By Chere Di Boscio
From fear of Delhi Belly to avoidance due to loads of calories, Indian food has got a bad rap. But one British chef is aiming to change that.
Author, Journalist and Blogger Mira Manek says cooking healthy Indian food is easier than people think: it’s just a matter of eliminating some ingredients and substituting healthy alternatives for others.
Indian food normally contains a lot of vegetables and healthy spices, but to make her recipes even healthier Mira cuts out the sugar and substitutes oil and ghee for coconut oil. She uses coconut sugar and jaggery, a natural sweetener from the palm of the date tree, instead of refined sugar. Being both healthy and tasty, Mira’s foods are becoming popular at some of London’s best eateries. Raw Press in Mayfair carries her deliciously healthy cinnamon and ginger-fired Spice Bites, for example, and Mira says her product range will soon expand to include Mira’s Spiced Chia Pots, Chai Spice Tea Mix and more.
I interviewed Mira about the link between food and yoga, her kitchen essentials and asked her to share some of her favourite recipes.
What’s the first thing you remember cooking?
As a child, I loved baking flalpjacks for school events and charity cake sales. I remember making them over and over again, trying to make them absolutely perfect, soft yet slightly crumbly.
Which typical Indian dish do you think most needs a health ‘makeover’?
If I order daal makhani at a restaurant, it will most likely already be cooked (the richness of flavour comes with cooking for longer) and it will contain lots of butter and cream, which is expected given that the word ‘makhani’ translates as butter. While the lentils and beans in daal makhani, as with any other daal, are full of nutrition and goodness, it’s the creamy additions that make it extra heavy and mean that I don’t end up ordering daal makhani (unless that is the only daal on a restaurant menu or the only protein dish I can eat at an Indian wedding). As a vegetarian, daal is one of those essentials so it would be good to have the option of ordering a daal makhani that is rich in nutrients and protein but doesn’t contain the unnecessary cream and butter, made possibly with yoghurt instead, and a little lighter on the stomach.
Which 5 staples are in your kitchen at all times?
I’ll cheekily count my masala box as one of those five – which contains turmeric powder, coriander and cumin powder mixed together, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds and red chilli powder. These spices are used in varying proportions in many dishes, curries, daals and sauces. Then there’s a ginger, garlic and chilli paste, something that we always make in advance by blending together and keeping in small containers in the fridge and freezer. It’s used on a daily basis in almost every dish, so keeping it ready makes the cooking process much easier. For breakfast, whether it’s porridge, yoghurt, fruit or baking, cinnamon is a must, and I’m increasingly using cardamom in my recipes. Large jars of coconut oil for most of my cooking. And lastly, a vitamix or high-speed blender because I use this for so many of my dishes and drinks from smoothies and cheesecakes to chia puddings and chutneys.
What are your favourite dishes for sharing?
Life at home has always involved food and since we have such a large family, it’s much more of feast, at least a few times a week. Sharing plates and variety are so important, it’s just a matter of striking the balance between portion and variety. Many of my recipes are perfect for sharing from my kale and date salad to the chilli kick grain bowl and beans chips with sizzling cumin yoghurt (in my ebook ‘Healthy recipes for feasts’). For desserts, fruit and treats platters are great – here’s an article I wrote about creating platters on Huffington post. And lastly, my saffron cheesecake, absolutely perfect for sharing!
What is the link between yoga and food for you?
Yoga, for me, is a meditative flow, an internal massage, a deep stretch and a workout all at once. Over time, practicing yoga regularly has allowed me understand my body better and made me want to eat nourishing and cooked foods rather than constantly snacking, indulging my sugar cravings and opting for low fat foods, as I used to. Changing my habits and perceptions has been a gradual process and it all really started with taking up yoga.
After a hard day, what’s your top comfort food?
A hearty yellow daal or roasted vegetable soup, sometimes with a piece of rye toast and some cottage cheese.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about Indian food?
Firstly, that it is unhealthy and heavy and rich, a perception that has been formed by what is served at local tandoori restaurants – this is generally much heavier and is also only one of many regional cuisines in India. And secondly that it is difficult to cook.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
I have been writing a novel for many years and used to be a travel journalist. Writing and travelling will always be a part of my life. And both lend themselves well to my love of creating enriching and beautiful food – describing it and being inspired by street life and different cuisines.
Try Some of Mira’s Delicious Recipes for Yourself
This smooth and creamy cardamom drink is an impressive dessert, to be savoured with a spoon or a small straw. Made with blended cashews and sweetened with dates, it is as nourishing as it is filling. The chia seeds offer a layer of texture along with a whole array of health benefits. And the touch of cardamom and saffron transform the taste entirely, lending intensity of flavour and delicious decadence. Serves 4, small glasses
70g cashews * 350ml water * 2 dates * 1.5 Tablespoon chia * 50ml water* pinch saffron * ½ teaspoon cardamom * pistachios to garnish
Soak the cashews in 350ml water for 30 minutes or longer – you can even soak them overnight. Soak the chia seeds in 50ml water for similar time. If in a rush, soak chia in hot water, mix together thoroughly and they should be ready in a few minutes. Blend the cashews, water and dates in a high-speed blender. Pour this mixture into the chia seeds and keep stirring. Now add the cardamom and saffron and mix well. You can also place small amounts of the soaked chia seeds at the bottom of each glass and pour the cashew, date, cardamom and saffron mixture over it. Garnish with chopped pistachios and a sprinkle of cardamom.
