Wednesday, May 13, 2009

My Taste of Thai

            It was around May or June in 2002 when I met Paul and Jutima Dallaghan in Mysore - they are yoga teachers who certify other yoga students as teachers and have studied under Pattabhi Jois, THE Ashtanga yoga guru based in Mysore who just passed away a few days ago. 

     They were conducting a month long program in Nov of that year and invited me to join as Manager / Liaison person / Nutritionist / Chef [Indian food]. That meant one month and a few days on Koh Samui, an exotic island off the eastern coast of Thailand. Well of course I jumped at the opportunity - looking back, it was a huge leap of faith at the time, but I trusted them and knew I could handle whatever the job required.

     So in October my mom and I took off for Bangkok where we spent 3 memorable days shopping and sight seeing and then flew to Koh Samui. She had a day's taste of the exotic island and then flew back home. The program was hosted by a medium scale beach front resort on the island.

     Handling my many responsibilities was a huge  challenge for me and I wouldn't say I was perfect in discharging my duties - but it was a huge learning experience for me - I did a variety of 
things : 

     I was a practice student for the teacher trainees and as a result, learnt the basics of Ashtanga yoga. I don't practice today - but I put on weight and developed muscles I never knew I had[my mom had given up hope as I looked to be scrawny for the rest of my life]. The yoga just left me with so much energy and feeling cleansed.

     I taught the kitchen staff how to make rasam and sambar [South Indian lentil soups]. Jutima was very specific about wanting these dishes made regularly as they are Saatvic [food that balances all the systems in the body according to Ayurveda].  So I spent time every day in the kitchen overseeing the whole process and adding the curry powders [which I carried with me from India]. I messed up so many times  but finally got the hang of it. I learnt a lot about quantity cooking from this experience. 

     Jutima asked me if we could serve chapatis for lunch one day and I remember hunting around the island for whole wheat flour. I finally found it at this bakery owned by a lovely lady named 'Oh' - I still have a picture of her - quite an entrepreneur. So, I made chapatis for everyone and considering there were 18 students plus us,  for the final week of the program, I spent 2 hours in the kitchen just making chapatis.  Training the staff [who didn't know more than 10 words of English] how to make them was so much fun with so many mistakes made and a lot of 'world maps' coming out of it, ultimately they learnt and were able to support me. 

     Towards the end of my stay there - I held a chapati making class for all the women in the group - well you know what happens when a bunch of women cook together - we have a lot of fun and we bond. I stayed in touch with them for a few years after we parted ways and even met several of them again when they visited India but we've lost touch now. I wonder how they all are. 

      I became friends with the entire cooking staff and learnt A LOT about Thai cooking and it's from this point I became a huge fan of Thai food. I love making red, green and yellow curry at home. My big regret is I don't get the original Thai ingredients like galangal, Thai basil, lemon grass, etc where I live. Tofu is available though and I use it as often as possible.

     I learnt the Thai names of many of the common ingredients there. I forgot to mention earlier that since it was a yoga camp - it needed to be completely saatvik vegetarian - impossible? No - all that it needed was to work constantly with the chefs and make sure they didn't even use seafood, egg and fish/oyster sauce [for some reason, they thought these were vegetarian]. So  "MAI NAAM PLAH" [no fish sauce]  is a big part of my Thai vocabulary.

     OK OK - I could go on and on about my experiences in Thailand [I promise to write more in subsequent posts] but for now - I'll leave you with my recipe for Massaman Curry.

Massaman Curry [a spicy Thai dish]

Well first of all, since I’m a vegetarian, there’s no meat in this recipe. So here goes,

For the curry paste:

10 dried red chillies
Rind of 1 lemon [grated, used as a substitute for lemon grass] or 1 stalk of lemon grass [edible portion]
2 medium sized onions – chopped
6 flakes of garlic                                            
4 tsp chopped ginger                                      
2 tbsp cumin seeds [jeera]                              
2 tsp saunf                                                     
2” stick cinnamon [dalchini]                            
seeds of 4 cardamoms                                    
4 cloves
8 peppercorns
4 tsp coriander seeds
¼ tsp grated nutmeg [jaiphal]

Method: Roast all the ingredients in a wok for 5 mins or till aromatic.Grind all the roasted ingredients together with 4 tbsp water. Can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for upto a week.

