junk food generations

In his brilliant book “In Defense of Food”, Michael Pollan theorised that “people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally much healthier than the people eating a contemporary Western diet.” A simple enough prescription for physical and emotional wellbeing, and advice I follow closely, adhering to many of my own traditional food traditions and attempting to keep them alive for future generations.

But overall it is a battle we seem to be losing, little by little, as many parts of the world experience a rapid shift towards urbanisation, and a rapid movement of people within and between countries.  In India for example, large numbers of people are exchanging their traditional environments for life and work in the city, a traditional diet replaced with a much more modern appetite for the food of ‘the west’. 

Families with working parents and little time to cook are eating out, getting take-away meals and putting on weight like never before.  In Bombay, pizza, burgers, fried chicken, cheese and large desserts are highly sought after foods, populating the social media feeds of many popular Indian food blogs and accounts. 

Companies like Nestle are investing heavily in India, with Maggi ‘masala flavoured’ instant noodles one of the nation’s most popular products.  When testing of the noodles found unsafe lead levels leading to the product being banned for some months, uproar ensured.  It returned to shops in November 2015 to great joy, selling out in record numbers.  Nestle’s new managing director in India wants company revenue to double in the next 4-5 years, with over 20 new products in the pipeline from its global portfolio of chocolate, dairy and confectionary. 

It is a similar story with the major fast food chains.  McDonalds, where you can buy a McSpicy Chicken, McSpicy Paneer, a McAloo Burger or a Maharajah Mac, has just over 200 restaurants in India and plans to add 250 more by 2020.  Burger King opened its 20th outlet last year, offering Paneer Cheese melts and Chicken Tandoor grilled burgers, Pizza Hut is opening a 100 new outlets this year and KFC, a leading chain in India, offers a selection of hot and crispy chicken. 

Over the last 20-30 years, the rates of obesity and cancer, particularly amongst urban Indians has increased, as they leave behind active physical lifestyles and diets rich in natural, unprocessed foods.  With the rise and increased wealth of the middle classes has come an appetite for more protein, more processed and fast foods, more convenience foods and above all, more sugar and fat.

International Diabetes Federation statistics show that there were over 69 million cases of diabetes in India in 2015, and around 1 million deaths.  By 2040, this figure could rise to 123 million.  The implication are staggering, given the economic and social cost of treating these chronic diseases.  And the problem is only getting worse, given India’s large youth population and their predilection for fast and convenience foods. The proportion of children aged between 13 and 18 considered obese was 29 per cent in 2015, up from 16 per cent in 2010.

Add this problem to the ongoing poverty crisis in India, where 100s of millions of children remain undernourished, and malnourishment in general becomes a huge issue for the Indian public health system, with profound impact on the long term health, happiness and productivity of one of the world’s largest youth populations. 

As an Ambassador for Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, I am keen to share ideas about how to slow down this exponential slide towards chronic disease in countries like India.  I am pleased to support organisations like SugarByHalf, which aim to assist the community reduce its sugar intake. 

There is much we can do, through social media, through education, role modelling and good parenting, to reinforce positive eating habits and raise awareness of the impact of fast and processed foods on generations to come. 

the United Kitchen

I remember so keenly the euphoria I felt as a 16 year old, watching live on TV the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989: the end of the Cold War and the birth of a new spirit of optimism and unity in the world.  This was evolution, and I loved the idea that the world I was to grow up in would be truly borderless, transnational, increasingly connected by ideas, travel, technology. 

I have always believed in union, that given a chance, the world’s people would indeed, in the words of slain British MP Jo Cox, have more in common.  I am a hybrid of many cultures myself, Indian, Portuguese, Indonesian, Dutch, Filipino; my children are part Irish and I live in Australia. I have crossed many borders, and my identity like many others is stronger because I am a sum of so many parts.

While the last few dark post Brexit days have momentarily shattered my faith in the trajectory of globalisation the world has followed in my time, it is in my kitchen that I can regain composure.

