nitrosamines that they get converted in to – worry me and I think what Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) said may well hold true even today –  “The less people know about how sausage and laws are made, the better they’ll sleep at night.

http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/f-w00/nitrosamine.html

http://www.fsis.usda.gov/FactSheets/Sausage_and_Food_Safety/index.asp

http://publicaffairs.uth.tmc.edu/media/newsreleases/nr2007/nitrite_nitrate.htm

http://www.abc.net.au/health/thepulse/stories/2006/08/10/1710593.htm

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/6286834.stm

http://www.foodproductiondaily.com/Quality-Safety/Nitrite-free-Where-does-the-truth-end

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-wellbeing/health-news/antibiotic-hazard-found-in-sausages-686099.html

http://www.foodnavigator.com/Product-Categories/Flavours-and-colours/Annatto-may-replace-nitrites-in-cured-meats-study

http://www.foodnavigator.com/Science-Nutrition/Nitrite-nitrate-rich-foods-may-not-be-so-bad-after-all

http://www.foodproductiondaily.com/Quality-Safety/No-risk-from-nitrates-in-vegetables-says-EFSA

http://www.themercury.com.au/article/2008/11/06/36811_food-wine.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/mostof_offal.shtml

http://www.answers.com/topic/sausage

http://www.sausagelinks.co.uk/sausage_buying_guide.asp

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Bari/Moti Elaichi(Black Cardamom)

Bari elaichi -an important ingredient of garam masala, which in turn is a key spice mix in many curries – is another of those spices that evokes many memories of my parents’ home. I associate this spice with the quintessentially Punjabi rajma; the karha (a concoction of tea and various spices all boiled together) that my mother gave us to drink when any of us had a cold or cough; winter meals of hot paranthas with the most delicious gobhi ki subzi cooked with potatoes or peas or both, to which my mother always added whole pods of badi elaichi ; and the very flavorful and aromatic mutton curry that was my father’s signature dish and which I loved to watch him make, in which the first spice to go in to the oil was always bari elaichi.

Indira seems to have absorbed my fondness for this spice, because she loves to pick out the pods from any curry or subzi I put them in, to suck on. She says she loves the taste !

I make a karha-style tea sometimes, in the winter, when Shri or I have a cold, that involves boiling the water with a couple of cracked black cardamom pods, 3-4 black peppercorns, and some grated ginger. It does wonders to clear the woozy and heavy-headed feeling that can come with a stuffy nose, and sends the most warming sensation coursing down the throat.

Here is some information on the spice, from the sources listed below.

Black cardamom belongs to the Amomum genus of the Zingiberaceae family of plants, with different species that grow across India, China and the other parts of the Himalayan region. The name in Hindi – elaichi – derives from the Sanskrit ela.

Though a very expensive spice, it is a common ingredient in Indian cuisine. Sometimes erroneously described as inferior to green cardamom, it has its own special place in Indian cuisine, as it is used to flavor many curries, vegetables,pulaos and biryanis where it cannot be substituted by the green variety. In fact unlike the latter which is used to flavor many sweet dishes, black cardamom is rarely used in sweet preparations.

Black cardamom is used in Vietnam and by the Chinese too, especially in the cuisine of the Sichuan region.

While native to Asia, these days most of it is grown in Central America with Guatemala the largest exporter in 2007.

Black cardamom has been used in traditional Indian medicine as a cure for obesity, as a digestive, and as a remedy for respiratory problems such as coughs and bronchitis. The variety grown in China,Laos, and Vietnam is also used in traditional medicinal systems of those areas as an antidote for digestive ailments, as a treatment for nausea and vomiting, tooth aches, etc.

This spice is best stored as pods, since the powdered form – though widely available – loses its aroma quite soon once the package is opened.

http://www.hindu.com/mp/2008/05/22/stories/2008052250660300.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_cardamom

genebank.rda.go.kr/asiamediplants/home/doc3_1_view.asp?seqno=120

http://www.uni-graz.at/~katzer/engl/Amom_sub.html

http://www.thespicehouse.com/spices/cardamom-whole-pods-inner-seeds-ground-and-black

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardamom

http://ayurvedicmedicinalplants.com/plants/3236.html


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Jeera(Cumin)

Aromatic jeera is a spice that is ubiquitous in Indian cooking.

