Edible Pune – Then and Now —-Published in Citadel, September 2010

I came to Pune from the US exactly 20 years ago. My fiancé (now husband) brought me here, his hometown, to experience the city and see if I could make it my home. His patriotic self wanted to return to his motherland—no exaggeration. I had always loved Indian food, so that aspect of my adjustment was something that I had not considered. If I had, perhaps I would not have stayed….

Don’t get me wrong–Pune was charming 20 years ago but in terms of food options, choices were severely limited. Maharashtrian food is an acquired taste and it took me a very long while to acquire it. There were only a handful of restaurants that served the untraceable “continental” food. Italian, Thai and Mediterranean were unheard of. I used to get pizza from Supreme, roadside place on the corner of BMCC and Law College Road. It was Indian pizza with Amul cheese and finely cut onions and capsicums but it had its own taste and still a refreshing change from the regular home food.

The Place will always have a place in my heart because it was the one of the few restaurants that served consistently good sizzlers. Remember Viceroy on FC Road – the Scampi Newburg kept me from divorcing my husband and heading back home. Three continuous days of Maharashtrian poli-bhaji was just too much—I needed meat and fish at least every few days, something I was accustomed at every meal. The combination of American sandwiches for lunch and a Saraswat fish dinner had made my body accustomed to meat and I would crave it after a few days. I went to Varun Raj, off Karve Road, every day for 6 months during my pregnancy and ate wanton soup –chicken of course.

Coffee shops at 5-star hotels always had decent sandwiches but the same coffee shops seem unreasonable now, not just in terms of money but value for money. Paying Rs.400 plus tax for substandard coffee and a sandwich just do not seem worth it. Is it because our refined tastes are more demanding or is the fare just not good?

This brings me to the point of cost. The cost of eating out has risen 60 % after taking into consideration inflation. Many people feel cheated after paying such an exorbitant sum, not because of the figure but because of the product. There are very few fine dining restaurants in Pune that serve food that is worth the price, it is Russian roulette –hit or miss with food quality and service. Most of bill goes in salaries and attempted ambience, maintenance does not seem to be in the vocabulary. Many restaurants do excellent business when they first start, then down the line, six months or a year later the place begins to deteriorate. First the service, then the food and then the upkeep steadily go downhill and you feel swindled when you are paying over Rs. 600-700/- per person and the dining experience is not up to the mark.

Mid size eateries are better options these days. Places like Vaishail, Roopali and Ramakrishna give consistently good quality food, albeit the choices on the menu have not changed for the past 20 years either. But there are some smaller restaurants that you will get excellent food without the fancy tablecloths or air-conditioning. Purepur Kohlapuri in Kothrud and Fish, Curry and Rice in Narayan Peth are examples.

Street food seems a better option—nothing compares to pani puri and dahi bhalla. It is satisfying, filling and you don’t feel cheated after eating it….luckily I have an iron stomach.

There are some long-established eateries that still give excellent food today and will do so even 20 years from now—Mazorin for sandwiches, Kapila for kathi rolls, Zamu’s for sizzlers, Blue Nile for biriyani, German Bakery (it will come back) for juices and omelets to name a few. We also have a plethora of cuisines to choose from—Thai, Italian (La Pizzeria is admired even by Italian visitors), continental, and Goan. Hotels have food festivals showcasing foods from all over India and the world.

In 1993 I would look forward to visit Mumbai to have Smokin Joes pizza and was a regular customer when it came to Pune a year later—the first branch initially located at Gera Plaza next to Blue Diamond. I find that Smokin Joes is still the best option for pizza home delivery. All the fast food chains are here–McDonalds, KFC, Subway, Dominos and more recently Papa John’s all have several outlets in the city. These chains, amongst other reasons are making Pune a fat city.

Over the last 20 years our prosperity is literally showing around our girth. Obesity is increasing in the city as it is all over the nation. The prevalence of overweight and obesity in Maharashtra is higher than the national average for both female and male. Among the urban female population Pune is counted to be above the national average of 29% obesity.