If politics divides us, it is surely food that unites.  It is food that inspired most if not all the great campaigns to discover the world: spices that drove trade between the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans with Asia, the Arabs to cross the Indian Ocean, the Persians to find overland routes to India, the Europeans to discover the Americas. 

While many, many wrongs were done during the great ages of Empire, the movement of people around the globe over the last 5,000 years in particular has been of infinite mutual benefit.  As people discovered new cultures they discovered new ideas, new people to fall in love with, new books to read, new colours, new architecture, new food.  In kitchens around the world, people welcomed new elements, new techniques of cooking, new ingredients, incorporated them into their own cuisines and synthesised them into new dishes.

Nowhere are the great migrations of human history reflected more beautifully than in the lexicon of Indian cuisine.   The Indian food we cook today is a story of so many layers: the unparalleled expertise in using spices evident in the Indus Valley as early as in 3000 BC, the grilled meats, rice dishes and samosas which travelled to India with traders from the north, the rich food of the Mughals, tomatoes, chillies and potatoes brought to India by the Portuguese and spread to its regions by the British. 

The best curries are in their most profound sense a melting pot, to which we have all added a little bit, it is more than only Indian, some food is owned by the world. I’d challenge any #leave voter who suggested they did not enjoy going out for a curry, a pizza, a meal brought by migrants to enliven dull British cuisine.

While authenticity does for some remain a significant marker of a place, a culture, a cuisine, there is no nation that can say with hand on heart that it is all their own, that they haven’t grown richer as a result of the movement of people from and to their country.

When Nigel Farage said “We will win this war… we will get our country back, we will get our independence back and we will get our borders back”, I struggled to understand his sentiments.

For most of us, the borders of Europe are already strongly marked by the cultures and cuisines of each nation, it is the reason we travel, to eat warm croissants in France, gelato in Italy, tapas in Spain.  But these borders should not divide us, and do not divide us, when we eat, when we cook.   It is in union that we find the best of ourselves and the best of others, a synthesis of rich influences that transcend place, time and culture.

This post was featured by The Huffington Post Australia on 27 June 2016:


the diversity of indian food

One of my favourite things about Indian food is its diversity.  There are around 30 regional cuisines in India, each with a history up to 5,000 years old.  The food eaten in different parts of India is shaped by geography and climate: providing a varying array of ingredients for people to eat at different times of the year; and history: of trade and migration, evidence of the many cultures and peoples who brought new foods to India which have since been incorporated into local cuisines (like chillies for example, now ubiquitous in Indian cooking but only introduced to India by the Portuguese in the 1500’s). 

In the cities and urban centres of India, people have come together to combine individual food influences into new ones.  The coastal seafood eaters have mixed with those from meat eating backgrounds, plant-based eaters, rice eaters and lentil eaters.  They have introduced their food into a wide, rich mix.  In my own family, we are a mix of Goan, Gujerati and Parsi, and our food traditions reflect this rich culinary heritage in our unique combinations of spices and ingredients - Gujerati dal often shares the table with a hot Goan fish curry in our house.

In 2015, researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology conducted a study of over 2,500 Indian recipes containing nearly 200 discrete ingredients, to find out what it is that makes our food so rich, so distinct.  They concluded that when Indians cooked, they combined flavours that tended not to overlap or obviously pair with each other, like in other and mostly western cuisines.  When they looked at the flavour profiles of various ingredients at the molecular level, they found that the more the flavour profiles matched, the less likely they were to be used together in a recipe.

I find this easy to believe: the average Indian recipe has numerous ingredients, my spice blends alone have up to 20, and a weeknight curry easily reaches double figures.  So many spices, herbs, ginger, garlic, chilli, onions, tomatoes, vegetables… your average Indian meal is a magical explosion of contrasting flavours and foods.

