Opting for a Culturally Diverse Primal Palate: Indian Cuisine

Indian spices for sale at the infamous Anjuna flea-market, Anjuna Beach, Goa, India

Indian spices for sale at the Anjuna flea-market in Anjuna Beach, Goa, India – CC licensed by Sara Marlowe @ Flickr

Chris Kesser made an interesting post this week called Health Lessons from International Cuisines: India (one in an ongoing series that covers various countries and geographical regions). I love ethnic foods and Indian cuisine is one of my favorites given the variety of flavors and texture combinations.

My parents exposed me to Indian food at a very young age. They weren’t very familiar with this cuisine prior to arriving to America but they were adventurous and craved food that was more interesting than the typical Midwest American cuisine that was prevalent where my sisters and I grew up in Oklahoma City. I remember my first bite of saag paneer (paneer cheese and spinach): it was lusciously savory spinach, slightly spicy, with chunks of soft paneer cheese. I had no basis of comparison for the paneer; up until that point, the only cheese I knew was electric yellow and came in plastic-wrapped slices or it was super creamy Laughing Cow spreadable cheese (oddly prevalent in Asian markets but rarely found in the traditional Western supermarkets at that time).

My mom and I were certain those delicious white chunks were tofu and so she made prepared it that way at home (as well as making a few educated guesses as to the spices used) for the longest time; after all, this was pre-Googling and the libraries didn’t have much by way of ethnic cookbooks. My sisters and I loved eating that homemade saag paneer and all my parents’ other renditions of Indian curries but it was never as rich as the restaurant versions we tried. Once we found out that authentic paneer was actually cheese and the amount of butter (ghee, to be precise) used to make it so rich, we didn’t eat nearly as much. You have to remember that this was (and maybe still?) a time when people vilified fatty foods and while my parents were never concerned with weight, they naturally skewed towards healthier foods.

Once I moved out of the house, I happily began consuming loads of Indian food whenever I could afford it. However once I made the switch to a Paleo/Primal-based diet, I was surprised at the lack of ethnic diversity in the recipes. Yes, there were Paleo analogs for Italian-American favorites like spaghetti & meat sauce and a small number of vaguely Thai mish-mashes of coconut “curries” but very little by way of Indian food. Kesser mentions three key ingredient groups that make a compelling argument for more Indian food within the Paleo/Primal/ancestral food arena: ghee, fermented grains and beans, and spices.

Ghee: I made the switch to ghee a couple of months ago and I love it. I use Purity Farms but once this bottle is used up, I want to switch Pure Indian Cultured Organic Grass-fed Ghee, as so many people have raved about the quality. Cultured butter tastes absolutely wonderful and if you haven’t tried it, you are missing out on the true taste of butter. I use it for sauteing greens, frying eggs (even adding an extra teaspoon instead of cream for decadent creamy soft scrambled eggs), and even putting it in my morning & afternoon coffee! It has a higher smoke point than regular butter and most cooking oils so it is ideal for high temperature cooking. I’ve eliminated grapeseed and sunflower cooking oils (both exceptionally bad for you anyway) and now only use either ghee and coconut oil; olive oil is only used for dressings, roasting or low-temperature cooking.

Spices: Turmeric! Ginger! Fennel! Cumin! Coriander! I could wax poetic about wonderful Indian spices forever but I limit myself to three: turmeric, ginger, and coriander. Besides cooking, I also use turmeric as a juicing ingredient (raw juiced root) and supplement (dried powder) for its myriad anti-inflammatory properties. I find the fresh roots at Asian markets but once peeled/juiced/grated, they will stain almost everything they come into contact with so use caution. Ginger, essential to Indian and other Asian cuisines, adds a wonderful spiciness that is versatile for savory and sweet applications; it is also useful for alleviating gastrointestinal distress and nausea symptoms. Buy it fresh for cooking versatility (chopped, slivered, minced, grated) and greater control over flavors; I get mine from Asian markets as the price is much better for the pocketbook. You can freeze the root if you don’t plan on using it as often. If you can’t find the fresh root, you can buy the powdered version. Skip the pastes as I find most of those have added canola or sunflower oils. Coriander (also commonly known as cilantro) is prevalent in many Asian cuisines in both as fresh leafy herbs (roots, stems, and leaves) or ground seed powder. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is a phytonutrient-dense herb that can potentially lower blood sugar and LDL cholesterol. I love the unique flavor but some people cannot tolerate it two genetic variants linked to perception of the herb that make the herb taste soapy!

One of my long-term goals for this blog is to successfully convert a variety of ethnic recipes to make them Paleo/Primal/ancestral diet-friendly. As I have been craving Indian food all week, I think it is high time to tackle my beloved saag paneer and some form of flatbread so expect a recipe post and possibly a review of the magical multi-purpose Paleo & Primal dough Recipe soon.