Ritu Dalmia, one of India’s best known chefs admits that she’s the queen of snacking. At midnight. "All through the day I tend to take small bites here and there – I can’t avoid it in my job, though I can still control it. But come night, I really snack. I just have to," she says. Dalmia is trying to clamp down on the midnight munchies, but it’s hard. Even the dietician’s suggestion of going to bed earlier hasn’t worked. What has helped, though, is choosing what to snack on. "If earlier it was Camembert with crackers and fig chutney, or worse slivers of fatty ham and sausages, now I dig into sunflower seeds, nuts, or a dip like tzatziki, hummus or baba ghanoush with vegetable sticks. And I am loving it. So is my body," Dalmia says.
The restaurateur clearly is on the right track. The urge to snack strikes us all at some point of our lives (and of most of us, at some point of the day!). But mindless snacking, specially the 11 am, 5 pm and post-midnight tummy rumblings can undo even the strongest of wills and defeat all well meaning diets. Still, snacks aren’t the devils they’re made out to be. In fact, in-between pockets of nourishment have shown to make you less cranky, keep your weight under control, and provide essential nutrients. So long as you graze on the right stuff.
The local options
"Indians are notorious for their chai nashta and unfortunately almost all Indian snacks are lethal and totally unkind to waistlines," states Dalmia. "Chiwda, laccha, namkeens of all sorts, pakodas, samosas... no one can come close to Indians where snacking is concerned, except for maybe the Spanish." Aditya Bal, a foodie and a popular TV host agrees. "Across India, both in urban and rural areas, all I see people eat is deep-fried food, morning to night, and in between, they nibble on something sweet," he says. He adds that most Indian cultures simply don’t have enough healthy alternatives to choose from. They don’t, for example, have momos the way the people in the North East do. "I believe that Gujaratis have healthier snacks compared to others. Most of their stuff like dhokla, khandvi, etc is steamed. We can follow their example. But with fast food taking over so completely, coupled with their fabulous marketing, I am sure our next generation is in even deeper trouble compared to us," he explains.
All’s not lost. Mumbai chef Vicky Ratnani, the man behind the Mumbai restaurant and lounge Aurus, lists several Indian snacks that won’t keep your cardiologist busy. "Everyone can snack healthily, if they so desire,’ he says. "Opt for steamed bhutta, which is one of the healthiest foods you can nibble on. I love bhel without sweet chutney, and lots of vegetables and sprouts like black beans, channa and masoor." Bal finds that nothing beats fresh, hot idlis with just a bit of sambar. "Steamed perfection," he says.
The global choices
The good news is: the whole world snacks. "Europeans usually snack as a rule," says Dalmia. "And while the French snack less than other cultures, they have street carts selling flat crusty cakes called galettes, which work as a between-meal snack. In Italy, shops sell pizzas by the slice or small paninis. They munch on olives or cheese with drinks before dinner, which really is snacking, isn’t it? You’ll also find office goers having an espresso between breakfast and lunch and eating a small piece of something. In Spain, tapas bars serve bite-size foods, and people go to nibble in these snack restaurants all the time. In fact when I was with friends in Barcelona, we were snacking all through the day. It was a way of life for them."
The Japanese, on the other hand, don’t snack much. They see meals as almost a ritual. And when they do snack, it is usually on extremely healthy drinks and dairy that has body-boosting ingredients like probiotics. It’s something we can learn from them for sure. Or make like the French and savour our snacks slowly to get maximum satisfaction out of them. "From the Spanish we can learn to have small portions," says Ratnani. Or snack smart – like they do in South East Asia. "Take Thailand’s famous snack – sticky rice with dried prawns, or even their roadside grills," says Bal, referring to tiny controlled portions through the day. "In Singapore I see people eating round the clock, but everything is so cleverly cooked – steamed vegetables, soupy broths, and poached chicken." For Dalmia, Middle Eastern dips "are the most fabulous things to snack on" – she ensures that there’s always some in the fridge to prevent her reaching out for the cheese and marmalade.
Nibbles for thought
Some rules for smart snacking: chuck the guilt: Snacking will not make you fat, but bad eating (whether at a snack or at a meal) will. A 100-to-200-calorie snack two to three hours before a meal can take the edge off your hunger and keep you from overeating. Studies show that people who have an afternoon snack score higher on memory and concentration tests than those who have, perhaps, a diet soda.
Frequent small meals (snacks too) can help stabilise blood-insulin levels. Spreading out nutrients keeps energy levels steady and helps avoid mood swings, cranky mornings, lethargic afternoons, quick-tempered early evenings and sleepless nights.