Taste sensation aside, the diversity in Indian food serves as another confirmation of the enduring value of a culinary system (with) a long history of health-centric dietary practices focused on disease prevention and promotion of health”

Diversity of diet was one of the key messages from the Food as Medicine course I recently completed, run by Monash University.  Eat lots of natural, minimally or unprocessed whole foods, aim for around 20 different foods a day.  And as scientists are learning more about the impact of different foods on our health and wellbeing, this advice is only becoming stronger.  The best way get the macronutrients, micronutrients and phytonutrients you need is by eating a richly varied, natural, colourful diet.  Lots of plants, lots of grains, high quality meat and dairy, nuts, seeds, spices. 

I easily eat 20 different foods a day, thanks to my love of cooking and eating Indian food. I try to buy food fresh, in season and whole, and put it together in interesting, unexpected and tasty ways.  I think this is the key to a healthy and happy diet.


'Spices form the basis of food pairing in Indian cuisine’, by Anupan Jain, Rakhi NK and Ganesh Bagler, http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1502/1502.03815.pdf

emotional eating

Having lived only intermittently in India and left permanently when I was eight, cooking and eating traditional Indian food as regularly as I do is a very conscious decision.  It has become the way I connect to my past, it expresses who I am and it contributes enormously to my emotional as well as physical wellbeing.  

It certainly wasn’t always the case. When we arrived in Australia more that 30 years ago, it was not remotely multicultural.  We were amongst the first Indians in our suburb, a glaring minority at our school.  While my poor, very homesick mother tried her best to retain the way she had cooked and eaten all her life, she struggled to find not only the ingredients but summon up our enthusiasm for her food. 

As children we just wanted to become like everyone else as quickly as possible.  We swapped roti and masala omelettes for breakfast cereals in cardboard boxes, and spicy tiffin lunches for cold meat sandwiches (yuck).  We hated the smell of curry and we made mum cook roast chicken (she thought the recipe was a trick… not believing all you did was put it in the oven, without all the convoluted steps and spices of Indian cookery).

It’s taken me half a lifetime of cold supermarkets and disconnected food choices to realise that the cure for my chronic, nagging longing for home was in my kitchen.  Returning to the recipes of my past allowed me entry to a world I thought was long gone: the hot, colourful, noisy, fragrant and overwhelmingly comfortable place of my Bombay childhood. 

From the moment Proust ate the madeleine, there has been an increasing realisation of how important the food we consume is to our memories.  Smell and taste are the senses that give us the shortcut to worlds left behind, instant transportation in time and place. 

Cooking and eating one of my grandmother’s chicken curries is a near ceremonial activity in my house: the slow frying of the onions, ginger and garlic, the fragrance of spices, the taste of home.  When you come from a place like Bombay, the need for multi-sensory connection to the world remains strong. 

I have read that it is the same for many migrants who use food to maintain a connection to homeland.  It may be, as Salman Rushdie writes in the context of the Indian experience, the need to build “imaginary homelands” of the mind, reconstruct the broken but sharp fragments of memory from land left behind.  The homesick are said to be more likely to reconstruct a sense of home through food than those who are not.

I think it’s important to recognise how much food contributes to our emotional wellbeing.  It is far from being merely a physical necessity; it shapes our sense of who we were, who we are, and who we want to be.  It provides comfort, and physical expression for our memories.  

In an age of mass migration, of the rapid movement of people from country to city, from city to city and country to country, I wonder how food is travelling.  Are people taking the food of their homes with them, cooking and eating like their parent and grandparents, or are they seeking out new food choices and forming new food habits, like we did when we first moved to Australia.

With the ready availability of so much food, and so many choices in the modern urban environment, it would be easy for traditional food habits to be lost.  I hope they’re not, that across the world, as in my household, small connections are being kept, memories stored, stories told, shared and preserved from generation to generation through the food we eat. 

food and wellbeing

My overwhelming love for food relates to its infinite capacity to nurture us, both physically and emotionally.  While we must all engage in the act of consuming food in order to live, we do so for so many more reasons.  We love food because it is tasty, it makes us feel good, allows us to share special times with the people we care about and connect with others across languages and cultures.  Cooking and eating together was one of the first forms of inter-personal communication and to this day there is no better joy than sitting around a kitchen table eating with those we love.