The traditional Indian thali is healthy since it includes dal and pulses for protein, vegetables for essential vitamins, curds for calcium and rotis for complex carbohydrates but how many people eat a thali or similar to a thali twice a day. In these 20 years lifestyles have changed dramatically. Longer hours in the workplace, more competition in the education systems, the proliferation of convenience foods and congested roads that make it difficult to walk or cycle to destinations are just a few reasons amongst many in the entire scenario that has made us overweight and unhealthy. Traditional “roti-subzi” or “poli-bhaji” is shunned, especially by the youth who prefer burgers, pizza or sandwiches. This will not only add to obesity but adolescents will not get the essential nutrition during the important growth years. The next 20 years there we will see a correction as we try and reduce obesity and the diseases associated with it. Health foods, gyms and yoga classes are already popular and will continue to grow.

Getting the ingredients for cooking different foods was a task 20 years ago. Many times 3 different stores had to be visited to make pizza. Italian ingredients were just not available at least not easily and an Indian brand of macaroni was the only choice of pasta. The difficulty of making lasagna in 1992 is a case in point. A nice lasagna dinner was planned for my husband and his friends for his birthday. There were no lasagna sheets available in the market and I made the sheets from scratch the day before, a tedious process with no pasta maker, then made the tomato sauce followed by the filling using paneer to replace ricotta cheese. I sharpened my culinary skills by making many dishes by scratch and the lasagna came out heavenly, at least I thought so at the time. The dish was gobbled up in less than 25 minutes by 4 hungry guys who had no idea how much work went into the meal. Two days of work did not seem worth it.

Dorabjee’s had some cold cuts and a few imported items. Though it had nothing like the variety you see today. Today I can buy olives and Skippy peanut butter at the local Big Bazaar. There are a handful of stores that stock specialized meats and cheeses. Ingredients for Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern and Italian foods are much more available. The proliferation of expats in Pune and the broadening palates of Puneites through travel abroad had increased the demand for such goods such as olive oil, pastas, sauces, and vegetables such as broccoli, bok choy and iceberg lettuce.

With age and experience I prefer vegetarian food now and I prefer to eat at home. The days of eating out 5-6 times a week are gone. Food in restaurants is just too rich and there are very few if any low calorie options –something I would like to see change. And with all the available ingredients it is easy to cook homemade lasagna now!

Conscious Kitchens–Published in Citadel, July 2010

Lunch Menu

Cold Gazpacho soup (uncooked)
Pumpkin-lauki- cabbage salad
Salad of tomatoes stuffed with grated carrots and raisins
Ragi bread
Multi-grain bread
Ridge gourd vegetable without oil
Unpolished rice
Coconut-banana-chikoo pudding

We were all surprised that the mustard seeds were popping. Who would have suspected that these little black seeds that usually create an oily mess would pop without any oil in the pan? Curry leaves were added to the same pan followed by tomatoes. After the tomatoes were soft a peanut paste was added ,followed by various masalas. The final ingredient, ridge gourd that we had steamed earlier was added and in just a few minutes our dish was ready.

I was delighted to host the Organic Collective(OC) team at my home. The team held their Conscious Kitchen worksop teaching oil-free and other healthy cooking methods. It was my kind of morning. Seven people cooking healthy food together… talking, talking and talking about food of course, one of my favourite subjects…where food comes from, where to buy organic foods, how to grow food and how we can make food healthier. OC’s oil-free cooking entails using some other fat in its pure form and in this case we used peanuts made into a paste by adding water. I asked them how the peanut paste used in the vegetables instead of oil is healthier than oil. Their philosophy is that the amount of peanuts used for a meal for seven is only half a cup where are the oil used uses much more extractions from the product, whether it be peanut oil, olive oil, or sesame oil, the amount of actual product used to get the oil extraction will be high and it is better to use it in its purest and most natural state.

Vanaja Vaidyanathan, Shammi Nanda and Gurvinder Singh came together by accident. Shammi and Gurvinder knew eachother from FTII and met Vanaja at a seminar on natural farming techniques. Both Shammi and Vanaja began considering the quality of their food to help overcome their health issues.Their common link to food and how it has affect their lives brought them together to start the Organic Collective.

They spread their philosophy by doing and teaching, not preaching. The cooking session was casual with everyone handling some task. Since it was my kitchen I was busy pointing out where things are for the cooks but did manage to absorb most of the points of the demonstration.

Urban dwellers, myself included, cite the supermarket or local bhajiwallah as the source of their vegetables, very few know about the farms where their food is grown. Being conscious of our food source and cooking methods are the premise of the OC.

