Our friend Anton always loved meat. So Puja and I were surprised recently when he told us he is mostly just eating a vegan diet these days. Vegan! No meat, no dairy!
He explained himself by recommending the book, The China Study, by Cornell nutrition researcher T. Colin Campbell. The China Study summarizes a thirty year research study Campbell did in China that seems to pretty much prove the problem with the American diet is largely about animal protein, as in from meat and milk. According to his research, which a number of other studies have corroborated, cutting animal protein from your diet can save you from obesity, diabetes, hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis and a host of other chronic diseases.
On the drive home from dinner I said I could never imagine going vegan, that is just too drastic. Puja agreed. How would two cheese-addicts like us suvive?
Fast forward two days, I’m halfway through the book and we are at the local produce market stocking up for our vegan experiment. We’re grabbing sweet potatoes, apples, bags of lentils, examining unfamiliar vegetables, trying to identify them. “What is this?” I say. “It looks like some sort of root,” she replies. “Should we get it?”
A surprising fact about dieting is if you enjoy food, dieting can be a very exciting challenge. You eat foods that bad habits had brushed aside for too long. Our first rule is that we do not eat foods we do not enjoy. Regardless of what diet we are on, you will never see us eating some no-fat phony brownie that tastes like the lab it was born in. Dieting forces us to think about food and to get creative.
I have always had a very hard time with vegetables. That is why Indian cuisine is so helpful. The U.S. was one of the first and most successful countries to industrialize meat. As a result, we have a meat based diet, which has proven to be very bad for our health. So if you want to find a better way to eat, it is very helpful to look to other countries where they have been doing it for thousands of years. By no means should you limit yourself to one country’s cuisine. But if you had to, Indian cuisine would not be a bad choice.
India has a long tradition of vegetarianism, yet it has produced some of the worlds most enjoyable dishes.
Like us, India has a special affinity to dairy, mainly butter and cheese (paneer). Traditionally, their main cooking oil, called “ghee”, is made by heating butter and allowing the milk solids to separate from the oil. The oil that you are left with is the ghee and is solid at room temperature. Since we have removed the milk solids (the animal protein), most likely the ghee contains very little of the cancer causing protein casein that is the subject of The China Study. But, as many households now do, you can usually use vegetable oil in place of ghee.
As for paneer, firm tofu is an almost perfect substitute for paneer. If you eat at an indian-chinese restaurant you shouldn’t be too surprised to see tofu where you may have expected paneer.
So, it is true you can’t enjoy some of the best indian dishes without making substitutions, but there are plenty of dishes you can enjoy without modifying. Lentils (dal and garbanzo beans) are a most useful ingredient in indian cooking. Lentils lend themselves to so many different dishes and you can make them your primary source of protein. The first, and possibly easiest Indian dish I learned to prepare was Channa Masala (recipe). “Channa” is the Hindi word for garbanzo beans, and “masala” means mixture. Chana Masala is really easy to make and is great for making in large batches for serving groups or keeping in the refrigerator for a week or so.
I haven’t explored the world of lentils enough, so I plan to do a lot of experimenting with them in the coming weeks (we just bought about 10 pounds of various dry lentils today, so expect some write-ups on the results to follow soon).