Immunity-Boosting Superfoods Are Hidden In Indian Kitchens
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DAL-ROTI khao, prabhu ke gun gao,” Ratna Rajaiah quips, summing up the crux of the wisdom contained within her latest book, Immunity in a Spoon of Ghee: Superfoods from the Indian Kitchen. Apart from the ‘ghee’ in its title, Rajaiah’s book delves into other immunity boosters as well — from nuts and amla, to ginger and turmeric. Still, she says, there is no magic bullet for good health. “Exercise, sleep well, do at least one thing that you love and which makes you happy,” she enumerates. “And eat what your grandmother ate. Incidentally, dal-chawal, sambar-rice, dal-roti or curd rice — all now considered 'meh' food — are some of the healthiest meals in the world.”

The roots of Immunity in a Spoon… took hold when Rajaiah was going through a medical issue and started using food to not only tackle the side effects of her treatments but also build a healthier body. When the COVID pandemic swept the world and immunity became the buzzword du jour, it strengthened her resolve to make her book a reality.

“The premise is actually very simple — that you can do things to/for your body, like eat right, exercise, and sleep enough, in order to build a natural, inherent immunity to disease. It’s very simple, and a concept that has been in our Ayurvedic texts for thousands of years.”

Rajaiah dives deep into the realm of home-cooked food through the various jewels of Indian kitchens: the Rama and Lakshmana of immunity (turmeric and ginger), the trifecta of health (tamarind, lemon and kokum), as well as the numerous nuts, fruits and oils extensively used in regional cooking.

The vast research Rajaiah undertook for Immunity in a Spoon… is evident within its pages. From treatises on Ayurveda to Sangam literature, she combs through the wealth of ancient Indian manuscripts to paint a picture of how food can help us lead a better life.

Rajaiah brings attention to simple facts that most Indians take for granted. For instance, she points to the ubiquitous Indian thali and calls it a time-honoured method of eating a meal that is well-portioned. It is an anecdote about ghee, however, that immediately grabs one’s attention: 

Apparently, Julia Child — the grand dame of celebrity chefs — introduced the West to ghee several decades ago. In 1948, while dining at the famous French restaurant, La Couronne, she tried a dish called sole meunière for the very first time. (More prosaically, she was dining on pan-fried fillets of sole.)

“As the story goes, ‘(it) transformed her from a person who simply loved to eat into someone who loved to cook’. The recipe figured in her 1989 magnum opus, The Way to Cook. And the frying medium she recommended? Clarified butter, of course! Our very own beloved ghee. Child even went on to describe how to make ghee in her last book, 2000’s Julia's Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes From a Lifetime of Cooking.”

Other stories in Rajaiah’s book document how going back to our roots — be it using cold-pressed oils or relying on seasonal, hyperlocal vegetables — can help us. The author believes our traditional wisdom was anchored to a holistic lifestyle, and we’ve strayed far away from it.

She illustrates this with the help of an example: “Each day I open the Google homepage, and there will always be a few pages on ‘five healthy foods’... and if you look at these lists, at least 50 percent of them will be foods that aren’t just alien but are also not even available in India! And the few that are, may have been given names that we don’t recognise.”

She points to a couple of hot favourites among “celebrity” nutritionists: flaxseed, which has been part of Kannada cuisine for centuries, with people eating almost every part (including the seeds) of its tree — it is locally known as agase; and moringa aka the drumstick. “There is a eulogistic name for it in the West — the Miracle Tree! And once upon a time, when we had trees growing in our backyard, for South Indians these would always include a coconut tree, a curry leaf tree, bananas, and a drumstick tree. Because every part of the drumstick tree, including the roots, has value, whether it is medicinal, nutritional, or both!”

But, “like it happened with yoga, we wait for the West to discover our own wealth of wisdom and nature’s healthful bounty before we become conscious of it,” Rajaiah rues.

From probiotics to coconut oil and karela, the author lists the heritage roots of indigenous foods and their relevance in an Indian setting. For example, while peanuts have been vilified as a poor man’s cashew nuts, just a handful of them with jaggery every day will fulfil the majority of your daily protein and immunity-building requirements.

Simple foods can take care of our dietary needs, Rajaiah asserts, imploring Indians to look back at how their grandparents lived. “Did you know that every state has its own huge treasury of traditional greens?” she queries. “In Karnataka, we have greens growing by the river banks — not sold commercially, but free to be plucked by women who make bhaji out of them. And one of Ayurveda’s mighty medicines — brahmi — grows wild in our rice fields!”