Not only does it go in to the tempering for many daals and subzis, it is also an important ingredient in such diverse things as tamarind chutney,the delicious summer drink aam ka panna, as a flavoring in many raitas, and of course jal jeera, another very popular summer drink that takes it’s name from this spice.

This spice is used in both it’s seed form as well as ground in to a powder and is therefore sold in both forms too. But I feel that the latter is best made fresh each time some is needed; bottled jeera powder doesn’t pack half as much flavor, IMO.

So whenever a recipe calls for jeera powder, I usually lightly roast some cumin seeds (it is important not to brown the seeds too long/let them burn to black else this ruins the flavor) and then crush them with a rolling pin or in an electric mixer if the quantity is large enough. The resultant aroma is worth the extra effort !!

Cumin -scientific name Cuminum cyminum – is used in diverse cuisines, such as Mexican, Indian and Middle Eastern and belongs to the same plant family (Umbelliferae) as parsley, dill and caraway.

It is native to Egypt and has been cultivated since antiquity in Indian, China, and the Mediterranean region.

The Bible mentions it as a seasoning for soup and bread, and as a currency to pay tithes to priests while the Egyptians used it as an ingredient in the mummification of their pharaohs. In Europe in the Middle Ages, cumin gained popularity as a symbol of love and fidelity. People carried cumin in their pockets when attending wedding ceremonies, and married soldiers took along a loaf of cumin bread baked by their wives when they went to war !

Cumin has been traditionally used due to its cooling effect, and its’ ability to aid digestion. Research does indicate that cumin probably helps stimulate the secretion of pancreatic enzymes, compounds necessary for proper digestion and nutrient assimilation.

Cumin may even have anti-carcinogenic properties, due to its’ potent free radical scavenging abilities as well as the ability to enhance the liver’s detoxification enzymes. In fact, these same properties make cumin an important aid to overall wellness.

A very good source of iron and manganese, cumin is highly regarded in the Ayurvedic system of medicine for it’s varied curative properties. It can apparently help treat skin problems such as boils, psoriasis, eczema and dry skin; it is believed to help purify the blood; to reduce superficial inflammation; to help control flatulence, stomach pain, diarrhoea, nausea; can help alleviate the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome; and is believed to be an antiseptic.

If you come across material – studies/scientific papers -that talk about the benefits of jeera , I’d love to hear about it.

The sources I referenced are:

http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=91

http://lifestyle.indiainfo.com/2008/05/14/0805141143_the_benefits_of_cumin_seeds.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cumin

http://www.articledashboard.com/Article/Commending-Cumin-seeds/557628

http://www.indianexpress.com/news/three-spices-that-aid-digestion/242736/

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Paanch phoron

I am not certain how or why paanch phoran, a classic element of Bengali cuisine, became such a constant feature of the food my mother cooked.

I tend to attribute it to the fact that my father, who was a student in Kharagpur, West bengal in the 1960s acquired a life-long love of Bengali food there, and often asked her to flavor her daals and curries with this spice mixture.

Or it might have been because our family lived from 1964 until 1984 in Bihar. They use this spice mixture in Bihari cuisine too so it may just have been a local influence.

Either way, paanch phoran and its wonderful flavors make up a very special part of my childhood memories of my mother’s table – red masoor or sometimes chana daal tempered with paanch phoran; lauki cooked with tomato and a little milk and flavored with paanch phoran; a sweet and sour tomato chutney tempered with paanch phoran; khichdi made with rice and yellow moong or red masoor daal with paanch phoran in the tempering; rasedaar aloo tamatar flavored with paanch phoran; kadhi tempered with paanch phoran ; the list goes on.

Consequently the five spices that make up this mixture -mustard seeds, nigella seeds, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, and fenugreek seeds – are staples on my spice shelf and I couldn’t bear to run short of any of these !

I have listed these spices in that particular order because that is the sequence in which I put them in the oil.

You could mix equal quantities of the five and keep the mixture ready to use in a bottle. But I prefer not to do that because each spice takes a different amount of time before it’s aroma is released; so I find that sometimes by the time the fennel reaches this point, the fenugreek and the cumin seeds have almost burnt, giving the fenugreek, especially, a very bitter taste.