Ingredients for the curry:

200 g Tofu [soybean curd]- cubed
6 – 7 tbsp Masaman curry paste.                             
100 g babycorn                                                       
200 g broccoli florets                                              
100 g capsicum                                                       
100 g zucchini                                                        
3 tsp oil [preferably groundnut]                                
2 cup thick coconut milk                                        
1 tbsp chopped lemon grass or rind of 1 lemon                                    
2 tbsp Tamarind juice / lemon juice                       
1” cinnamon stick                                                    
1 medium sized onion – chopped                             
½ tsp turmeric [haldi] powder                                
50 g roasted peanuts – crushed                               
2 tbsp coriander leaves     
     Steam the vegetables for 8 mins. Heat the oil in a wok, add onions and the cinnamon. After 2 minutes, add masaman curry paste and turmeric powder. Cook for 2 mins then add the steamed veggies and cubed tofu and mix. Add coconut milk, chopped lemon grass [or lemon rind] and tamarind juice. Mix well, cover and cook for 10 mins. Switch off the flame and sprinkle the peanut powder on top. Garnish with coriander leaves.

     You can prepare this as a side dish along with plain steamed rice noodles or even serve with chapatis [fabulous]. Its goes well with rice too. The preparation takes an hour and cooking - 25 mins. I thought I wouldn’t be able to replicate the authentic Thai flavour until I found Nita Mehta’s vegetarian Thai cook book which has kind of become my bible for Thai cooking. My taste buds are singing nowadays.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Why do we eat the way we do?

     Continuing to look at eating habits - 'WHY' would probably be the most profound question you could ask yourself.

     If you think about it, why is it that you eat at the times that you do? why do you eat slowly or fast? Why do you hate/love certain foods? Each and every food behaviour you display has an origin - maybe an unpleasant incident [your mom yelled at you when you were eating dal palak (spinach in lentils) put you off greeens for good and now you wouldn't touch them with a ten foot pole.] 

     Just kidding, but seriously, if you start analysing, it'll never end. We humans are creatures of habit and most of our eating habits are developed in response to our circumstances - eg. packing for lunch whatever you had for breakfast because that's simpler than cooking a  whole lot of items before rushing to work or skipping lunch altogether because of your work load or even skipping dinner because you had a heavy evening snack.

     Why do you think kids love junk processed food like chips, cookies, jams, etc ? They watch ads in between their favourite cartoons and are thus influenced to demand that their parents buy those products and once they taste something they like - they want it over and over again. See, response to stimuli - don't believe me? 

     Look at what you eat - if you kept a food journal [refer my March 25th post], it would be simpler to observe. We rarely make any extra effort to include a whole lot of healthy items in our daily eating and if you do eat a lot of healthy food and very little junk - either you or someone in your family put a lot of effort into creating those habits.
     Most often we're more amenable to making changes in what we eat only when we get those blood test reports indicating high cholesterol/blood pressure/blood glucose levels, etc. For some people, complete transformation of eating habits happens only when they're diagnosed with Diabetes or suffer from a heart attack - talk about a wake up call!

     Speaking of eating in response to stimuli - ever heard of 'emotional eating'? That's when you give in to your food cravings which are stimulated by sadness/ grief/stress and worry/loneliness,etc.

     The mind seeks to do something pleasurable to divert attention from the problem and most often succeeds only for a little while. When the satisfaction gotten by fulfilling the craving is over, the emotion returns, and along with it brings an experience of guilt. Instead of dealing powerfully with the problem, you're now dependent on your 'quick fix'. This is true for many men and women and non food addictions may also develop like smoking, alcohol and drugs. 

     So start observing how much of your eating is related to an emotion/mood. In extreme cases the following develop:

     Anorexia and Bulimia are eating disorders. Anorexia is a condition in which a person desperately tries to control /lose weight by resorting to greatly decreased food intake, taking diet pills, etc. Bulimia is characterised by binge eating and then 'purging' either by self induced vomiting or abuse of laxatives. Both of these are destructive food behaviours which originate from low self esteem, more common in teenage girls and women in their early twenties. Be on the watch for children suddenly eating less food, becoming conscious of their weight and spending a lot of time in front of the mirror and bathroom. Both conditions are psychological in nature and require counselling as well as nutritional management.

      You being the creator of your healthy food habits as opposed to being at the effect of circumstances and external stimuli is a powerful experience and addictive [in a good way]. The good news at the end of the day is that, since we are such creatures of habit, it's pretty simple to cultivate healthy habits such as eating balanced meals and exercising regularly. 

     First of all, you've got to be willing to take these small consistent actions daily. And then it takes a little will power, discipline and a general knowledge of what's healthy and relax, even I wasn't born with all of the above, it takes practice over time, like everything else in life [hey - you were toilet - trained as a kid this way]. Allow yourself to be inspired, have fun with it and you'll see that healthy habits created this way are sustained over a life time.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How do we eat?

     Do you stretch out with your plate in front of the TV watching your favourite show? Do you notice how much you pile on your plate? Have you ever been so engrossed by the idiot box that you look at your plate during the ad break and think 'who ate my dinner?' . 

