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Unhealthy takeaways, oily curries, deep-fried poppadoms - Indian food is often unfairly associated with junk food. But for thousands of years subcontinental cuisine has been a central part of an ancient system of healthy living known as Ayurveda. This natural branch of Hindu medicine encompasses an holistic approach to wellness through yoga, meditation, breathing exercises (pranayama) and a carefully balanced vegetarian diet. It’s a system that’s being explored and embraced by an increasing number of people around the world. And they’re quickly discovering that Indian food can be extremely good for you without sacrificing any of the flavour, colour and character that’s made it one of the world’s favourite cuisines.
At culinary schools all over India, the ancient art of ayurvedic cooking is being revealed. Shreyas Retreat is a yoga resort on the outskirts of Bangalore. It’s like a boutique ashram - part five-star hotel and part hermitage for yoga practitioners. It’s one of a number of resorts attracting those determined to recharge their batteries, improve their health and set themselves on a path to wellness. Healthy food is a big part of Shreyas’ philosophy. Formerly a coconut plantation, it now it has its own 20-acre organic garden with herbs and vegetables, mango and guava trees, and a rice paddy. It recently launched a week-long culinary package - a programme of personalised cooking sessions, nutrition lessons, kitchen management classes and tips on sourcing and identifying the best ingredients - where guests can learn how to eat like a yoga master, or yogi.
In ayurveda, food is not only used for nutrition, but also for medicine. Many of the everyday herbs, spices and vegetables used are believed to have medicinal properties. Turmeric, for example, gives a rich, golden colour and slightly bitter flavour to dishes, but it also has antiseptic and anti-bacterial properties, which may explain its ubiquity in Indian cooking. Turmeric is also thought to be a natural liver detoxifier, as well as a guard against various cancers. Cardamom helps to improve digestion, whereas cumin is a potent anti-oxidant.
Used in harmony, the herbs and spices commonly found in Indian food can help to balance the three ‘doshas’ or elements in the human body - vata (air and ether), pitta (fire and water) and kapha (earth and water). Each individual has one or two dominant doshas in their body, so establishing your body type is vital to determining dietary requirements. All this is taken into account at Shreyas, where chef Rame Gowda devises highly personalised programmes. Yet the common theme of healthy cooking is applicable to everyone. The emphasis is on ingredients that are low in calories, fat and salt, and high in fibre, vitamins and antioxidants. The aim is to remove toxins from the body, while cleaning the system and enhancing circulation.
When it comes to a simple curry sauce, out goes the ghee and cream in favour of healthier ingredients. “We add some cashew nuts to it, so it has a creamy texture when it’s been put in the food processor, but there’s no cream,” says Gowda. “We use sunflower or olive oil instead of ghee or clarified butter. Just enough to sauté. The basic curry sauce can be used to make a variety of tasty vegetarian dishes, from stuffed mushroom curry to stuffed capsicum curry or spinach dumpling curry.”
Starchy foods are often associated with Indian cuisine, but Gowda recommends keeping them in check. “We’re not using too much bread, rice or potatoes - we don’t avoid them completely, but we may substitute with chopped squash or fresh methi leaves.” Flavour is added with combinations of spices - from cumin and coriander, to less familiar spices such as dried mango powder or chaat masala, a mixture of ground spices that’s sprinkled onto cooked food. And when it comes to the pungency and heat that Indian food is famous for, a balance of chilli, mustard seeds, garlic and onion ensures ayurvedic food can still pack a punch. The result is a high-quality and varied vegetarian diet that ensures the path to culinary enlightenment is paved with delicious and nutritious Indian food.