So what I do is that I  let the oil heat (though not to smoking point), and then first add the mustard and the nigella. Then when the mustard seeds begin to pop, I add the fennel seeds, and let them fry for a few seconds till they start to go a very light brown and to release their aroma. I then add the cumin seeds and let these fry for a few seconds till they begin to brown (without letting them go black which I feel spoils the look and the taste). Finally, I add the fenugreek and fry for just a couple of seconds before adding the ingredient which comes next in the recipe.

This probably takes a little longer than heating the oil to a high temperature and adding all the spices together, but IMO preserves the flavors better.

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Kalaunji(Nigella)

The star of the show in a subzi that my mother makes with spring onions, and one of the 5 components of  paanchphoran, an aromatic spice mixture used in Bengali cuisine, kalaunji has a nice mild flavor.

The small black seeds that make up this spice are obtained from the Nigella Sativa plant. Variously referred to as black cumin, black caraway, and black sesame in English (none of those names are accurate, though when a Bengali talks of “kala jeera” she is in fact talking of nigella sativa seeds), they are also sometimes mistakenly defined as onion seeds. One more name- a nice one- for this plant is “love in the mist” !

In India kalaunji is used to flavor breads such as naan, pickles, vegetables, and of course the afore-mentioned paanchphoran.

Like many other spices, this one too has been used since ancient times in many parts of the world for its medicinal properties. In the Middle East it is known as the “Habbatul Barakah’, or the seed of blessing.

The active compounds -nigellone and thymoquinine- in the seeds and the oil have been shown in studies to have antioxidant , anti-inflammatory, anti-allergy, anti-microbial and anti-tumor properties.  Perhaps this is why both the seeds and the oil find use in traditional remedies for the symptoms of a range of diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, stomach ailments and skin conditions such as eczema and dandruff.

Nigella Sativa is a rich source of polyunsaturated fatty acids and protein, and it is also thought to help keep cholesterol and blood sugar levels low. The former may be due the high level of betasitosterol , a common plant sterol, that is present in this plant.

The sources I browsed:

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6W7N-4GHR95F-1&_user=10&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=e345d191d868f35f0fedd8a9dfeb4570

http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=15041029

http://www.mskcc.org/mskcc/html/69141.cfm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigella_sativa

One quite detailed article about nigella sativa which lists all its sources, is here: http://www.answers.com/topic/black-cumin-seed-extract

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Hing(Asoefetida/Asafetida)

Once again, there isn’t a great deal I was able to find out that would validate the claims made for another spice I use a lot – hing.

Here’s what I did find out.

I was surprised to learn that hing has been called some pretty uncomplimentary names in many languages, usually alluding to the devil: merde du diable (devil’s shit) in French, devil’s dung and stinking gum in English, Dyvelsträck in Swedish, and Seytantersi in Turkish, among others!

I quite like the aroma of this spice (admittedly quite strong) even before it is added to oil or hot water.  So this was news to me, that to so many people the smell of raw hing is not appealing at all. However, the flavor released after hing has been fried in a little bit of oil is described variously as being akin to that of shallots/leeks/garlic, and in fact the spice seems to be used by many – such as those communities in India that do not use onions and garlic in their cooking – for this reason.

The English name for hing -Asoefetidais derived from the Persian word “aza”, which means resin, and the Latin foetidus, for “stinking”.

This spice, reddish brown or yellow in color, is a gum resin obtained from the sap of the giant fennel plant Ferula Asoefetida , of the family Umbelliferae.  The entire plant gets used as a vegetable, and all its parts give off a strong odor, a result of the sulfur compounds that it contains. This plant is native to Iran and Afghanistan, though most of the raw asoefetida from these places is sent to India for further processing. In India this plant is grown in Kashmir.

Commercially available forms of this spice include both hard pieces of the resin, as well as a powder form in which the resin is mixed with rice flour and gum arabic, after being crushed.

Asoefetida, believed to aid digestion, is commonly used in Indian cooking, albeit usually only a pinch at a time, to prevent flatulence. It is also believed to be an effective anti-spasmodic.

In traditional medicine it is often used as an antidote to brochitis,asthma, bronchitis and whooping cough. In earlier times in Europe, it’s strong smell was thought to repel germs, and to help calm episodes of hysteria.

