The Food Club: Changing palates

(Some time ago, the Business Standard asked me to do an offbeat food column. It’s still finding its feet, but it’s a lot of fun to write.)

Mention “eating healthy” to most normal people and they automatically think “deprivation”. The idea of dieting in any form, whether you’re a diabetic, a heart patient or a model, is linked with the idea of doing without: it’s easier to visualise the dark chocolate ice cream that you can’t eat than it is to visualise a healthy heart.

Never having dieted in my life, I was curious about how I would react to a month-long, ayurvedic and naturopathic diet. It’s astonishing how happy your so-called friends are to share their unpleasant diet experiences. The one who’d done the dismal cabbage diet (cabbage soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner) for ten days said, “Watch out for food dreams… I dreamt of wedding food and banquets and royal Mughlai cooking every single day, it makes you wake up crying.”

A recent heart patient spoke wistfully of his yearning for steak: “All I want is a very large slab of very red meat,” he said. “Kobe beef. Pork chops in apple sauce. Badam pasanda.” I said politely, “So, what’s for dinner tonight?” There was a long, pained silence. “Steamed vegetables and soya-flour chapattis.”

So I entered my ayurvedic retreat prepared for the worst. The day before I left, I treated myself to a steak in mushroom sauce with lightly steamed asparagus on the side, following that up with a double chocolate mousse. I figured I needed some good food memories to get me through the next month.

What is a healthy diet, exactly? I spent some time at a naturopathy centre and some time at an ayurveda centre, and came back with two contrasting opinions. Naturopathy and ayurveda both agree on an avoidance of “poisons”— both steer clear of meat as far as possible, eschew coffee, tea, alcohol, white sugar, refined flour and excess salt.

But naturopathy believes that most foods (read vegetables) are best eaten as close to their natural state as possible — juices and salads will predominate over curries and cooked dishes. Ayurveda believes that lightly cooked, bland foods are best for the system. In addition, ayurveda prescribes three different kinds of diets depending on your “dosha”.

The naturopathy diet was, for me, the more austere of the two. I dreamt of foie gras for three straight nights in a row, and began to miss desserts and sugary drinks about three days into the diet. Feeling deprived on a full stomach — the naturopathy meals were filling and the portions large — was an odd, disorienting experience. I knew after a week that however healthy this regimen of juices and salads might be, it wasn’t something I wanted to follow in my daily life.

Perhaps the ayurveda diet was better geared to my system, but I actually thrived on it. Meals were simple but excellent: fruit and either steamed idlis or moong-dal dosas for breakfast, a choice of three perfectly cooked vegetables with dalia khichdi for lunch, an occasional dessert, and more organic, locally-sourced vegetables for dinner. It sounds bland, but the variety in the vegetable dishes was extraordinary, and one never felt either hungry or too full.

I went out once to a nearby restaurant for lunch, and after nearly three weeks of healthy and tasty eating, it was a bizarre experience. Everything tasted too intense — too strongly flavoured, too salty, too spicy, too oily. I ate two bites of the beef curry I’d been craving, and stopped: it wasn’t what my palate wanted, though it was superbly cooked.

A month down the line, eating “normally” still feels wrong and food at parties seems too heavy.

I like some things about getting back to a normal diet — mostly the little treats and surprises, the lemony explosion of a perfect Tom Yam, the smoky silkiness of braised eel, the homely, memory-laden taste of a simple meat-and-potato curry.

But the change in my diet has changed the nature of my cravings: I dream of fresh fruit and of beetroot thoran, I find myself wanting green tea and fresh-caught, lightly steamed fish with just a bit of ginger and lime. Eating healthy, it turns out, isn’t always incompatible with eating well.

(Published in the Business Standard, November 2008)





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