South Asian Cuisine: More Than Just Turmeric

I wrote this article for the first edition of Nutrition Perspectives, a nutrition magazine at Simmons College.

Perhaps you have heard of the proclaimed health benefits of turmeric. Although the scientific proof for its benefits is lacking, there is no doubt that South Asian cuisine comes with countless nutritional perks. There is no need to add turmeric to everything you eat to be healthy. Instead, just completely indulge in the delicious, nutrient-dense cuisines of the Subcontinent. While turmeric may or may not be the key ingredient that keeps you feeling light and refreshed while fighting chronic illness, it would not be wrong to say that the whole foods in the South Asian cuisine may be more responsible for its health benefits. These dishes contain much more than just spices!

South Asian cuisine tends to include foods low in saturated fat, rarely contains red meat, and very rarely contains pork. Its staples are several highly nutrient-dense vegetarian dishes, including daal chawal, or lentils with rice. Meat-lovers can enjoy other popular dishes such as beef seekh kebabs as well as chicken tikka masala, or chicken curry.

A South Asian MyPlate

Whole grains are the central ingredient in several rice dishes including biryani, pulao, rice with peas, and basmati rice served with spinach, vegetables, curries, and much more. Breads, such as naan, paratha, and roti, are also key sources. Vitamins and minerals come from the many different vegetables, such as eggplants and calabashes, and fruits, such as pomegranates and mangoes, grown in Subcontinental Asia. Beef, goat, and chicken dishes, as well as dishes that contain legumes such as peas and lentils, provide protein. High-density lipoproteins or “good cholesterol” production is promoted in the body by consuming mukhwas, a combination of seeds and nuts commonly eaten after meals to freshen breath 1.

Bone broths are currently very trendy, nutritional meals. They are beneficial because the nutrients, primarily minerals, from the animal’s bones leech into soup. Many South Asian dishes, such as biryani and pulao, use the same principle, and cook bones with the rice. While the bones are not supposed to be eaten, the nutrients are absorbed into the rice for all the nutritional benefits..

As with all cuisines, be cautious to not overindulge in oily or fried foods such as parathas, samosas, and pakoras. While these foods are delicious and healthy in moderation, their alluring tastes often lead people to overeat. It is possible to have nutrient-dense versions of these foods, but it is common for them to be high in saturated fat.

Nutritional Issues

In rural, poor parts of Pakistan, people have less access to educational and agricultural resources due to poverty. Rural Pakistan has high rates of undernutrition, especially for young children. Lack of education regarding breastfeeding and complementary feeding practices are some of the factors that lead to a significant amount of children being underweight and having wasting and stunting issues, which often result in death2. Not only is nutritional education important in developing nations, but it is also important in America. The popular turmeric obsession itself has been proved deadly: recently, someone was injected with turmeric as an anti-inflammatory measure and died. The obsession with individual nutrients rather than whole foods can result with this kind of dangerous naturopathic practice. Insteading of focusing on the individual nutrients of South Asian cuisine, perhaps it is better to consume its nutrient-dense, whole, real foods. As food-eaters and dietitians, we must be careful to not eat certain ingredients just because they are traditional, natural, or trendy. We must do research and be informed.