National curry week 2018
Curry is a word that typically conjures up an image of late-night dining following one too many beers after work on a Friday night or an unhealthy take-away food, but I’m going to put myself out there as saying this reputation is poorly misplaced.
Any food within a particular context could be deemed as being unhealthy but if you break down the components of curry and remove the beers and comfort eating aspect then what you’re left with is actually very healthy.
The origins of curry
The UK has adopted curry as a ‘national dish’ with thousands of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurants creating British-Asian meals we’ve all become familiar with such as chicken tikka masala, Balti and vindaloo. The word ‘curry’ was invented by the British when they ruled India and adapted from the Tamil word ‘kari’, meaning sauce. This word has now become an umbrella term to describe dishes that have originated from the Indian subcontinent, but is a definition reserved for the British.
India consists of 28 states with most of these having their own regional cuisines, few of which include the word ‘curry’. The curry powder we have been accustomed to wouldn’t feature in your typical Indian kitchen and is a British creation, which was developed by Indian spice merchants. The closest Indian comparison is a blend called garam masala that tends to be used towards the end of cooking.
Traditional dishes originating or inspired by Indian cuisine are characterised by the extensive use of spices, which define the unique flavour of this cuisine. Indian cooking also includes many plant foods such as vegetables, pulses and lentils that are also thought to have a multitude of positive health benefits.
Variety is key
India is one of many countries whose mealtimes are a sharing affair, which involves a number of different dishes mostly cooked from scratch. This way of eating not only illustrates the positive impact of eating together and sharing mealtimes but also includes eating a wide variety of foods offering a broad spectrum of nutrients. It’s a fair argument that such cultures dedicate a lot of time to preparing meals and often have an inherited knowledge of recipes and cooking, which is very different to our time-stretched culture that has become over reliant on quick-fix meals and snacking. However, drawing inspiration from such cultural dining practices may help to improve the way we tend to eat in the Western world.
The health benefits of spices
Many spices are used in Indian cuisine and also feature as a key component of Ayurvedic medicine, which is one of the oldest of traditional medicine systems originating from India thousands of years ago. Spices are commonly defined as an aromatic part of a tropical plant, which includes roots, barks, flowers and seeds, most of which are Asian in origin. Advances in scientific research has helped to identify and explain some of the benefits associated with spices and how they may contribute to health and the reduction of disease risk.
Spices fight Inflammation
Inflammation is essential to life and is the body’s natural response to injury or infection. The flip side is that inflammation can have a harmful effect and research has shown that factors such as obesity, smoking, stress and a sedentary lifestyle can promote inflammation to the point at which is contributes to a variety of diseases (1)
Acute inflammation is characterised by redness, swelling, pain and heat, which is a protective response designed to heal the body and restore normal tissue function. Chronic inflammation can begin in the same way but morph into a state that lingers over a long period of time, failing to respond to the immune systems attempts to eliminate the problem. This low-level inflammation can also occur even when there is no injury or disease. When the immune system becomes uncontrolled in this way, white blood cells can attack healthy tissues and organs, setting up chronic inflammatory processes that are thought to play a key part in many diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and even Alzheimer’s.
Alongside maintaining a healthy body weight and making healthy lifestyle choices, diet is thought to have a role to play in helping to reduce inflammation. Research has shown that spices possess anti-inflammatory properties and whilst the findings are mixed, they’re still promising and suggest a benefit to including these foods in your diet.
Spices act as antioxidants
Spices along with fruits and vegetables are a key source of natural antioxidants in the diet. These antioxidants help to reduce oxidative stress in the body, which is caused by a high concentration of free radicals in cells and tissues induced by a number of factors such as excess exposure to UV, stress, polluted food, smoking and adverse environmental conditions. If the body becomes overwhelmed with free radicals and is unable to regulate them it can alter lipids, proteins and DNA, potentially triggering disease.
It’s worth pointing out here that free radicals are a natural by-product of metabolism, which is defined as the chemical processes that occur within the body such as those involved in converting food into energy. Free radicals are essential to life as the body’s ability to turn food into chemical energy relies on a chain reaction of free radicals, which are also a crucial part of the immune system, which help to attack pathogens (foreign invaders).
The term ‘antioxidant’ is somewhat overused in the health arena and whilst achieving a balance between free radicals and antioxidant intake is key, they shouldn’t be be viewed as a panacea to good health. Many foods contain nutrients that act as antioxidants and whilst eating plenty of these foods such as spices may help to protect against the damage caused by excess free radicals that can build up in the body, it’s important to make lifestyle changes such as losing weight, stopping smoking, drinking less, managing stress and spending less time in the sun rather than relying solely on such foods and supplements to counteract the impact of these lifestyle habits.
The antioxidant activity of spices is related to their chemical composition, mostly the presence of polyphenolic and other biologically active compounds. The primary antioxidants and biologically active compounds in spices include flavonoids, phenolic acids, lignans, essential oils and alkaloids (2, 3). These all behave in different ways such as flavonoids have the ability to scavenge free radicals and form complexes with catalytic metal ions that render them inactive (4).
