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Eating cheaper and healthier in India

When the going is not good, financially, the world just gets fatter—has been a finding in the US. The reason is not hard to look for: With lesser money to spend on “non essentials”, jobs on the line and fears of more loss, people cut back on healthier but more expensive dining options; fresh fish, nuts, fruits and veggies. Instead, they snack on the easily available, mass-produced carbs and sugars with “empty calories”, nutritionally deficient but much cheaper. So, it was no surprise to read this week that McDonald’s had recorded profit despite recession – and that it was its “happy” or value meals that had boosted profits by more than 7 per cent worldwide. The world is happy buying cheap burgers it would seem and obesity (and health risks) may rise if the financial situation does not indeed improve soon.

In India, on the other hand, this connection between (relative) poverty and unhealthy eating does not follow the essentially Western paradigm. For one, McDeez or other burgers are not exactly “cheap” by the Indian Everyman’s standard. For the same minimum of Rs 20-30 plus that you would spend on a happy meal, and sometimes for far less, it is possible to buy yourself a more substantial and healthier meal at a neighbourhood stall: A dabba, in Mumbai, of almost home-cooked food, a plate of rajma-rice or idli-sambhar elsewhere. Besides which, each region in the country, even each locality, has its own mind-boggling array of “fast food”, not all of which is seriously unhealthy like a, well, samosa. Luckily for us in India, good or at least wholesome food need not always be more expensive.

Which is why it is such a pity that we, as a nation, are increasingly looking at unhealthier eating options — not out of economic necessity but as a symbol of our “advancement”. My cook, for instance, an ambitious lady with four young kids, no longer digs the sattu parathas or saag roti of her growing up years. Yes, she makes these for us—as a special treat. But for her own children, she has learnt to rustle up a quick pasta for their Sunday meal; assembled no doubt from the maida-Penne that is now so easily available at the local grocer’s and packaged tomato puree, may be with a dash of chaat masala. But it is not to the latter that I object. It is no use explaining why a “humbler” meal of dal-chawal would perhaps be better.

But unhealthy aspirational eating is hardly limited to a certain class. We’ve all ordered pizzas when cooking a fresh meal seemed too much like a chore and everyone who is a harried working-class, self sustaining individual has no doubt indulged in the convenience of packaged products — from rustling up soups out of packets to butter chicken gravies to lately, even Chinese “Manchurian”. (Ching’s, Knorr and other such brands have come out with packs of “Chinese” sauces that you only need to mix in water and heat; the base for all of which is cornflour, that staple of Indian-Chinese). To dream of our own versions of Marks & Spencer is fine but is it really necessary to become a microwave-dependent nation?

Unlike in the US, where cheap burgers are scoring, In Britian, says a visiting chef from there, one of the healthier fallouts of recession has been “fakeaways”. The term came into being when Sainsbury’s reported, last year, on increased sale of plastic lunch boxes. Apparently, shoppers are trying to survive the credit crunch by making their own meals (from leftovers at home) rather than buying lunch from shops or ordering takeaways. Unfortunately in India, where cooking you own meal has survived till now, I can only spot the opposite trend.

But recession or not, nothing to my mind is more alarming than the well-heeled Indian exulting the increasingly available choice of expensive, imported ingredients in our trendier restaurants. There wider availability, if you go by food writers and columnists, is going to be a big trend in 2009, (much as it was in 2008). But should you subscribe to such a trend? While tuna belly or smoked salmon or New Zealand lamb chops (despite the red meat) may not be conventionally unhealthy, they do take up a lot of carbon miles. And all wannable gourmets who like to wax on about the merits would do well to remember the astounding diversity of our own local produce and traditions and cuisines, whose smells and flavours remain unmatched. Try to find out the number of sambhars in the country first, or the varieties of rajmahs.

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One Response to “Eating cheaper and healthier in India”

  1. Thanks for simple recipe on how to make vegetable Samosa. I will try to make them during holidays. I am just worried about the mess the sugar dough will create.