In the year since starting Spice Mama, my interest in how food impacts our physical and emotional wellbeing has intensified.  What began as a project to honour and to celebrate my grandmother’s memory through cooking and eating the food she cooked and ate, has become a much larger enquiry into the physical and emotional connections and interconnections we all have to food.

From a physical wellbeing perspective, cooking traditional Indian food from the recipes I have inherited over the years has strengthened my belief that cooking, eating and the cultural practices of the past still have much to offer.  For hundreds of years in Indian families, these practices were passed forward from grandmothers to mothers to daughters, ancient knowledge of spices, of the optimum ways to consume food. 

Food was sourced locally, bought fresh, eaten according to the seasons and filled with as many ingredients of good health as possible.  For these generations, food was the most accessible and affordable form of medicine there was. The spices in the family masala dabba had many uses beyond flavouring food… turmeric to cure a sore throat and heal wounds, cumin to help with digestion, cinnamon to help regulate blood sugar, mustards seeds to reduce inflammation.

Today, returning to a diet rich in a variety of seasonal, unprocessed, real ingredients, micronutrients and phytonutrients has so many benefits, and science is unlocking new information about the health-giving properties of a number of traditional Indian ingredients all the time.

In an age where food, especially modern, processed food, is making us sick, we are finally returning to the realisation that food can make us well instead.  The spices my family have used for centuries in their cooking can fight inflammation, oxidation and bacteria in the body, all of which are to some degree responsible for a multitude of chronic diseases of the modern age: diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer.  

As Michael Pollen writes in his excellent book, ‘In Defense of Food’ , “the specific combinations of foods in a cuisine and the ways they are prepared constitute a deep reservoir of accumulated wisdom about diet and healthy and place.”

While modern medicine has developed to deal effectively with many of humanity's chronic diseases, it is in this 'deep reservoir of accumulated wisdom' that many answers can still be found.  In the midst of an obesity epidemic, a crisis of fast food availability, an over-medicated population, it just makes sense to me to look to a simpler time, when people just cooked and ate good food.

I am passionate about maintaining the traditional cooking skills, recipes and practices of my family and sharing them with others, in the knowledge this isn’t an exercise of past nostalgia, but future thinking.

a culinary history: one year on

Last year, on what would have been my nana's 100th birthday, the 22nd of January 2015, I started my Spice Mama journey.  I wanted to do something to honour her memory, and I couldn't think of anything more appropriate than bringing back to life some of the recipes she lovingly collected over the 98 years she was alive.

Zena was the original foodie, she loved to eat and she ran her kitchens with military precision.  She inherited her mother Olive's own hand written recipe books, and began writing her own when she got married.  In these books, which I now treasure, are recipes for so many old Goan recipes... chicken curries, meat curries, seafood and sweets.

When she remembered her own childhood, she spoke of the large kitchen where the women of the house cooked, gossiped, ate and raised their children; where masala sausages hung and huge pots of curry and pickles were always on the stove.

In her own kitchen in Colaba, fresh masala was always ground in the morning, dry masala was made and stored from freshly roasted spices, coconuts were freshly ground and ingredients were bought from the fisherwomen and other traders that would come to door with their wares every day.

To honour the wisdom of grandmothers everywhere, I am delighted to curate the new Family Recipes feed for The FeedFeed and discover a world of lovely memories and stories about traditional family cooking.

All of the beautiful family recipes on this feed have this in common: real ingredients, fresh seasonal produce, traditional techniques; made from scratch, and with much love. 

No matter our culture or food tradition, love for the food of our childhood unites us. Food nourishes in so many ways, it speaks to our deepest emotions, makes us recall our memories with sharp clarity – the smell of apples and cinnamon, the taste of pie, the sight of our grandmother kneading dough with wrinkled hands. 

Such is the amazing power of food and the ritual of cooking and eating to comfort us, to evoke love, nostalgia, to bridge time and distance, to tell the story of our past and to keep it alive for our future.