Soaked Fennel Muesli
When I think of fennel, hot summer days, picnics in the garden and my grandmother’s sweet fennel water come to mind. It’s a cooling spice and so it works perfectly as a summer drink. But I’ve also used fennel or fennel powder in nut butter smoothies and it’s one of those lusciously moreish drinks you just want more and more of. So here it is again, this time stirred into muesli, giving the muesli that sweet aniseed flavour, great for the morning since fennel is great for digestion. Since fennel powder isn’t readily available, I’ve created an alternative recipe using fennel seeds which you can soak and then blend with the almond milk, or with any milk of your choice.
This muesli can be prepared and made in advance, the night before serving. If it looks too thick in the morning, simply add more milk and taste again for sweetness. Makes 2 servings
1 teaspoon, 5-7g fennel seeds * 3/4 glass almond milk (or any milk of choice) * 2 dates * 4 tablespoons oats * 1 tablespoon chia * 1 tablespoon maple syrup (or honey) * handful chopped pistachios and blueberries for garnishing
Soak the fennel seeds and dates in the milk for as long as possible or overnight in fridge. When ready to make, blend the mix of fennel seeds, milk and dates together in a high speed blender. Pour this mixture over the oats and chia seeds and mix. Let this soak for as long as possible so that the oats and chia can soak the milk – the consistency will thicken with time. Add honey, taste and add more if required. Garnish with pistachios or other nuts and some blueberries.
Spiced Sweet Potato
Sweet potatoes are as delicious as they are nutritious – and they are so incredibly good for you, high in Vitamin A, antioxidants and much more. There are endless ways of making and eating sweet potato, and this is my masala take on it. I’ve made it in various different ways before, with different combinations of spices each time, but this time I’ve added a little tandoori sauce, which adds a perfect zing of spice. This version did really top them all.
2 sweet potatoes, around 300g * 1 tablespoon rapeseed or olive oil * ¼ teaspoon turmeric * ½ teaspoon salt * ¼ teaspoon paprika * 2 tablespoons yoghurt * 1 teaspoon tandoori sauce
Preheat the oven on Gas Mark 4. Start by thoroughly washing the sweet potatoes as you’ll be grilling them with the skin. Now thinly slice the sweet potatoes – you can also do slightly larger chunks – it simply takes a little more time to cook. Place them in a mixing bowl and leave on the side. In a small bowl, mix the tandoori sauce and yoghurt and add this along with the rest of the ingredients into the mixing bowl with the sweet potato slices. Mix together properly, spread out on a baking tray and place in the oven for 30-45 minutes, until cooked. Use a fork to check if soft and cooked. Once they are cooked, place under the grill for around 10 minutes so they become brown and slightly crispy. Keep checking while in oven that they don’t burn.
*vegans can substitute soya yoghurt for regular
Turmeric Tofu & Wild Rice
Turmeric has recently been hailed for its anti-cancer properties. Mix it in with some colourful vegetables, tofu and wild rice, and you’ve got all your major nutrients covered in one of the healthiest – and tastiest – meals imaginable!
For the rice and tofu: 120g wild rice * 350ml water * 280g tofu (1 block), medium to firm * ¼ teaspoon turmeric * 1 teaspoon soy sauce
For the vegetable stir-fry
1 teaspoon coconut oil
1 small onion, long thin slices
½ clove garlic
¼ teaspoon himalayan salt
150g red and yellow peppers, chopped
80g broccoli, chopped
2 tablespoons soy sauce
Garnish with Coriander * Lime * Black pepper
Place the tofu on a kitchen towel to soak up excess water for 5-10 minutes. To cook the wild rice, boil the rice and water in a pan on low heat for around 40 minutes until the rice grains are soft and cooked. While the rice is cooking, chop the tofu in small cubes and place in a separate pan on low heat so that they become slightly brown. Add the turmeric and soy sauce to the tofu after 5-10 minutes, sprinkling over all the tofu pieces, and turn the tofu so that all the sides become brown, careful not to break them. You can start the vegetable stir-fry while the tofu is still cooking. Place the coconut oil and onion slices in a large pan and let this cook on low heat for a few minutes before adding the chopped or grated garlic. Once cooked, add the peppers and broccoli and stir. Let this cook for 7-10 minutes before adding the cooked rice. You can now stir in the soy sauce and add the tofu. Serve with a slice of lime and a sprinkle of coriander and black pepper.
Tips: Soaking the rice in water for an hour will reduce the cooking time.
Saffron Yoghurt Pots (Shrikhand)
Shrikhand has always been one of my favourite sweet dishes, a thick creamy yoghurt with sugar, saffron and cardamom, often topped with pomegranate and a mix of sliced nuts. Even though you can now easily buy Greek yoghurt, my grandmother still makes shrikhand by tying homemade yoghurt in a muslin cloth and allowing the water to drain for hours. And there really is nothing quite as good as homemade yoghurt! Here, I’ve made it easy and simple, but you can always add more nuts or change the toppings. Serves 6
500g Greek or soya yoghurt * 4 tablespoons honey * ¼ teaspoon cardamom * pinch saffron
Toppings to sprinkle on each bowl
½ pomegranate * handful, 2-3 tablespoons pistachios
Place the yoghurt into a mixing bowl and begin to add the honey, cardamom and saffron. Stir in thoroughly and taste for sweetness. Add a little more honey if needed. Place the mixture into serving glasses and garnish with your choice of toppings.
Additional options: I have also made this dessert with pecans and loved it! If you have pecans, toast a good handful of them on low heat in a pan with a quarter teaspoon coconut oil, some cinnamon and a dash of maple syrup. Once cool, break into small pieces and place at the bottom of the serving bowl, then top with the yoghurt and toppings.