New Delhi: The desi remedy for many an ailment, a glass of milk mixed with a pinch of turmeric, entered the menus of the Western world as ‘turmeric latte’, while Indian tea became a hipster fad as “chai tea”.
The no-gluten brigade now swears by the “gluten-free pancake” Indians know and love as “besan ka cheela”, while drumsticks aka Moringa (biological name) is an essential for a tea rich in antioxidants.
As the West increasingly looks to tap ancient traditions of the Orient for evident dietary benefits, several Indian kitchen staples are being used in novel ways around the world.
The humble chickpea, from which besan is derived, is used to make delicacies like chocolate cupcakes, ice creams, and pasta, and Moringa has found its way into recipes for green tea, cold beverages like smoothies and juices, and salad and omelette dressings.
“Chickpea flour is a gluten-free product which is low in cholesterol, high in protein. Its consumption is increasing phenomenally in the Western world, especially in making bakery products,” chef Tanuj Grover, owner of Neat’s Culinary, a London-based company that develops allergen-free menus and food concepts for hotels and restaurants, told ThePrint.
“The flour has a unique property of holding the air bubbles and moisture well to keep the product soft and in shape,” Grover added.
“Moreover, the ingredient is cheap, easily available and versatile, and can be used in several recipes,” he said.
Rise of chickpea flour
Chickpeas are known to be a rich source of vitamins, minerals and fibre. They are free of gluten, a protein to which many people are intolerant that has also been at the centre of a new health fad, and said to be a protein-rich meat alternative for vegans.
Chickpea flour or besan, derived from Bengal gram, is a common ingredient in the Indian kitchen used to make kadhi, the yogurt-based soup, and fried snacks like ‘pakode’.
The chickpea is also a popular ingredient in Mediterranean and West Asian cuisines. It is the main ingredient in making hummus — which means chickpeas in Arabic — a thousand-year-old dip or spread that courts deep love among foodies.
According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, a US database on farming, the average American ate an estimated 50 per cent more chickpea in 2017 than they did in 2016.
The most consumed chickpea in the West is a light-coloured variety called ‘Kabuli chana‘, which is used to churn out salads, among other dishes.
According to the American grain marketplace Farmlead, the domestic demand for chickpeas in the US has gone from less than 47,000 tonnes to nearly 200,000 tonnes in the past 10 years.
“The biggest jump was between 2015 and 2016 when demand doubled to nearly 184,000 metric tonnes [same as a tonne],” it said.
In December 2018, the multinational fashion and lifestyle magazine Vogue carried a piece on the growing popularity of chickpea. It quoted celebrated chef Missy Robbins, who is known to serve a mean chickpea ‘pasta’, as saying that the legume added “an earthiness and an intense chickpea flavour to the dish”.
According to the article, at home, Robbins used boiled chickpeas completely in “lieu of pasta, flavouring them with a simple red sauce and greens. Again, the chickpea does its job as the perfect substitute”.
US-based restaurateur Micah Camden was quoted as saying in the Portland weekly Willamette Week that the ice creams at his parlour were only made with chickpeas, with flavours including strawberry sichuan, mint matcha, and triple chocolate.
As far back as 2010, Israeli-English chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s bestselling cookbook Plenty featured a recipe for a chickpea flour pancake layered with tomatoes and onions — a dish like the Indian cheela that has a French equivalent in ‘socca’.
In 2015, US-based fitness instructor Camilla Saulsbury published a book titled The Chickpea Flour Cookbook. In 2016, a similar book dwelt on recipes derived from besan: Chickpea Flour Does It All, by food blogger Lindsey Love.
Moringa or drumstick for tea & smoothies
Drumsticks are the fruit of the Moringa oleifera tree and are used extensively in southern Indian and east Indian kitchens, with its leaves a staple too.
The Western world now uses Moringa leaves to prepare a hot or cold tea that is rich in antioxidants and contains no caffeine, besides vegetable smoothies, soups, salad dressing and bakery products.
The plant contains a phenomenal amount of vitamin C, calcium, potassium, and amino acids, which help in overcoming micronutrient deficiency — a condition affecting several Americans who are said to be overfed but undernourished.
“In these reverse situations, Moringa could also be used as a similarly beneficial nutritional supplement in nations where calories are readily available but which class someone is in too often determines access to nutritious food,” Vogue said in a May 2017 article.
According to a paper published by the journal Ecology of Food and Nutrition, “Gram for gram, fresh leaves of M. oleifera have 4 times the vitamin A of carrots, 7 times the vitamin C of oranges, 4 times the calcium of milk, 3 times the potassium of bananas, ¾ the iron of spinach, and 2 times the protein of yogurt”.
Nandita Iyer, a former doctor who now runs a popular food blog called Saffron Trail, told ThePrint that she found it “so amazing to see it [Moringa] so popular globally”.
“On a trip to Mauritius this month, I was served Moringa green tea, Moringa omelette, and Moringa-dressed salad. In India, we have been using the product, popularly known as Murungai keerai, in various forms like rasam,” she said.
“Moringa has otherwise remained an integral part of cooking in southern India along with states such as Odisha, Maharashtra, and Gujarat,” said Iyer, who is also the author of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian.
According to New York-based Prudour, a specialised market research firm, the market for Moringa products was estimated to value over $6 billion in 2019, and its first five-year cumulative revenue (2019-2023) is projected to be over $ 41 billion.
“Use of Moringa products as an ingredient in dietary supplements due to the presence of essential nutrients that aid in maintaining or improving health, and rising awareness and consumption of such products, especially in developed countries such as the US, Canada, UK, and Australia are factors expected to drive growth of the global market,” the report by Prudor said.
Other Indian staples gaining popularity
Products such as flax seeds (alsi ke beej), hemp seeds (bhaang ke beej), coconut oil and desi ghee are also taking centrestage in Western cuisines.
“Flax and hemp seeds are known as superfood powders and have become the top ingredients used in salad dressings,” said Grover from London.
“Usage of ingredients like desi ghee and coconut oil is also rising,” said Uma Raghuraman, a popular food blogger who is known for mixing Indian food with world cuisines and has over 67,000 followers on her Instagram handle, Masterchefmom.
Ghee, she added, “enjoys a divine status as a drop… on the food prepared is called ‘Anna Shuddhi’ or ‘cleansing’”.
According to her, “Western countries have started using ghee in baking desserts or in oven-roasted vegetables, just to name a few”.
“Even coconut oil and coconut milk have seen a rise in popularity in some countries, especially among vegans,” Raghuraman added.
Iyer agreed that ghee and oil were becoming a fad, but added that “one must apply caution by consuming the sought after food options as per their lifestyle and body requirements”.