     Whether it's the TV, a newspaper, magazine or even the internet - 'Mindless eating' as it is now termed [That's the name of a book authored by Brian Wansink, PhD, professor and director of Cornell Food and Brand Lab], has become the rule rather than the exception in many families. Even when you go to a restaurant - being more involved with the conversation going on rather than on your food leads to consuming excess calories - so if you think you're doing a great job on those business dinners - think again. How many of you surf the internet while eating? The impact of this inattention to what we eat is:
  • By being 'checked out' it's proven that we are more likely to put that unnecessary extra serving of food on our plates than if we were paying attention - these unnoticed extras, in turn, lead to gradual weight gain.
  • Even if you're trying to eat healthy, with your attention diverted - you will make unhealthy choices.
  • You don't enjoy what you're eating as much as when you're paying attention. Ever noticed when you're really hungry - food tastes much better somehow? It's because you're attentively relishing each bite and nothing else.
     How you eat your meals matters. One way of ensuring great digestion and absorption of nutritients is to sit down for a peaceful meal at the dining table. If you're at work where you've already got your whole meal in front of you and probably won't be adding more helpings, sitting with your colleagues in a quiet corner would work well. Putting your mobile on 'silent' mode during meal times is also a good idea. 

     Making peaceful small talk at this time is much preferred to argument [which decreases blood flow to the digestive system]. Use smaller plates, cups and spoons  - larger utensil sizes encourage larger portion sizes leading to unnecessary calories being consumed. Conversely, smaller dishes mean smaller portion sizes which leads to weight maintenance.

     So, in a nutshell - don't rush though your meals like you rush through your day. Relax, pay attention to what you eat and relish each bite. Eating this way leaves you satisfied. Your body will signal you to stop eating - pay attention to this cue - some of you may still have food on your plate when you notice this - stop anyway!

     Practice makes perfect. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Cultivating Healthy Practices

     In continuation of my last post  - I would like to discuss several important practices to create awareness about what, how, why and when we eat. This post - we'll discuss 'WHAT'

    What do I eat? Why do you need to answer this question for yourself? 
Before shifting to a healthy eating pattern, you first need to distinguish what it is that you already eat that isn't healthy. Becoming conscious of that, you then start to look at what kind of healthy foods you can consume.

    To get a grip on what you actually eat is simple  - start keeping a food journal [you can buy a mini diary with sufficient space for writing a whole day's intake - including beverages]. At the end of each day, make a habit of writing down everything that you consumed the whole day from the time you woke up.
For example - wake up - coffee [with 2 tsp sugar]
                          Breakfast - 4 idlis with 2 tbsp coconut chutney ,   coffee [with 2 tsp sugar]
                          Lunch - 4 pooris+ aloo subji + chhole + dahi
                          Afternoon - 2 cups Coffee [with 2 tsp sugar each]
                          Evening - samosa + fruit juice [with 3tsp sugar]
                          2 good day biscuits when I came home.
                          Dinner -   curd rice [2 cups]

     Also keep track of how much water you had during the day -8 glasses or 2 litres is a good intake for most people but it may be less or more depending on a variety of factors - you can expect a post in the near future on this subject.

     And as you're writing in this journal, look at how much food you're eating, is it healthy or unhealthy, do you eat on time, etc.

     First of all to create the habit of writing in your journal requires discipline in daily practice and it's the first step in bringing the mostly unconscious act of eating into the conscious realm.
     Keep the journal for a minimum of 40 days and remember to do the analysis after you've entered the daily intake of what you ate or drank that you shouldn't have and what could you have consumed instead. 
     For example - instead of eating that samosa in the evening, you could have had a salad or a whole wheat sandwich without butter or even a bowl of sprouts, depending on what was available. 
     Carry this book with you everywhere and keep looking through it frequently. If you miss entering a day's intake, recollect as much as possible and fill it in the next day. If you miss a week, enter as much as you remember and commit to continue for another 30 days.
I'm looking forward to hear what you observed about your eating and what you started implementing as a result of keeping this journal.

If you need my support at any point of time please feel free to email me or leave a comment.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

We are absurd

     The other day, a person I was counseling  rattled off a list of fried stuffs she regularly ate during snack time. She also confessed she loved sweets but was willing to give all these bad habits up. As I was going through what she consumed in a day, I saw that she didn't eat curds [yoghurt] at the end of her meal. In traditional South Indian cuisine, it's the last course of the meal. When I asked her, she said that she had stopped eating it although she loved it since she heard it was 'fattening'. 

 Why am I relating this anecdote?

