The right way to cook rice and other secrets from the Indian kitchen

Updated: 26 April, 2020 08:21 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

New book by Ratna Rajaiah, Secrets of Health from the Indian Kitchen, will take you back to your roots to foods that were meant for you

Ratna Rajaiah writes of the jaggery-making process at her mother's home. "A massive iron kadhai would be placed on this fire. This would be filled with sugarcane juice, which would be allowed to cook very slowly for hours till it reduced and turned into thick, glossy, golden-brown syrup."
Ratna Rajaiah writes of the jaggery-making process at her mother's home. "A massive iron kadhai would be placed on this fire. This would be filled with sugarcane juice, which would be allowed to cook very slowly for hours till it reduced and turned into thick, glossy, golden-brown syrup."

The Indian kitchen, says Ratna Rajaiah, is a goldmine. The former advertising professional and mid-day columnist has dedicated a fair bit of time unravelling the wealth that it holds. There is the golden yellow turmeric, the queen of all spices; the power-packed ragi; the sweet brown jaggery; the potent antioxidant ginger, and the "first among all foods", rice, which she describes as the "grain of tranquillity". Yet, it surprises her, that we tend to over-rely on the goodness of what's foreign and alien.

Quinoa, a name many Indians would struggle to pronounce, has been elevated to wonder-food status; feta cheese is now making a regular appearance in salads, and eating raw has suddenly become fashionable.

Her just released book, Secrets of Health from the Indian Kitchen (Westland), hopes to take us back to our roots, and appreciate the extraordinariness of indigenous foods and cooking styles. The book is available on Amazon Kindle (R366), as well as Audible India (R585).

Ratna Rajaiah
Ratna Rajaiah

Originally published in 2009, the latest edition of this health guide-cum-cookbook has 11 new chapters. A lot has changed in the 10 years since the last edition. "Wheat—or shall we say gluten—is the bogeyman that rice once used to be. Coffee is now the Lord Protector of our livers, reduces risk of many serious diseases including Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's and heart disease," Mysuru-based Rajaiah shares in the book. And coconut oil, which many experts declared harmful, because it is said to contain saturated fats, has also slowly started winning favour in the West. "My mother hails from dakshin Karnataka, where coconut oil has been a staple for centuries. I always wondered if it was that bad [for our health], why didn't people from the regions that consumed it, ever report an alarming spike in heart or cholesterol-related problems," says Rajaiah, in a telephonic interview. It was while researching for the book that she learned that "approximately 50 per cent of the fatty acids in coconut oil are made up of a medium-chain fatty acid called lauric acid. This gets converted by the body into monolaurin, which also happens to be the most important fat contained in mother's milk—the building material for a baby's immune system. Indian cardiologist Dr BM Hegde backed this research. "Underneath all of this [conflicting theories about coconut oil], is the fact that we don't respect our culture, and our foods. We are losing sight of who we are, and looking to the West for validation," she adds. Coconut is a generous presence throughout her book, finding its way in rice, ragi, curry and chutney recipes, handed down by her mother. She also prepares food only with coconut oil.

Rajaiah admits that she is no health or nutritionist expert. Her own experiments in the kitchen began in full measure, only after she moved from Mumbai to Mysuru to be with her ageing mother. Remembered most for directing the popular '90s singing talent show, Meri Awaz Suno, Rajaiah soon realised the merit in making food from scratch—ditching the readymade masalas and dosa and idli batters, to pound one's own spices, and ferment ground rice and lentil overnight. She simultaneously also started writing a food column for a popular national daily, which piqued her curiosity about healthy eating. The first book was an extension of that research. Her new book has helped her continue this conversation.

An ingredient that she thinks should be off our diets, is refined sugar. Jaggery, she says, is a healthier option. In the book, she writes about her mother's earliest memories of jaggery-making in her father's house. "Come sugarcane season, after the sugarcane had been harvested, a large wood-fire would be lit in a patch of open ground near the house. A massive iron kadhai would be placed on this fire. This would be filled with sugarcane juice, which would be allowed to cook very slowly for hours till it reduced and turned into thick, glossy, golden-brown syrup… Each child would be armed with a little clay pot and a ladleful of the hot, golden liquid would be carefully poured into each little pot, which would be taken away as carefully and allowed to cool." In fact, she says, traditionally, when guests came home, they were greeted with a glass of water and jaggery. "It was a welcome drink," she says. Rajaiah uses it in everything from her tea and coffee, to her sweets.
She is, however, glad that Indians are now treating their foods with a lot of love. "We are slowly beginning to appreciate ancient wisdom. In most urban homes, we still don't cook enough. We are dependent on everything processed. But there is great joy in cooking. If you don't cook, you can't be healthy."

Percentage of fatty acids in coconut oil that are made up of lauric acid, which gets converted by the body into monolaurin— the most important fat found in mother's milk for the baby's immune system

Right way to cook rice

Right way to cook rice

Cook some plain steamed rice. The best way to do this is by the 'absorption' method—which is to boil the rice in water that is just enough to cook it, leaving no liquid left over when the rice is done. (Most varieties of rice require water between two to two-and-half times the volume of rice). Cover the pot with a tightly fitting lid and let the rice sit for about 15 minutes. The steam inside the pot will gently nudge the rice to 'bloom' into beautiful, fluffy grains. Also, whatever extra moisture there may be, will get absorbed by the rice. Now open the pot. Let the delicate aroma of the cooked rice float up into your nostrils. Enjoy it for a few seconds. Serve a few spoonfuls of the steaming hot rice into a bowl. Dribble into it a little ghee. Mix gently and then eat the rice while it is still hot.

Spicy ragi rotis

Spicy ragi rotis

Ideal for breakfast, tiffin or even a quick main meal, these rotis also keep for a couple of days, especially if stored in the fridge. (Serves 4)

250 gm ragi flour (you can substitute a quarter of this flour with wheat flour to make thinner rotis and to make them easier to roll out)
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 tsp fresh grated coconut (optional)
2–3 green chillies, finely chopped
2 tsp fresh coriander, finely chopped
¼ tsp cumin (jeera)
A pinch of asafoetida
½ tsp salt (adjust to taste)
Vegetable oil for cooking the rotis

Mix together all the ingredients with a little water to make into roti dough. Roll out into thick rotis. (You will not be able to roll out thin ones because of the chopped onions and other ingredients. Also ragi does not have any gluten and therefore the flour does not have the 'stickiness' needed to roll thin rotis). Cook on a tava, applying a little oil to each side of the roti. Serve hot with homemade white butter, ghee or plain curd.

Courtesy/Secrets of Health from the Indian Kitchen, Westland Books

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First Published: 26 April, 2020 07:55 IST

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