Traditional Indian food provides a great template for a tasty, healthy home cooked diet. It is packed with beneficial spices and aromatics, and combines a diverse range of fresh, natural and minimally processed ingredients into a flavour rich, multi-sensory eating experience. It is underpinned the collective wisdom of generations, a philosophy of wellness, and the founding belief that food is your medicine. It employs age-old cooking techniques and a wealth of cooking and eating practices designed to help you eat more mindfully.
In its focus on simple ingredients and home-cooking, Indian cuisine shares the hallmarks of many traditional diets around the world recognised for their healthy qualities. As Michael Pollan wrote in his seminal 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 health and place.”
The majority of traditional diets rely heavily on a variety of natural, unprocessed foods, often grown locally and eaten according to seasonal availability, a high proportion of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and lots of good natural fats. They also follow eating practices conducive to more mindful food consumption, home cooking, eating with others, sharing food, eating slowly.
Traditional diets developed over generations, as a result of the collective wisdom of the community and a tangible connection with the food production process, from where it grew, to how it was prepared. The communities that followed these diets were often healthier than their descendants are today, in some cases longer lived.
A further similarity amongst traditional diets is how collective knowledge was passed down, from mothers to daughters, orally, through stories and through the multisensory practice of cooking. A method of knowledge transmission successful for centuries, and ironically the reason many of these age-old dietary practices are disappearing, as families and communities urbanise and disconnect from their traditional environments.
This is sad for so many reasons, most relevant of which is that with the disappearance of this repository of wisdom, many traditional communities are becoming more susceptible to modern, western diseases, like cancer, diabetes, obesity and arthritis.
Through Spice Mama, I want to make sure that some of this huge repository of wisdom is kept alive and continues to be shared, because our traditional way of eating remains a practical guide to how we can eat today and into the future.
At the Bombay Cook Club, we share my family’s traditional cooking and eating practices in an immersive way, in my mum’s kitchen, just as I was taught to cook, how mum was taught to cook, and how recipes and knowledge have been passed on for thousands of years from generation to generation.
Indian food through history
Traditional Indian cuisine is one of the oldest still cooked cuisines in the world. People have been cooking what we recognise as Indian food for around 5,000 years, since they inhabited the Indus Valley, one of the world’s oldest civilisations.
From a very early stage, our cuisine was predicated on the belief that food was medicine - that what you ate contributed to your physical and mental wellbeing and helped you maintain your balance with your environment. From the Indus civilisation onwards, people ate a diverse range of health giving foods like ginger, turmeric, pepper, beans, lentils, vegetables and whole grains.
The world’s first consciously vegetarian cultures also developed in India, a notion that spread to other early societies like the Greeks and is still widely practised in India (around 40 per cent of the Indian population is vegetarian). The Buddhists, and later the Jains, also believed in the maintenance of harmony with your environment, in healthy and sustainable food consumption, and in mindful eating.
There were many migrations and developments that influenced the evolution of Indian cooking through the ages, the food of the Arab traders, the rice dishes and kebabs of the Mughals, the introduction of new ingredients like chillies, potatoes, tomatoes and cashews by the Portuguese - but the foundations and philosophy of Indian cooking have always remained the same.
Amongst the complex knowledge embedded in Indian cuisine there are a few key elements that I think are important and try and live according to, most fundamental of which is the multi-sensory nature of Indian food. Indians cook, and eat with all their senses, taste, smell, sight, touch and hearing.
multisensory cooking and eating
Throughout history, Indians relied heavily on all their senses for stimulation and satisfaction. Our cooking really is a feast for the senses.
A multi-sensory approach to food can give you so much more satisfaction that simply consuming the calories alone. Your feeling of satiety can increase dramatically when you savour food in this way, meaning you actually need to eat less to feel satisfied.
Buddhist teachings reflect on how to eat an apple more mindfully: how to touch it, hold it, feel it, appreciate what is looks like, smell it… all of these actions contribute to a sense of anticipation and enjoyment of the food, in turn stimulating the salivary glands that will help you digest it.
When you eat in a more multi-sensory way, you become so much more mindful of what you are eating, and so much more aware of the wider context of the food you are consuming. This awareness can have a huge impact on our emotions, and our ability to experience joy, sadness, happiness and nostalgia. Senses like touch, smell and taste can stimulate powerful memories in people, recollections about past experiences – just think about Proust and his madeleine moment.
Greater sensory awareness also leads to greater awareness of the impact of food on your body, of what your body needs, what it craves, what makes it sick. This is so important in traditional Indian medicine, according to Ayurveda, you need to eat specifically for your body type, or dosha .
Personalised eating, according to your type, your own particular physical attributes, allergies, sensitivities, likes and dislikes, so important in traditional medicine, is predicted to be one of the future trends of eating.
Traditional Indian cuisine is full of rules about eating: not only what to eat, but when and how – when to feast, when to fast, how to share food with others. There are so many rituals developed to guide the optimum preparation and consumption of food, to slow us down, to help us eat well.
Slow eating is a philosophy I buy into fully. For me cooking, eating and sharing food is such a valuable part of our lives. We need to elevate cooking from being a chore, something we can skip, take shortcuts with, and prioritise its importance in our daily lives.
the power of home cooking
Home cooking good food is such an essential part of the mindful eating process. Returning to using simple ingredients, making food from scratch, sitting around a table and sharing food with the people you love, slow eating, is something we can all do every day, in our own kitchens.
To start your Indian home cooking journey, you need two things: good ingredients, and a few key cooking techniques.
- Focus on natural, unprocessed, unrefined seasonal food.
- Use good oil: ghee, coconut oil, olive oil and butter as much as possible.
- Invest in a masala dabba with all your key spices: turmeric, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, cardamom, cloves, pepper, bay leaf, cinnamon, chilli (hot or Kashmiri).
- Use lots of fresh aromatics: red onion, ginger, garlic, green chilli, curry leaves, coriander, mint.
- Tempering releases the active compounds in spices.
- Food fried in good oil releases flavour.
- Layering of cooked and fresh flavours is important.
- Balancing flavours is crucial.
I have created a list of 10 essential Indian recipes that are easy to cook at home and provide all the fundamentals of a good Indian meal, along with a list of items you will need in your spice drawer, pantry and fridge to cook them all.
These 10 essential recipes are available in four versions, to suit a non-vegetarian, vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free diet.
You can purchase these recipe collections from the shop section of this website.
You'll also find many more recipes online in our featured recipes section.