Shammi came with a basket full of vegetables; it looked like my weeks supply of vegetables and I wondered why there was so much but soon came to understand why. We all sat and got acquainted over a cool glass of punna(raw mango drink). The OC team was thrilled that the punna was made with jaggery instead of sugar. OC promotes natural ingredients like diverse grains and jaggery instead of highly processed foods like maida and white sugar. We get down to work soon after we finish our drink. The first item on the menu is a pudding made with fruits and the insides of a tender coconut. The problem was breaking the large coconuts but managed by sending them to the gardener who had the right tools. Lots of malai was taken out and the water preserved to drink. This malai was mixed in the mixer with bananas. The mixture was mixed with chopped chickoo chunks and raisins and walnuts and put in the freezer…no sugar added. The desert which we take out an hour later is tasty and the fact that there was no milk in the pudding-like desert was not really detectable, coconut malai is an excellent substitute.

OC has mixed feelings about milk products. Some OC members do consume milk while others have them in only in forms such as curds and cheese but not pure milk. The growth hormones given to cows so as to produce a higher milk yield are unhealthy. And if cows and horses can make calcium from the grass they eat, then we can also get calcium from fruits and vegetables grown in the same soil. But at the same time, some milk products have been shown to be particularly beneficial to humans – like curds, buttermilk, etc. which supply good bacteria to the human gut, thus aiding in digestion.

Gurvinder the artisanal bread baker in the group showed us how to cook bread from scratch using ragi. With only fresh yeast, some luke warm water ragi, salt and sugar he concocted the dough to rise. He made one bread loaf with just ragi and one with a combination of raji and wheat. Gurvinder shapes one loaf nicely and coats in with a seed mixture, it looks quite professional.

The OC encourages steaming, solar cooking and the use of raw foods rather than pressure cooking and frying foods. The enzymes present in food are very important for triggering off the digestion process. Food is best when raw and not too much heat should be used when cooking. It is difficult for the enzymes and vitamins to withstand the temperatures of boiling and moreover the food is half dead before coming on the plate. When the body receives half-dead food, it sees it as toxins and tends to throw it out. The body too has to work more to produce the enzymes for the digestion process. Steaming is preferred as it cooks the food lightly without losing the vital enzymes.

The cabbage and carrots that Shammi has brought are quite small and I ask him where he picked them up. “They are organic, I know they do not look large and bright but they are healthier. On the contrary if a vegetable looks too good then you know that there has been some tampering with the fertilizer or there have been chemicals used for preservation,” he comments.

We made two different salads. One salad was just chopped lauki(yes, raw lauki…not as bad as you may think), grated yellow pumpkin and finely cut red cabbage, not mixed together but kept colourful separated in a wide dish. Some salt, pepper and fresh mint leaves from Vanaja’s terrace garden were used as dressing. I did not particularly like the salad, it basically needed more dressing or spice, the grated pumpkin though was sweet and tasty without any additions. My friends who are not used to chopping in their own homes (we all have our trusted cooks) are having animated conversations while cutting the veggies.

Tomatoes stuffed with grated carrots, jaggery and raisins is the second salad. The stuffing was nice and sweet (can you tell that I like things sweet) and the tomatoes also tasted fresh.

Now the cut ridge gourd was steamed in the steamer and the peanut paste was also made ready so we all watched while Shammi showed us the process of oil-free cooking. The kitchen had the wonderful aroma of a bakery when the bread was taken out of the oven. After the bitter gourd subzi was made we set the table and began our hard earned lunch. My friends who had come and were chopping away earlier were also eager to get started as they had to get back to work after their enlightening morning.

The soup and salads are served first as raw foods should eaten first are better on the digestive system. Both breads are excellent as was the oil-free subzi. Eating the food felt good; we were hungry and this food which is on the lighter side is not food that you can overeat and I ate the optimum amount, enough to fill up without being stuffed. The seven of us chatted about other recipes and how to substitute non processed foods for processed ones in daily meals. I ended the meal with passing around some raisins as desert…since we had already eaten our pudding as the appetizer.

The Organic Collective has no fixed price for their cooking workshop. Their “Pay From Your Heart” philosophy requests people to pay whatever they feel the value of the learning was to them.

My cook was on hand to learn the oil-free methods but insisted that peanuts used in the vegetable are more fattening than the oil I would have used. I kept trying to explain to her that this method of cooking is better for your health and nothing to do with weight but I do not think there is anything that can change her philosophy that oil is good for the bones which basically means if there is any oil-free cooking to be done it will have to be done by me….have to get back to the kitchen now.