A source of minerals
All spices are a source of minerals such as potassium, iron, magnesium, calcium and zinc. Amongst all the minerals in spices, iron exists in the greatest concentration. This mineral is essential for the production of healthy red blood cells and is the most common nutrient deficiency worldwide. Food surveys have shown that more than 27% of women in the UK have inadequate intakes of iron in their diet and low levels are compounded by monthly menstrual blood losses (5). Including spices in your diet can be a really useful way to boost your intake of minerals such as iron.
Reducing salt in your diet
Spices enhance the flavour of food and can help to reduce the amount of salt used in cooking, which is good for people with high blood pressure. Adding spices to food is also a good way to ‘tantalise the taste buds’ and there are many ways to include these in our cooking in the place of salt.
Interesting ways to include more Indian spices into your diet
- Add turmeric to scrambled egg
- Add curry powder to boiled rice
- Use spices to create rubs and marinades for meats
- Spices such as cumin and ground coriander work well in salad dressings
- Try adding curry powder or garam masala to traditional homecooked dishes such as shepherd’s pie for an Indian twist
- Spice up a jar of tomato cook-in-sauce with Indian spices that could include garam masala, curry powder, mustard seeds, turmeric or fresh curry leaves.
- Try making homemade cashew nut milk with turmeric (great served hot or cold). Add 100g of raw cashew nuts, 1 tsp of turmeric powder, 1 tsp of ground cinnamon and 2 tsp of honey to a high-powered blender with 500ml of water then blitz until smooth. You can loosen the consistency by adding more water if you like.
- Add curry powder or garam masala to basic vegetable soup recipe or even shop-bought fresh soups for an Indian twist.
There are many benefits associated with eating more plant-based foods. As a nation we do not eat enough fruits and vegetables with only a third of people managing to meet the five-a-day guidance (5). Plant foods also provide a rich source of fibre that has been shown to help with good digestion and reduce the risk of heart disease, colorectal cancer, diabetes and help with weight loss. In the UK it has been shown that less than 10% of adults achieve the recommended daily intake of 30g per day (5).
Anecdotally, many people find vegetables boring to eat and often say that they don’t enjoy the flavour. In my experience of cooking with people, I have found that with a little inspiration, even the most disliked vegetables can be reinvented with the use of spices and become something completely different. Spices can also be used to add an Indian twist to vegetarian dishes.
Indian spices are always a great way to spice food and these are just a few ways to turn a plain old vegetable or vegetarian dish into something that’s irresistibly delicious:
- Rub cauliflower with curry paste and roast in the oven.
- Combine a 400g can of chickpeas (drained) with 1 tbsp of garam masala or curry powder and roast in the oven at 180C for 30 minutes.
- Stir-fry okra with chopped red onion, ginger and cherry tomatoes, and fresh curry leaves.
- Fry mustard seeds and crushed coriander seeds in a pan with a little oil until they begin to pop. Take them off the heat and stir through blanched green beans with a little oil.
- I’m always looking for ways to make cooking tofu more enjoyable and found that it lends itself well to Indian cuisine and is a great alternative to paneer. I also discovered recently that you can bake tofu, which gives it a firm meaty texture. You need to choose extra firm varieties and it can be marinated before or after cooking.
- Learn to make a basic dhal recipe such as this one from mine and Lily’s cookbook
Healthy curry food swaps
There’s no doubt that many of us choose to eat curry on a night out or as take-away on a night in, but it doesn’t need to be a calorie laden affair.
- Rather than ordering a meal solely for yourself, opt for sharing and choose plenty of plant-based options such as lentils and vegetables
- Try choosing tomato-based curries over those laden with cream or coconut milk, which can be high in saturated fat
- Try choosing oven cooked (tandoor) meats such as chicken and teaming them with vegetable dishes
- Ditch the breads such as chapatti and naan
The true health benefits of curry are often overshadowed by the reputation this type of food has acquired. The use of spices and plant-based foods are at the root of the health benefits associated with this the of cuisine.
Try this healthy vegetarian curry recipe, which not only provides many of the health benefits associated with South Asian cuisine but tastes bloody great!
Butternut, lentil and coconut curry
Serves 4 (very generously)
1 butternut squash
2 low-sodium vegetable stock cubes
1 tbsp coconut or groundnut oil
2 large onions, peeled and finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
Large thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and grated
1 red chilli, finely chopped
400g can coconut milk
1/2 tsp of sea salt
250g red lentils
2 tsp turmeric
Pinch of black pepper
2 large handfuls of spinach
1 large lime, juiced
2 large handfuls of coriander, finely chopped
- Peel the squash, halve and remove the seeds then cut into 1 inch chunks.
- Dissolve the stock cubes in 1000ml of boiling water.
- Heat the oil in a large saucepan set over a medium heat.
- Add the onions, garlic, ginger and chilli then fry gently for about 5 minutes until the ingredients are soft.
- Turn up the heat and add the squash, stock and coconut milk to the pan and bring to the boil. Check the curry for seasoning and add salt. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and place the lid on the pan then cook for 10 minutes.
- Remove the lid and add the lentils, turmeric and black pepper then simmer for a further 15-20 minutes over a medium heat until the squash and lentils are tender. Add a little more water of the curry starts to dry out.
- Take the curry off the heat and stir through the spinach, lime juice and coriander. The curry should be a thick consistency but add more water if needed.
- Serve in large bowls.