Of Dahi and Dosa: Exotic Probiotics Can be Found at Home
Probiotics have become a magic word – a panacea of sorts to put our gut in order and prevent all modern day ailments, even solve them if some reports are to be believed.
So what ARE probiotics?
Well, they sound complicated, but aren’t really! Our stomach has billions of bacteria living naturally in it. Some of these are good, and some bad for us. The good ones help keep our digestion humming, boost the immunity and keep diseases away. The bad ones, do the exact opposite! Our lifestyle determines their ratio (good vs bad). Stress, wrong food, too much alcohol or too many medications can mess with this ratio.
In the beginning, this skewed ration shows up as maybe a bloated body, a constipated tummy, fatigue… but slowly the problems add up. THIS is where probiotics come in – they help rectify the balance in the favour of good bacteria.
So What’s a Good Probiotic Food?
One that contains millions and millions of live bacteria which join hands with the good bugs already present in our gut and boost our gut health.
Where Do You Find Them?
Lots of exotic-sounding foods have been doing the rounds and are being heard repeatedly in cleverly constructed marketing messages.
These include blue cheese, kefir, tempeh, miso soup or paste, kimchi, sauerkraut and more. These are all natural probiotics – which is a good thing – but NONE of these are indigenous to India. They all belong to different countries and cultures worldwide, and so are good for them. They can be good for us too, provided they were easily available here, but they aren’t. And the whole idea of eating probiotic foods is to be able to replenish the good germs on a regular basis to prevent damage to health. Also, the gut flora of a specific community is usually well adapted to the environment of their intestine, so local foods and bacteria work far better.
Our traditional thali was chock-a-block with probiotic foods; we just never realised it. In fact, unfortunately – over time – we got out of the habit of eating these. Time for a revisit, I should think.
Home made dahi is a rich source of probiotics, as powerful strains of probiotic are found in yogurt like lactobacillus and bifidobacteria. Most packaged yoghurts may not contain enough ‘active and live’ cultures (of bacteria), so it makes sense to check labels carefully, or set your own dahi.
Pickles are the most underrated Indian food around. In fact, it is often maligned as unhealthy but that is far from true. Not only does it add taste (as most of these are made by fermenting vegetables and special fruits), they are loaded with probiotics. Time to go back to making small lots of pickles and chutneys at home and eating some with every meal.
Fermented vegetables which were traditionally part of a thali are missing now. One serving of fermented vegetables can contain 10 trillion colony-forming units of beneficial bacteria.
Cuisines Down South
Most dishes in a South Indian cuisine are rich sources of probiotics. Buttermilk, idli, dosa, appam, dhokla, uttapam are all made by fermenting rice and lentils, which makes them high in live cultures of the good bacteria. The fermentation process creates the perfect environment for growth of good bacteria. Plus, they also increase the absorption of vital minerals from the gastrointestinal tract, thus preventing mineral deficiencies.
Kanji, a traditional drink made with black carrots, mustard seeds, sea salt and water is fermented for a week – and is thus, loaded with good bacteria. It is the best immune booster you can have.
Then, there are some lesser known regional probiotic foods that are important to know about.
Some examples are fermented radish root pieces called sinki from the north east, a gundruk soup used by Bhutial women of Arunachal Pradesh made with leaves of mustard, radish and cauliflower, fermented rai (cures stomach pain and gas trouble). There’s also pakhala bhaat from Odisha – also called panta bhaat in West Bengal – a rice porridge where leftover rice is covered with water and left overnight to ferment. A similar preparation in rural Tamil Nadu is called pazhedhu saadham. Fermented fish – very popular in the northeastern states, kullu, a fermented drink made with buttermilk and wheat from Himachal Pradesh, radbi, a drink made with flour of barley, pearl millet, corn or soybean, and country buttermilk from Rajasthan... the list is endless.
(Kavita Devgan is a weight management consultant, nutritionist, health columnist and author of ‘Don’t Diet! 50 Habits of Thin People’.)