Ask Alamelu Vairavan about Indian cuisine, and she’s quick to point out the differences between the average American diet and the more natural, healthful foods that are indigenous to her native country.
Author of Healthy South Indian Cooking, Vairavan learned to prepare traditional dishes more than 25 years ago, after moving to New York City and studying how her aunt’s chef could whip up the most delicious Indian fare. She has been perfecting her techniques since then, recognizing that South Indian recipes feature “minimal cooking oil, reduced salt, use of lean meats and short cooking times [that] round out the means to maintain good health through diet.”
But true South Indian cuisine is “distinct from the Indian food so many have come to enjoy when dining out,” Vairavan cautions. “It boasts healthy preparation techniques and ingredients, including phytochemicals like allium compounds, carotenoids, coumarins and flavonoids.”
Lentils, for example, are a popular ingredient, high in protein and fiber. The spice turmeric (especially its curcumin component) “is rich in antioxidants and nutrients that can ease upset stomachs and digestion problems,” Vairavan says. And two teaspoons of red chili peppers, she notes, provide about 6% of the recommended daily allowance for vitamin C, as well as 10% of one’s vitamin A requirement.
Indian cooking techniques also mirror the philosophies of organic living:
- Vegetables are not simply boiled or steamed, but enhanced with aromatic spices and legumes.
- Salt can be reduced or eliminated entirely because of the flavors spices provide.
- When a basic spice pantry is assembled, it takes less than 30 minutes to prepare most dishes.
- South Indian cooking uses minimal cooking oil—not the clarified butter (ghee) and heavy cream used in many Indian restaurants.
Vairavan is passionate about healthy eating and educating consumers on how to use spices and legumes to prepare tasty meals. She has recently become involved in wellness programs that help transform vegetable haters into veggie lovers.
“The American diet mostly features meat as the main item, and the most it has of a vegetable is one side dish, boiled or steamed,” she tells OrganicAuthority. “On the other hand, the Indian diet is characterized by a variety of vegetable dishes in a single meal, accompanied by rice or bread. When meat is served in an Indian meal, it is often served as only a side dish.”
Like most of us who strive to eat only organic food, Vairavan believes parents need to focus on cooking healthful meals at home instead of relying on takeout menus and fast food. American parents, she says, “do not cook regularly at home, possibly because of their busy schedules. This habit makes it difficult for their children to get healthy and nutritious food daily.”
Here is one of Vairavan’s special recipes, which highlights one of the key differences in the Indian diet. While Americans tend to rely on mayonnaise when preparing salads, Vairavan’s recipe substitutes yogurt, which is lower in fat. This dish is easy to prepare—“very colorful and pleasing to the palate,” Vairavan notes. “It is an excellent accompaniment to any meal.”
Cucumber and Tomato Yogurt Salad
1˝ cups fresh pickling cucumber, peeled and diced
ľ cup diced tomato
ľ cup red onion
1 green chili pepper, finely diced (optional)
1 teaspoon black pepper and cumin powder
˝ teaspoon salt
1˝ cups fat-free plain yogurt
Ľ cup chopped fresh coriander
- Place the vegetables in a serving bowl.
- Blend black pepper, cumin powder and salt into yogurt.
- Pour yogurt mixture over diced vegetables and stir to coat vegetables. Taste and add additional seasonings if desired.
- Refrigerate at least 1 hour. Garnish with coriander before serving.
Note: You may use regular cucumbers instead of fresh pickling cucumbers if you desire. Fresh pickling cucumbers are used in this recipe for extra crunchiness.
Recipe reprinted with permission from Hippocrene Books, Inc., from Healthy South Indian Cooking, © 2001. All rights reserved.