See snacks in the right light: They’re not extras – they’re complements to your meals. Consciously work healthy bites into your food plan for the day. A banana and a pat of peanut butter between lunch and evening tea, are the perfect way to get fibre, potassium and protein, and shoo off the afternoon slump. Tank up on Vitamin A by grazing on baby carrots. Get your essential fatty acids and disease-fighting phytonutrients with olives. Get a calcium boost with fat-free yoghurt.
Get a combo deal: It’s smarter to combine two snacks at a time to increase the benefits of both. Wheat crackers and yoghurt together have more ‘staying power’ than either snack alone. Similarly a skim latte with an apple will get you both fibre and calcium.
Plan ahead: If you don’t have something healthy handy, you will obviously grab the first thing around. “Ever since I have turned into a smart snacker I keep my fridge filled with healthy goodies,” says Ritu Dalmia. Stash whole-grain crackers and juice boxes in your desk drawer; keep fig bars in your bag; put yoghurt or buttermilk Tetrapaks in your workout bag and keep some dried fruit in the car.
Before bedtime: So you don’t wake up to raid the fridge, try having a pre-sleep snack of a high tryptophan food (it’ll lull you to sleep) like chickpeas, dairy, soy milk and eggs. Or work out complex carbohydrates and protein combos to increase tryptophan in the brain. This means a small bowl of oatmeal or a sliced apple with a bit of peanut butter.
Differentiate between feasting and snacking.
A big burger with fries is not a snack, nor is a masala dosa or a couple of vada paos – it’s a meal. Are you giving yourself a treat or just grazing till mealtime? Don’t bite off more than you need to.
Know the size difference between a snack and a meal.
Snacks are meant to be small but satisfying, more along the lines of half a plate of bhel or two pieces of dhokla. Resist the urge to consume more and space out your nibbles.
Figure out what a snack is doing for you.
Does it satisfy hunger or boredom? Is it just something to munch when reading/watching TV/waiting for a meeting? Switch to low-calorie foods that you can safely chomp in bulk.
Turkish-style yoghurt dip with carrot sticks
250 grams yoghurt
One clove of garlic,
A glug of extra virgin olive oil
A few mint leaves, torn
A few dill leaves, finely chopped
Half a teaspoon of lemon juice
A pinch of crushed ajwain seeds
Salt and pepper to season
Hang the yoghurt in a muslin cloth, or place it on a strainer till all the water is drained.
Transfer the yoghurt to a clean dry bowl.
Add the garlic, lemon juice, mint, dill and ajwain.
Season with salt and pepper, and finally incorporate the olive oil.
Place in the fridge till ready to serve.
Dig in with carrot sticks.
TIP: Add roasted eggplant puree to make an eggplant version, chopped avocado to give it a Mexican touch or roasted chopped beetroot for extra colour.
- Recipe by Ritu Dalmia Moroccan cous cous salad
1 cup cous cous, cooked
1 tbsp spring onion
1 tbsp tomato, chopped
Juice of half a lemon
2 black and 2 green olives, chopped.
Fresh coriander leaves, chopped
1 tsp mint, chopped
1 dried apricot, chopped
1 pinch cumin powder
Half tsp green chilli, chopped
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
Put cous cous in a bowl (substitute with broken wheat if you can’t find it) and mix in the rest of the ingredients. Attack.
- Recipe by Vicky Ratnani Thai-style crab cakes with sweet chilli dipping sauce
300 gms crab meat
1 stick lemongrass, finely chopped
1 large spring onion, finely chopped
A quarter bunch fresh basil, finely chopped
2 fresh red chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
Half inch ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2 limes, juiced
Salt to taste
1 tsp fish sauce
Two packets of breadcrumbs
Refined sunflower oil
For the sauce
Thai sweet chilli sauce, 1 lime, 1 tsp soya sauce, a few drops of fish sauce
Put the crab meat into a mixing bowl and beat two eggs into it.
Add the lemongrass, spring onion, basil, chilli, ginger, salt, fish sauce and lime juice to the mixture.
Add a handful of breadcrumbs and mix everything gently. If the mixture is too loose, add another handful of breadcrumbs and continue to mix until the mixture holds together when shaped into a flat patty.
Form the mixture into small flattish cakes, wetting your hands with water as you go.
Lightly crumb the cakes on a bed of seasoned breadcrumbs, then put into the fridge to firm up for half an hour.
Heat a few spoons of oil in a non-stick pan, once the oil is hot, add the crab cakes, and fry them in small batches, on medium heat, until beautifully golden crisp and fluffy on both sides.
Drain the crab cakes on paper towels, then quickly mix together the dipping sauce ingredients and put into a serving bowl.
Serve with the dipping sauce.
- Recipe by Aditya Bal
From HT Brunch, October 7
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