And apparently court singers in the Mughal empire would habitually eat a spoon of asoefetida with butter in the belief that it improved their singing voice.

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/37633/asafetida

http://www.theepicentre.com/Spices/asafetid.html

http://www.kurma.net/glossary/g1.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asafoetida

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Rai(Mustard)

This spice is one of my favorites, because the images it evokes most for me are those of the regional Indian cuisine I love best – that of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

So I was a little disappointed when I google-searched to learn about the benefits/properties/effects of this “global” spice.

I suppose what I was looking for was the sort of sources I managed to find aplenty for spices such as turmeric- articles in mainstream news media, and reports of scientific research related to the spice.

I did find some, but if there are others you may have found which you think meet that criterion, do tell me.

In the meanwhile, here is what I have come across.

Mustard seeds can be the product of one of three different kinds of plants; black, brown (Indian), and yellow mustard.

Mustard greens, the seeds and the oil made from them have long been used in Indian and other Asian cuisines. In France, it is  ground mustard that is something of an institution (it is used as an accompaniment to meats). And medieval European courts apparently employed a “mustardarius”, an official who supervised the growing and preparation of mustard !

The mustard plant belongs to the Brassica family of phytonutrient-rich vegetables such as  broccoli ,cauliflower, kale and  cabbage. Therefore everything derived from it – the greens, the seeds, the oil – offers health benefits.

Mustard greens are an excellent source of Vitamins A, C and E, and iron; one cup (140 gm) would provide an adult 60% of the recommended daily Vitamin A requirement, all the Vitamin C requirement and about one-fifth the iron.

Mustard oil is apparently extremely heart and health friendly. It has cholesterol reducing and anti-oxidant properties; it contains essential vitamins; it has saturated fat levels lower even that of olive oil,and high levels of good omega 3 fatty acid and mono-unsaturated fatty acid.

Like the greens, the seeds are also an excellent source of selenium and magnesium, minerals that are helpful in reducing the severity of asthma and in lowering high blood pressure.

In India mustard oil has been used traditionally in the treatment of respiratory conditions ,arthritis and rheumatism.

Mustard seeds also act as a preservative, which is why they are often used in making pickle.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mustard_seed

http://www.hindu.com/2007/03/26/stories/2007032618560500.htm

http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=106

http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/mostof_mustard.shtml

http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/Brassica_juncea.html

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Haldi(Turmeric)


When I decided to find out more about turmeric, I was sure there would be lots I’d learn.

And wow ! It has certainly made for some pretty impressive reading.

It wouldn’t be wrong, I think,  to call this a wonder spice. The list of real and potential benefits that tradition and even modern research claim for it is very long indeed (though some of these claims, as a few sources are careful to say, are based on clinical trials with animals, with similar effectiveness in humans yet to be conclusively proved) .

Here is a summary of the highlights:

Haldi, a commonly used spice, has been an important element of traditional Indian and Chinese medicine for centuries. It has been used as an antiseptic , to treat respiratory problems, to treat skin diseases, to treat rashes, boils, ulcers and infections. In fact in 1997, India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial research managed to stop a patent being granted to researchers (led by two Indian born scientists) in the U.S., who were working on creating products based on the healing properties of turmeric, by proving that knowledge of the benefits of turmeric has been in the public domain in India for a very long time.

The active/main compound of turmeric is curcumin, a polyphenol that has been found to have anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial qualities. It has been found to be effective in the relief of arthiritic pain, because it alleviates joint inflammation.

Turmeric, which has been the focus of a great deal of research around the world in recent years -to quote one source, two hundred and fifty-six curcumin papers were published in 2004 – is being hailed as a potential cure for a range of health conditions – neurodegenrative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and MS, auto-immune diseases, many kind of cancers, and Type-2 diabetes.

Scientists have noticed for quite long now that prostrate cancer – the second most common cause of death due to cancer – is rare in India. This is attributed to a diet rich in vegetables such as cauliflower, and the use of turmeric in Indian cooking. In laboratory tests, curcumin has been found to inhibit the growth of human prostrate cells implanted in immune-deficient mice.

