Punjabis are officially India’s fattest people. Not so long ago, when you thought of a gabru jawan, you thought of a Punjabi munda on a Bullet or a tractor. When you thought of a rosy-cheeked, slim, tall girl, you pictured her in a sarson ka khet, just like Yashraj movies taught you to.
This picture is now being statistically challenged. More women than men are fat all over in India, and our fattest places are Punjab, Kerala and Delhi. No one has moved away from their traditional diets as much as the average Punjabi. Affluence, lack of activity and excess of food have a lot to do with obesity, but so does the mindset. You have surely seen the joke about the Punjabi diet: it starts with egg-white and bread in the morning, a cup of green tea without sugar mid-morning, a lunch of boiled channa and salad, a juice for the afternoon, and a soup for dinner. It ends with two pegs of alcohol followed by butter chicken,
dal makhani, butter roti and gulab jamun.
Interestingly, North Indians, more specifically the Punjabis, are always quickest to adopt anything new and cool. While the South of India is known for being rooted in tradition, North India is known for its mobility and adaptability. In my field of work, if I ask a Maharashtrian to eat poha or a Tamilian to eat idli for breakfast, they are happy. If I ask a Punjabi to eat parantha, they cringe. It’s fattening, they protest.
The traditional Punjabi breakfast is a parantha with a glass of milk and malai. Their summers were all about a large earthen pot filled with lassi as a natural cooler in the house. Every household has – or used to have – the wooden churner to make makkhan. And makkhan would go on everything from a parantha, to a saag – or it was just eaten by itself.
Before we started blaming everything on gluten, we were blaming it on fat. So health-conscious North Indians dutifully went off milk, malai, makhan only to land on the top spot of India’s fattest. What really went wrong? The first time that the FDA in the US banned fat in the diet in 1970s is when the modern-minded Punjabi went off the fattening Ms. They may physically be in the Pind, but the cousin or chacha from the neighbouring mohalla or Mr. Dhillon ka bhatija was always in Caneda, Southall or Bronx, and you got to keep up man.
With the green revolution, there was enough money and not enough physical work so the tond or what the rest of India calls “paunch” was already out. And hence, efforts to keep that in.
The world order changed, nutrition science turned itself on its head and in April 2015, USFDA took off the official upper limit on fat consumption and even declared cholesterol as “a nutrient that was no longer of concern for over consumption”. Even before that, Sweden, in 2013, became the first western country to officially say it got it wrong by coming out with various versions of milk – it should have just been whole milk. But then, every farming community in India and across the globe knows that the cow gives her milk whole, not in versions of fat free, 2%, half and half, etc.
The future is about eating foods from our past so that globally, and more specifically as developing countries, we are able to beat both starvation deaths and deaths due to excesses of obesity and diabetes.
As nutrition science evolves, the question that we must ask is that why did we, the nation with a rich, diverse heritage of food culture, give up on eating home-cooked food to get healthier? Does it really make any sense to believe that mass-produced and packaged cereal – milk will be healthier, forget tastier – as a breakfast option is better than a wholesome, complete meal of hand-crafted, fire-cooked aloo parantha with milk and malai? But the problem, food scientists are discovering, is that though local food makes not just economic and ecological sense, it carries a poor person’s image, at least in the country of its origin. Quinoa in Peru is for the poor, but in NY for the rich and health-conscious. So Punjab may be full of sugarcane fields and roads lined up with freshly-squeezed ganne ke ras ka stalls, but it’s sipping on wine that makes us appear cool and hip. So does rejecting the sugarcane juice.
The other problem that happens when local cultures give up on their traditional food is the compromise in the gut ecosystem. It diminishes the gut bacteria both in its strength and diversity, putting the body’s immune function, hormones and even cardio-respiratory system at risk. Live cultures in home-set curd, makhan, lassi are not just great for the brain, heart and hormones, but also for weight loss. It allows for accelerated fat-burning and even works at ensuring better exercise compliance.
Just like South Indians have this grouse that everyone from Mumbai down is reduced to a Madrasi, the Punjabis of this land should be up in arms against everyone calling all the butter masalas and naan curry versions of restaurant food as Punjabi cuisine. There is no home in Punjab that makes butter masala anything. Even paneer, the way we know it, is rarely cooked, and no, they don’t even make methi malai mutter.
So sample this, a local Punjabi dish – Bakliya. Maize or wheat boiled in water and served squeezed with lemon and sprinkled with salt. No masala or ginger-garlic paste that we often associate with Punjabi cooking. Or Kanji, which uses heritage black carrots that are stored in an earthen pot with water, jeera and rai, and allowed to ferment for a week. It’s then turned into a refreshing summer drink that can restore the electrolyte balance.
These are exotic and have all the latest labels of GMO free, gluten free, sugar free, dairy free and what have you. But in the age of globalization, these have been forgotten and replaced with packaged and processed chips, colas and biscuits. And whether packaged food comes from the stables of a guru or a food company, it is a poor substitute for the vastness that home-grown, traditional recipes offer.