 My first point is that curds/ yoghurt is actually a very healthy food and provides B Vitamins, protein , Calcium and probiotics [digestion - friendly microorganisms] in spite of having as much as 4 - 5 gs fat per 100 ml [katori or 1/2 cup].
 Secondly, I would prefer her to have yoghurt with all its inherent fat instead of the junk she ate regularly. Curds /yoghurt can also be made fat-free at home - just boil milk - cool and refrigerate without covering for 5-6 hrs - take out and remove thick cream layer completely. This milk is now skimmed or low in fat and ready to be used to set curds. To make doubly sure that it is low fat you can even boil it again after removing cream [especially for non packet milk], cool for a while and remove the cream again.
 Thirdly, ever noticed how we'll do something like avoiding curds or even bananas and potatoes - yet we'll turn around and have that pastry,puff, samosa or chaat? 
There is a lot of misleading information out there for sure but the problem is not 'out there' or the incorrect info - the problem lies with choosing to follow only the advice that's convenient for us and forget about all the other scientifically proven facts like how a low fat eating plan and exercise are guaranteed to reduce weight!  

We love short cuts - but let's face it, there are NO short cuts to a long healthy life. What could make a difference is learning to enjoy the long journey :)

Funny Bone

This happened while I was consulting for a software firm in Bangalore :)

I had been trying to get a hold of an engineer whom I had counselled previously, to come in for a follow up. After a lot of convincing - I finally managed to have him come in . He hadn't even dreamed he'd be meeting me that day and reluctantly entered my cabin and sat with his arms folded across his chest the whole time. Obviously not following my diet instructions and having gained a few kgs, we talked about his eating habits for some time and then he stood up to leave 
- still with arms folded. I could see a cartoon on his T shirt - I'm a huge fan of T shirt humour and I asked if I could read what was written. Slowly, unwillingly, he unfolded his arms and on his tee, next to a smiling fat guy was the legend

 'By the time I'm thin, FAT will be IN'.

I kid you not :) true story. I was rolling with laughter in my seat and the poor guy literally ran out never to be seen again.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

An introduction, a little explanation and some gyaan

   I've finally done it!  After a looooot of procrastination [and nudging from a close friend], here's my first post. 
Let me say a little bit about the title - Wellness as a Context for Life. Somehow, eating and living healthily has come to be a struggle for most people - it occurs as 'something extra that I have to do in my already busy and hectic life' or 'it would involve big changes in my life that I'm not ready for' or 'It's just not possible for me - I'd have to sacrifice so many things that I love and enjoy' !  
  The truth is that, most of us wait for emergencies in health to start taking appropriate care of it. It's all about perspective - for example, if you've just been told you have high cholesterol, you'll be more motivated to make changes for health like cutting out the oily and fried stuff, sweets, etc than if you've just had a checkup done showing that, while you're a little overweight, all levels seem normal. Instead of waiting for a health emergency [which may be closer than you think], you can get into action now keeping in mind the big picture - I want to live to be ____ years old and have a healthy heart, memory, sugar levels, digestive capacity and joints. Fill in the blank :) Wellnes is not so much a bunch of actions as it is a state of mind. 

I believe an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure as Benjamin Franklin once said.

My first recipe - first of many to specifically show that you don't have to sacrifice taste for health. I got this one from the internet.

Hara Curry

onion - 1 medium
coriander leaves[cilantro] - 50 gms
green chilli - 1
garlic - 3 cloves
ginger - 1 inch pc
turmeric - 1/2 tsp
chilli powder - 1/4 tsp
garam masala - 1 tsp [available in stores ready made or formula can be downloaded]
mushrooms / potatoes+ corn kernels+ baby corn/ paneer [cottage cheese - low fat] - 300 gs 
1 cup low fat curds [200 ml] mixed with corn flour [1 tbsp]
tomatoes - 2 small and 1 more for garnishing
salt to taste
oil - 2 tsp

1] Grind the onion, mint , coriander, green chilli, garlic and ginger to a smooth paste.
2] Mix in turmeric and chili powders and garam masala to this paste.
3] Heat 1 tbsp oil [I used groundnut oil and it was great], add the paste to this and stir. Cook till the raw onion smell disappears.
4]It is best to steam the mushrooms or potatoes and corn you're using so that you don't have to wait for them to cook in the gravy. If using Paneer, toast it lightly in a non stick pan without oil.
5] Add the mushrooms / veggies / paneer to the cooking gravy and mix well. Add salt. 
6] Fold in the curds [yoghurt] and simmer the whole thing for 8 mins.
7] Garnish with a finely chopped raw tomato and coriander leaves.

Now this recipe with these quantities gave 3 servings. I used mushrooms [it was my first time cooking mushrooms, seriously!] - the whole thing requires a bit of trial and error so I highly recommend you try it out before sharing the recipe. This curry is brilliant because it can be used with any veggies and even paneer or tofu. Happy cooking :)