Cold Gazpacho Soup
Ingredients
5 large tomatoes
1 green bell pepper –finely chopped
1/2 cup spring onions — finely chopped
3 garlic pods, mashed
basil
lemon juice
parsley
salt and pepper to taste
sugar to taste

Directions
Blanch tomoatoes in boiling water for one minute. Take out skin and blend in mixer. Heat and add remaining ingredients except lemon juice, and cook for 2-3 minutes. Cool, add lemon juice and mix. Refrigerate until cold.
You can add spices and herbs amounts to your liking. I love garlic so I have added a bit more.

Mindful Eating –Published in Citadel, June 2010

Mindful Eating is the new buzzword in the dieting industry. Sounds self explanatory, obvious and rather simple but consider these scenarios:

• You have gone to lunch with your colleagues. Not exactly famished but feel you need food; you buy the standard paneer roll at the canteen. One friend has brought cake that she has baked to lunch and keeps it out on the table. You decide to eat a small piece but it is just too good to stop and you end up eating 3 large pieces.

• At a dinner party there are some appetizers being served. There is not much conversation happening at the party and you fill time eating appetizers and before you know it are too full for dinner. Not to be rude to your host you take a plate for dinner and serve yourself very little. The fish curry is amazing and you do not get to eat fish often so you take a few more servings.

• At home after the kids have gone to school and you get some mid-morning hunger pangs. You begin to snack on some low fat chewda. You eat while checking your email and in some time look down only to find that the entire dubba is gone. You taste a bit on your tongue but do not even recall eating so much.

Do these scenarios sound familiar? They happen too often and mindless eating is not so difficult to overcome. So what exactly does Mindful Eating mean and how can it help you in weight control?

Mindfulness is the moment to moment awareness of life. But it is not that simple as we get caught up in our own thoughts and rush to do daily tasks.

Mindfulness comes from the Buddhist philosophy of being aware of what is happening in the present and living in the present. If any of you have taken an Art of Living Course you may have noticed the same philosophy of living in the present and not the past or future.

Obesity epidemics in the US have spurred changing the physical makeup of food by making low fat, low sugar products. The physical change of people through various weight loss diets, medicines and surgeries has also been tried. But in the end it is all in the mind. If you are determined to watch what you eat and get regular exercise then the chances of weight control are greater. Hence mindful eating.

Mindful eating involves paying full attention to the experience of eating and drinking, both inside and outside the body. We use all our senses to pay attention to the flavors, colors, aromas, textures, temperatures, and even the sounds of our food. We pay attention to how the body is feeling when we are eating. Where in the body do we feel hunger? Where do we feel satisfaction? When you feel full or half-full.

Equally important we also pay attention to the mind. Be aware and see how the mind gets distracted by a phone call, television or the computer. We notice the impulse and return to just eating. It is also the conscious decisions we make on which foods to eat. We should be eating foods that are nourishing the body and not those that offer no nutrition or are harmful.

We also notice how eating affects our mood and how our emotions like how anxiety and stress influence our eating. Food becomes the comforter, the thing to turn to when all is not well.

The old habits of eating and not paying attention are not easy to change. Lasting change takes time, and is built on many small changes. If you have ever tried meditation you know how easily the mind wonders and how many other thoughts enter into your mind. So how can we practice this technique?

This exercise is extreme but it makes you pay attention to your food and make you more aware when you are eating. Try this exercise with a friend:

1. Each of you takes a plate of one phulka and one subzi. Any food you would have for lunch.

2. Take one bite of the roti subzi and close your eyes. Do not begin to chew.

3. Try not to think of anything else, just focus on what is in your mouth. Notice anything that comes to mind about taste, texture, and sensation going on in your mouth.

4. Begin to chew and notice similar sensations again. Focus on your jaw and see how it is moving. Chew at least 30 times.

5. Swallow. Feel the food go down your throat and into your stomach.

6. Take a deep breath and exhale.

7. Repeat the process until the food is finished.

8. Discuss your feelings with your friend.

You cannot obviously eat like this all the time but the exercise will make you understand how to use all your senses and you will become more aware of your own eating habits.

