The Myth of Healthy Ghar ka Khana
By Roshni Bajaj
Home food might not make you sick, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
It’s a simple enough acronym, DBRS, but to Gujaratis, it means everything: sustenance, balance, comfort, nourishment, tradition. Its full form is dal-bhat-rotli-shak, and it’s the ghar ka khana, the everyday meal at home – a lentil soup, rice, chapatis, and a vegetable dish. It’s what the maharaj, or hired Gujarati cook, is expected to make, the default menu when he doesn’t have instructions specifying anything else.
Other communities in India may not have melodious compound nouns or acronyms for what’s on their dining tables every day, but there are similarities in at-home Indian cuisine across the country. Ghar ka khana is food that makes us feel good, virtuous even, about ourselves.
These nice, home-cooked meals – the kind our parents and grandparents grew up eating, the kind our doctors prescribe – are varied, practical, wholesome; home food will not make us sick, because we buy fresh produce; we wash and clean it well; we cook it hygienically; we eat it while it is still warm. We eat more, because it’s that good for us.
But is it?
Overprepping and undernourishing
While it’s true ghar ka khana is less likely to make us sick, this does not mean it is optimally nutritious. Healthful food comprises not only fresh ingredients, but also nutrients in the right proportion, made available to us by using the right techniques to prepare the food. And this is where our home food – carbohydrates and starches surrounded by overcooked vegetables and meats – may fail us.
We know packaged, processed food is not great for us. But what most don’t realize is that home food preparation is a form of processing, too. And every process we put fresh produce through leaches nutrients, reducing how much is available to fuel our bodies.
Studies show that storing, peeling, washing after peeling, chopping or crushing, exposure to air (the finer the pieces, the more nutrients lost through oxidation), exposure to hot water, exposure to high heat, exposure to sustained heat, and even frequent stirring reduce the bioavailability of nutrients inherent in the raw food item.
“If we want to get the most nutrition out of the veggies and food we cook, we should wash them well and lightly cook them,” says Luke Coutinho, holistic nutrition and fitness expert, and author of The Great Indian Diet. “Homemade food loses all of its goodness when cooks add more oil and salt to cook it faster and make it tastier.”
Here’s what starts vanishing as soon as you start to peel and chop: B vitamins and fibre are found mainly near the skin of produce, and vitamins A, C, and E are antioxidants, which means upon exposure to air, they react with oxygen and disintegrate.
When produce is washed after peeling and heated, this is what is lost: more of the highly water-soluble Vitamin C, and thiamine (B1), some of the less soluble B Vitamins, riboflavin (B2) and niacin (B3), folic acid (B7) (found in greens), and electrolytes like potassium. And when we cook with too much oil, or deep fry, the more stable, fat-soluble A, D, E, and K vitamins start to disappear. (Here’s a handy table to show which process destroys which nutrients.)
“Our diets are deeply rooted in culture, tradition, religion and ignorance – an ignorance that is visible in mortality rates.”
Even minerals like magnesium, manganese, calcium, copper, which are less heat sensitive, are significantly reduced or destroyed the longer food is cooked, and with every re-heat.
Overcooked meat is not much better; the fibres become tougher, making it harder to digest, and excessive exposure to heat not only destroys nutrients, but also creates carcinogenic compounds.
Similar compounds are created when heating oil, which happens not only when we deep fry, but also with a tadka, when we temper our spices. And we tend to use refined oil, which has a higher smoke point, but fewer nutrients than cold-pressed or unrefined oil.
“At home, it’s easy to take a second and a fourth helping,” says nutritionist Dr. Vishakha Shivdasani. “We forget that patra made at home still contains all that vaghaar (spices tempered in hot oil). We believe, ‘Ghar ka hai, toh chalta hai.’”
Consider a handful of the thousands of traditional ghar ka khana dishes: dal fry, baingan bharta, palak paneer, ishtew, kheema kofte, aloo gobhi, kombdi vade, machher jhol, lauki ki sabzi, sambhar. The preparation of each involves overprocessing, leaving us with food that is much lower in nutrients, vitamins and minerals than it could be, higher in carbohydrates (both starches and sugars) and oxidised fats than it should be, and food that might just contain carcinogenic compounds.
Taste and ease trump awareness
In many homes in urban India, home food is prepared by a hired cook, which puts healthy eating even further outside our control.
“In other areas of our lives, we look to experts to provide us with services,” says Nithij Arenja, a healthcare services entrepreneur. “At home, a person who [may be] completely uneducated in nutrition and health decides what [we] put in our mouths and bodies.”
Hired cooks work multiple jobs, Arenja adds, so they are often motivated by efficiency and taste, instead of nutrition and the family’s health. As a result, lots of oil, salt and high heat, which combine to speed up cooking time and make food tastier, are commonly used – most of the time unbeknownst to the people eating the food.
To this mix, we add increasingly sedentary lifestyles.
“Look at disease rates across countries and it will tell you what the population is eating,” Arenja says. “Our food is depleted of nutrition, and highly sugar- and starch-based. Our diets are deeply rooted in culture, tradition, religion and ignorance – an ignorance that is visible in mortality rates.”
So, while our uncontaminated, hygienic ghar ka khana isn’t making us instantly sick, over time, it’s making us develop chronic lifestyle diseases. India has the third-largest (and one of the fastest-growing) diabetic populations in the world, and heart disease rates are rising, too; doctors directly attribute both to our diets.
The future of ghar ka khana
It’s not so much where we eat as it is how we calibrate our cooking techniques to provide the macronutrients and micronutrients we need to keep us healthy. That’s why well-chosen restaurant food, selected with a basic awareness of nutrition, can be equally or even more nutritious than home food. (Dishes like a stir fry, a soup, a piece of grilled fish, a salad, or scrambled eggs could all be healthy and nutritious, or dangerously unhealthy, simply depending on how they are prepared and what ingredients are used.)
The healthiest diets around the world follow simple principles (a variety of whole food, prepared simply, and served in moderate quantities) that can be inspirational in our own kitchens. It’s not about changing flavour, it’s about adaptation – simplification even. Indian cuisine, DBRS included, has enough depth to allow it.