(The flip side to the potential befit of turmeric for inhibiting cancer cell growth is that recent animal studies indicate that dietary turmeric may inhibit the anti-tumor action of chemotherapeutic agents so it has been suggested, for example, that breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy should  limit intake of turmeric and turmeric-containing foods)

The use of turmeric in Indian food – is also the reason, studies indicate,for the much lower occurrence (one of the lowest rates in the world) of Alzheimer’s among older Indians who are in the age group usually at most risk for this disease.

Research has also shown that curcumin helps lower bad cholesterol, and increases the levels of good cholesterol, in the body. It also helps alleviate the inflammation response in the body caused  by obesity, and could thus help prevent Type-2 diabetes.

If you want more detail on any of this, here are the sources I looked at:

http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=78http://www.deccanherald.com/Content/Feb192008/snt2008021852974.asp

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turmeric

http://www.drugdigest.org/DD/DVH/HerbsWho/0,3923,4046|Turmeric,00.html

http://www.bri.ucla.edu/bri_weekly/news_060206.asp

http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/turmeric-000277.htm

http://www.mskcc.org/mskcc/html/11790.cfm?Disclaimer_Redirect=%2Fmskcc%2Fhtml%2F69401.cfm

http://www.upi.com/Health_News/2008/06/23/Turmeric_may_reduce_type_2_diabetes_risk/UPI-96261214219482/

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Ajwain(Carom seeds)


This is about ajwain, a spice that tends to not get its fair share of mention, IMO.

I have often come across people to whom Indian food is all about the usual suspects – turmeric, chilly powder, “curry” powder (though just as there is no one pan-indian cuisine, there is no one standard curry powder, in actual fact).

But ajwain has a very integral place in most of my Indian cooking, and finds a prominent spot on my spice shelf. I am a firm believer that it helps with digestion – any time you find yourself with this heavy feeling in your stomach, perhaps induced by some gastronomic indulgence, try this old home remedy. Chew just 1/2 a teaspoon of ajwain (if the taste is too strong for you, squeeze a couple of drops of lime juice in to it) , and you’ll be surprised by how quickly you’ll feel some relief.

I therefore use ajwain in many recipes – in curries (especially those made with chickpeas, kidney beans and kala chana) , when cooking vegetables such as cauliflower and potatoes that are said to cause gas to develop in the stomach, and I add it also to the dough for puris and paranthas for the same reason.

Here are a few things I have found about ajwain (sources below):

scientific name – trachyspermum ammi

Ayurveda counts ajwain among the 10 foremost herbs known for their anti-colic or anti-spasmodic action; infant colic is often treated with a poultice of ajwain. It has a stimulant action on the uterus and the digestive and circulatory systems, and can help with asthma and arthritis.

Ajwain seeds contain an essential oil which is about 50% thymol, which is a strong germicide, anti-spasmodic and fungicide.

Ahwain is sometimes used in a steeped liquid form against diarrhea and flatulence.

Research in India has shown that its oil can effectively cure ringworm infections.

http://www.tribuneindia.com/2005/20050622/health.htm#6

http://www.indianexpress.com/news/Three-spices-that-aid-digestion/242736/

http://www.theepicentre.com/Spices/ajowan.html

http://www.downtoearth.org.in/full6.asp?foldername=20030915&filename=news&sec_id=4&sid=21

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Dhaniya (Coriander)

Whether it is the fresh leaves, the aroma of the seeds as I roast them before grinding a fresh lot of the powder,or the older quantity sitting in a bottle on the spice shelf in our kitchen; Indira loves to sniff at coriander in any of it’s forms. It is quite an amusing sight to see her grab the bottle of coriander powder from my hand, after I have finished adding some to a curry or subzi that is cooking right then, and take a long, appreciative sniff at the contents. And she absolutely loves the trip to the vegetable shop from where I buy fresh coriander and mint, since she knows the fragrance will fill the air in the car on the way back !

So I figured this is the spice I should begin this section with.

here is what I have found out (sources below):

Apparently the plant is of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern origin; the Romans used it for treating digestive problems;it was even mentioned in the old testament.

The leaves are variously referred to as coriander leaves, cilantro ,dhania , Chinese parsley or Mexican parsley.

There is a host of fascinating stuff here about the history of the use of this spice; I am only listing some of the medicinal benefits mentioned.