Here are a few other suggestions for eating mindfully:

1. Start small. Try eating mindfully for one meal a day initially.

2. Sit at the table. If you have to balance a plate elsewhere then it is difficult to concentrate on the food.

3. Turn off the TV and computer. You should be eating and only eating.

4. Serve yourself the portion you want and bring that prepared plate to the table only. Make it look nice on the plate and appreciate the appearance.

5. Put down the cutlery between bites. This will help you eat slower. If eating with your hands, consciously give them a rest.

6. Chew at least 30 times before swallowing.

7. Make the meal last 20 minutes.

8. Share your mindfulness with your family. It is difficult to practice mindfulness in a social setting and practicing with your family will help you accomplish this. Talk about the taste, texture, smell, etc of the food. Your kids will love to give inputs.

9. Learn to enjoy food in a different way…a slow and mindful way!

Ten Ways to Recharge in the Afternoon-Pune Citadel, May 2010

After a hectic morning of working out, packing lunches, commuting to work, sitting in meetings, grocery shopping or dropping off kids, a lunch break is in order. You have had a productive morning and are ready for lunch. It is post lunch where the problem arises. The body slowly feels sluggish, the eyes begin to droop and you feel like taking the rest of the day off. The afternoon of more meetings or tedious housework seems bleak. How do you keep up the energy and have a fruitful afternoon as well?
Here are 10 ways to recharge in the afternoon.

1. Take a power nap. At home sit on the sofa and set the alarm for 20 minutes. In the office this may be a bit more difficult. But at the lunch hour when people are away for lunch you can put your head down on the desk and close your eyes for a few minutes. This will rest your body and system. Be careful to not go beyond 20 minutes as anything longer than this will take you into a deeper slumber and make you groggy when you wake up.

2. Take a walk. A short 10 minute brisk walk outdoors will help you circulate those muscles and leave you feeling fresh. If you are under artificial light for most of the day then the sunshine outdoors will be beneficial. It helps the body produce vitamin D, which is important for good health. Sun exposure also boosts serotonin levels, which can improve mood and help you sleep better at night.

3. Drink green tea. It is vitalizing without the after effects of a caffeine kick. Black tea is also ok but we Indians find it difficult to have plain black tea, we need our milk and sugar and plenty of it. Green tea has the highest levels of antioxidants — like EGCG – which studies have shown to support health, possibly lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers. It’s also got considerably less caffeine so green tea can be a good choice if you find coffee or black tea makes you jittery.

4. Stretch or do chair yoga. After a morning of sitting, the muscles are stiff and feel lethargic. Stretching in the chair or standing up will loosen them up. Check out this site for chair yoga:

5. Organize your desk and file your papers. De-cluttering your work space at the office or at home makes you feel in control and makes you want to continue to work.

6. Breathe. Deep breathing can relieve stress when you’re feeling burned out. Sit down, keeping your back straight. Inhale through the nose while you count to four. Hold your breath while you count to four. Then exhale deeply through the mouth, counting to six. Repeat the cycle five times. The oxygen will give you a lift.

7. Listen to some tunes. Be prepared with the music that boosts your mood whether it is Hindi pop or jazz. Keep 10 minute playlists ready on your mp3 player.

8. Use cold water. The Romans finished their famous Roman baths with a dip in the frigidarium, a cold water pool which invigorated the body. Of course we no longer live in those ancient times but you can get a quick energy boost by just splashing cold water on your face in the bathroom. A glass of cold ice water also does the trick.

9. Plan dinner. Get excited about what you are going to cook tonight, be it for one or five. Print out the recipe and make a list of ingredients you need to buy. Otherwise pick up the phone and make reservations. Looking forward to something always lifts the mood.

10. Have some chocolate. Most of you are happy to see this on the list. Yes a small amount of chocolate is a picker upper. Chocolate has gotten some good publicity lately. A mild stimulant itself, it has lots of other possible health benefits too – from boosting memory to lowering cardiovascular risks. Unsweetened cocoa with an artificial sweetener with some milk will give the benefits of protein without the calories of sugar. A couple squares of Cadbury with nuts do wonders as well. Eat slowly and savor.

Now some of the items on the list like stretch or take a walk may sound obvious which they are. The point is that 10 minutes is all you need to recharge and you should actively use those ten minutes to do so. Understand what you are doing and doing it deliberately will make the recharge exercise will work better. By planning your relaxation you can consciously make use of those 10 minutes better instead of procrastinating on some work that has to done. The 10 minutes of recharge will allow you to concentrate and have a more productive afternoon.