The traditional Mediterranean diet has become a default setting for healthful eating for good reason. It offers healthfulness and pleasure in spades, and it has been thoroughly researched – with many studies pointing to its benefits.
But all the attention it gets might inadvertently leave the impression that other cultural foodways don’t measure up health-wise, and that’s plainly untrue. There are powerful lessons to glean from a multitude of traditional diets worldwide, ways of eating which have developed over generations to optimize people’s well-being. Widening our perspective beyond the Mediterranean opens us up to boundless healthful culinary opportunities.
With that in mind, all this month and periodically throughout the year I will dedicate this column to exploring nourishing recipes from world cuisines which might not typically make the health headlines, shining a light on cookbook authors who represent those cuisines.
In the coming weeks you’ll get healthful dishes from India, Mexico, Ghana, and North American indigenous culinary traditions, each of which, in keeping with how I typically roll in the kitchen, are quick and simple to prepare, but offer a wow factor of flavor and nourishment. Of course there is no one recipe that could reflect the entirety of any culture’s cuisine, and every country comprises micro cultures which each have unique food traditions. The idea isn’t to distill that wealth of variety into a single dish but rather to offer a taste of healthful foods from around the world to inspire you to explore further.
First up, this mouthwatering, plant-powered curry from Meera Sodha’s book “Fresh India,” a nutritious, weeknight-friendly dinner that dispels any notion you may have of Indian food being heavy or complicated, and highlights the extraordinary tradition of India’s vegetarian cuisine. Sodha is from Gujarat, a small state on the country’s western coast where, she explains in her book’s introduction, “over thousands of years, a rich and resourceful vegetable-first way of cooking has evolved.”
Her take on chana saag, a dish she says is almost as popular in England, where she lives now, as it is in India, is especially convenient and fresh-tasting. It brims with healthful flavor from aromatic spices, is packed with protein-rich chickpeas, savory tomatoes and piles of just-wilted fresh spinach. This one-pot stew comes together in under an hour and tastes even better the next day.
I couldn’t agree more with what Sodha expressed to me via email: “If readers are looking to eat a more plant-based diet to put vegetables at the centre of their meals and for a myriad of ways to cook them simply and deliciously, I think India is a great place to look.”
I couldn’t agree more. And this dish, I’ll add, is a great place to start.
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Chana Saag (Spinach, Tomato and Chickpea Curry)
7 servings (makes about 7 1/2 cups)
This take on chana saag, from author Meera Sodha’s cookbook “Fresh India,” is a mouthwatering example of the extraordinary tradition of India’s vegetarian cuisine. Especially convenient and fresh-tasting, it brims with healthful flavor from aromatic spices and is packed with protein-rich chickpeas, savory tomatoes and piles of just-wilted spinach. It comes together in one pot – and it tastes even better warmed up the next day.
Storage Notes: Refrigerate for up to 4 days.
Where to Buy: Kashmiri chile and black mustard seeds can be found at well-stocked supermarkets, Indian markets or online.
3 tablespoons neutral oil, such as canola or grapeseed
1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 large yellow onions (1 1/2 pounds total), diced
5 medium cloves garlic, minced or finely grated
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
One (14-ounce) can plum tomatoes, with their juices
3/4 cup water
Two (15-ounce) cans no-salt-added chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground Kashmiri chile (may substitute 3/4 teaspoon smoked paprika and 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper)
1 teaspoon fine salt
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 pound baby spinach
Plain whole-milk or reduced-fat yogurt, for serving (optional)
In a very large, wide, lidded pot over medium heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the mustard and cumin seeds and cook, stirring, until they begin to pop, about 30 seconds.
Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent and golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for 2 minutes more. Add the tomatoes and their juices, crushing each tomato by hand as you add it to the pot, then stir in the water.
Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Stir in the chickpeas, coriander, ground chile, salt and turmeric to incorporate. Working in batches, if needed, add the spinach, letting it wilt so you can stir it into the mixture before adding more spinach. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the spinach is soft and tender, about 5 minutes.
Remove from the heat, ladle into bowls and serve, topped with a dollop of yogurt, if desired.
Nutrition information per serving (generous 1 cup) | Calories: 214; Total Fat: 8 g; Saturated Fat: 1 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 590 mg; Carbohydrates: 27 g; Dietary Fiber: 7 g; Sugar: 2 g; Protein: 9 g
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
Adapted from “Fresh India” by Meera Sodha (Flatiron Books, 2018).