Thanks to its to its exceptional phytonutrient content, it seems that coriander can help control blood sugar, cholesterol and free radical production; it is a very good source of dietary fiber, minerals such as iron and magnesium, and a very powerful antibacterial compound. It is  effective against colic and indigestion in both adults and children, and apparently coriander oil can help ease joint pain due to it’s anti-inflammatory properties.

Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coriander

http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=70

http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/120126251/abstract

http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/112437530/abstract

http://usa.loccitane.com/FO/Services/GlossaryDetail.aspx?id=33

http://www.theepicentre.com/Spices/coriander.html

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On choosing breakfast cereals carefully

Remember that old adage, eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and so on?
There is plenty of scientific data out there to support that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

For many people scrambling to get to work or school on time each morning, a bowl of cereal with milk makes for a quick, convenient and filling start to the day. But is it always as nourishing as it ought to be?

There is of course a dazzling array of choices in the cereal aisles of food stores and supermarkets.

But a closer glance at what is on offer would reveal that instead of a product that in an ideal world would be nutrient rich and based on complex carbohydrates, what is on offer is often an unhealthier option, with excessive amounts of added sugar, hydrogenated oils and too-highly-processed grains.

The added sugar usually appears on the list of ingredients of most cereals in more than one avtaar – sugar, dextrose, fructose, corn syrup and maple syrup, among others. The choice of your breakfast cereal becomes significant when you consider that the amount of sugar permissible each day on a 2000 calorie diet (make that around 1500 for children) is a mere 40 g and many popular brands fulfill 25-50% of that amount. So eat breakfast like a king, yes, but like a wise one, not a hedonistic one.

Hydrogenated oils too are bad news when you consider that they are linked to coronary heart disease, diabetes and other chronic health conditions. So why do manufacturers use them, instead of healthy polyunsaturated fats, in the processing of their products? Because hydrogenated oils increase the shelf life of these products and add to their taste and texture.

The third big source of trouble comes from the cereal or grain itself. Most commercially available cereal-based products use refined flours, since the oils present in the whole grain can cause rancidity, which would complicate processing, storage and transport.

But the milling that cereals undergo during refining, strips them of the bran and the germ portions of the seed, leaving only the endosperm. This means that vital nutrients such as fiber, vitamins and natural oils are lost in the process.

It is important therefore, to look beyond the marketing hype on the front of a box of cereal and to read the list of ingredients very carefully. The biggest ingredient is required to be listed first. So if this not “whole wheat”, for example, then you are not looking at a product that is made with whole grain. A common trap is a label that says “made with whole grain”. The loophole here for manufacturers is that the product is often made with refined flour, in the case of wheat-based cereals, with a little bit of whole wheat thrown in for effect, since they are not required to say HOW much whole grain is actually used.

So what is one to do? What is the alternative to the myriad ready-made delicious ways to start the day, with sugar, chocolate and honey added in rash abundance to all those pops, flakes, clusters, loops, krispies and cookies?

Make your own. Here’s my formula, which so far has worked reasonably well with both my daughters, aged 7 and 3 and a 1/2.

I keep a selection of the simplest -read no added sugar and not too highly processed -cereals like oatmeal, Weetabix, wheat flakes and muesli mixes, because these typically have a much higher percentage of unrefined grain as compared to the bulk of cereals targeted at children.

To make these staid choices exciting, I keep fresh fruit and nuts handy that can be chopped and added easily to any of these cereals. Some additions that I find they enjoy are soft seedless dates, blueberries, apple,banana, raspberries, apple or pear compote, raisins, almonds and walnuts.

The beauty of this is that most of the time, you don’t even need to add any sugar since the fruits bring their own sweetness and flavour to the cereal though a small spoon of honey or unprocessed brown sugar works well with some of those additions.

This is not to say that we deny ourselves the occasional treat from a box of chocopops or honey loops. But even there, I sneak in to everyone’s bowl a spoon of wheatgerm, commonly available in powdered form, to console myself that there is a smidgen of nutrition in what my girls are eating that morning.

Hey, what’s a mother to do – just trying to beat the cereal makers at their insidious game.

References
http://cspinet.org/new/sugar.html
http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4776
http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=532
http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/fats.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whole_grain

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