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Biting into the past
It's hard to imagine pav bhaji without tomatoes. Or pasta made of rice. But at Swadshakti, a restaurant at Ayushakti, an ayurvedic centre in Malad in Mumbai, both are available. The food here is a balancing act between the three doshas according to ayurveda - vatta (air), pitta (heat) and kapha (mucous ). So tomatoes are eschewed as, being acidic, they increase levels of heat in the body. Kokum is used instead. The cooks at Swadshakti, under the guidance of Ayushakti's chief vaidya, Smita Naram, have substituted every thing from wheat to paneer to make their food healthier. As refined flour has the nutritional value of paper, it's replaced with flours made of ragi and nachni, said Prashanti Sawant, Swadshakti's marketing manager. Tofu is used instead of paneer and kokum, beetroot, and red pumpkin are used to make foods like pasta sauce that have tomatoes. "Hot spices that are sweet in nature" are an important part of ayurvedic cooking, Sawant pointed out. One would think spices like cardamom, cloves, and fennel raise levels of heat in the body but actually they improve metabolism, Sawant said. The menu at Swadshakti isn't limited to Indian food. In fact, it has some rather surprising elements. It's hosting a sizzler festival till the end of January. And some time ago, it introduced a selection of mocktails including such unlikely combinations as banana and mukhwas. It also has seemingly unhealthy foods like parathas that are made using pure ghee. Doesn't ghee clog the arteries? On the contrary, Sawant said, "it lowers heat".
Ayurvedic restaurants have made their mark in Chennai, Bangalore and Kozhikode as well. The Sanjeevanam chain, which has two outlets in Chennai, opened a branch in Bangalore and serves a five-course meal that is cooked in earthen, bronze and copper vessels by specially trained cooks. The return to roots where food is concerned is taking other forms as well in the country. The Slow Food movement - started by Italian Carlos Petrini - is catching on, albeit slowly. It lays emphasis on using locally available ingredients and traditional cooking methods and recipes, in an attempt to preserve culinary diversity. The Navdanya cafê in Delhi is the country's first Slow Food restaurant and on offer are long-forgotten delicacies like amaranth cutlets, jhangora (barnyard millet) idlis, ragi dosas and red rice kheer. It also held a food festival in the capital last year where brahmi-flavoured buttermilk, a tandoori platter of roots and tubers (shakarkandi, arbi, rataloo), and mooroonga leaves pulao were the star entrees. In November last year, a Slow Food festival of sorts was held in Mawphlang, where 10 rural communities from the Khasi-Jaintia Hills showcased their cuisines. Promoters of the movement are trying to rope in more partners - producers, restaurateurs and chefs - in India going forward.
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