Indian cuisines are a treasure trove of culinary secrets that are rooted in science. These techniques, passed on from generation to generation, have multiple benefits. Some help in increasing the shelf life of the food item, while some enhance the nutritional benefits. Many of these techniques ensure that we make the most of our ingredients for better health and zero wastage.
Let’s discover some common cooking methods and techniques.
An abundance of sunlight in most parts of India has favoured the preparation of sun-dried foods. It was also a way to make some ingredients last the whole year and use them to add quantity to dishes or to a meal. Wadis and papads in Punjab, sun-dried apples and eggplants in Kashmir, lentil-based boris in the East, vadams and sun-dried berries, chillies and beans in the South, almost every part of India has a repertoire of sun-dried ingredients. Sambar powder used in Tamil cuisine was routinely prepared by sun-drying the ingredients such as dried red chillies and coriander seeds until moisture free and crisp and then pounding it to a powder.
A zero-waste approach has been integral to Indian cuisine since ages. Any leftover cooked rice was kept in a cool place in the house, covered with water. This lightly fermented rice was had for breakfast in the morning. Called pakhala bhaat in Odisha, pazhaidhu saadham in Tamil and has as kanji in Kerala, the fermented rice is eaten with some buttermilk or yoghurt and chilli or pickle. This is complete probiotic goodness. Using wild yeast for fermenting food such as in idli/dosa batter to get the pleasantly tangy aroma and an airy consistency to idlis is also a very commonly employed everyday fermentation in Indian kitchens. Making yogurt at home every day or kaanji from seasonal vegetables such as black carrots, all of it harnesses the basic principles of fermentation or putting lactic acid bacteria to use.
According to food historian, K.T. Acharya, the origins of idli could have been from parts of Indonesia ruled by Hindu kings. It possibly came to India around 800-1200 BC. Other sources believe that the origins could have been in the Arab world brought into South India by the Arab traders. Whatever the source, idlis are now available in hotels across the country and made in its various forms in South Indian cuisine. Gujarati cuisine also has quite a few varieties of steamed dishes such as dhokla and muthiya, many of them made with besan as one of the key ingredients. Some of the steamed dishes also include atta, millet flours, grated vegetables and spices. Steaming is an excellent way to cook a food item as it is reduces the amount of oil required to cook along with keeping the nutrients intact.
Pickles are known today as a probiotic food. The process of preserving a fresh ingredient like raw mango, or bamboo shoots or tomatoes or leaves like gongura to last a whole year and beyond without using any preservatives is a very exacting science. These methods were transferred from generation to generation by sheer word of mouth when younger family members would learn these techniques from the older people in the house.
India has a staggering variety of flatbreads. Made on a skillet, but also steamed (idlis) or pan fried (chila, dosa, pesarattu) or deep fried (poori, luchi), there are too many to list - plain, or with spices, vegetables, paneer or any other protein such as meat. The final toasting of a naan or a roti on an open flame imparts a smokey aroma to a freshly made roti. A whole range of gluten free flatbreads made from jowar, bajra, ragi and rice are also popular from different parts of India.
The art of serving complete proteins
Plant-based ingredients like legumes, grains, nuts and vegetables while not lacking in protein, are mostly consisting of incomplete protein (except buckwheat and soya) as it does not contain all essential amino acids. But pairing a legume with a grain provides all essential amino acids in one dish. Indian cuisine is full of such dishes, for example, khichdi, idli, dosas, pongal, dal-chaawal, sambar-saadham, rajma-chaawal and so on.
Soaking and sprouting
Modern science teaches us that the best way to reduce the impact of anti-nutrients (phytate) in legumes and grains is to soak, sprout and ferment. Indian cuisine has been following these methods since ancient times. For idli, both rice and urad dal are soaked overnight, then ground to a batter and fermented. Ragi or finger millet is soaked overnight, drained and kept for 2-3 days to promote sprouting after which it is ground to a powder to make baby food. Whole green moong and whole moth beans are soaked and sprouted before use. Sprouting provides a higher concentration of nutrients while reducing the carbohydrate content of the legume. It also makes the nutrients more easily absorbable by the body.
These cooking methods are used widely all across Indian. Try to incorporate these authentic cooking techniques to make healthier and tastier food.
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