Are you one of those people who always prefer a paratha to a poori because you avoid deep-fried foods? The sort of person who steers clear of samosas, kachoris, pakoras and all the other Indian snacks that come out of a wok full of hot oil?
I certainly am. And there is a reason for this. For years and years, doctors have told us to stay away from deep-fried foods because they are full of oil. And oil is fat, which as we know is not only packed with calories but is also bad for the heart because it contains substances that clog the arteries.
But I am now reassessing my position on Indian fried foods. I am still not a great fan of fried dishes and can see the argument against excessive consumption of fat both on grounds of calories and the effect on the heart.
I am just not convinced that Indian fried foods are as unhealthy as the ones they consume in the West. I came to this conclusion after listening to Manjit Gill, best known as ITC’s most senior chef, but better known to me as the most thoughtful and perceptive chef on matters relating to Indian food.
Manjit says he started questioning the avoid-pooris-completely orthodoxy relatively recently. He began by asking himself a simple question: why don’t we have deep fat fryers in Indian kitchens?
It is a valid question. Most Western kitchens have deep fat fryers of some sort. You put the ingredients to be fried into a metal basket and then lower them into a vat of hot oil. In no time at all, you get french fries, fried chicken, fried fish, chicken nuggets or whatever. Much of the Western fast food industry, for instance, would close down if they abolished the deep fat fryer.
But, Manjit wondered, why don't we use deep fat fryers for frying Indian food? After all, we make samosas, pakoras and many other fried items in Indian cuisine.
The answer he came up with surprised him; and it certainly surprised me. If we were to cook our deep-fried foods in professional fryers, they would taste disgusting. You simply cannot make pooris or good pakoras in a deep fat fryer.
There is a reason for this. The central principle of Western deep frying is that you immerse food in hot oil. The science of frying is well researched. (If you are an arts student, you can skip the next few paras).
I’ll paraphrase the scientific explanation offered by the American writer, Ross Parsons. He says that when you drop food into hot fat, there is a giant whooshing of hot oil bubbles. It is not boiling (oil burns before it boils) but is the effect of the moisture leaving the food as it comes into contact with the hot oil. The sudden evaporation of the moisture forms the crisp crust on the outside of the food. (In that sense, frying is a form of drying). As the food gets crispy, the oil rushes into the holes from which the water has evaporated. And the moisture still trapped deep inside the food turns to steam.
So deep frying is a two step process. The immersion in hot oil creates the crispy crust outside while the inside is actually steamed by the evaporation of moisture. So a perfect French fry will be crisp on the outside and tender on the inside.
To do this successfully, you need a constant oil temperature of 350 to 375°C. And the job of the professional deep fat fryer is to make sure that the temperature remains constant.
The same scientific principles apply to all food. This is how all deep frying happens. So why is Indian food different? Why can’t we use fryers?
Well, because Indian food is actually less fried.
When you immerse a French fry or a chicken nugget in hot oil, the food absorbs the oil to let the dual process of drying and steaming begin. But in the case of Indian food, you never completely immerse the food in oil.
A poori, for instance, is cooked on the surface. You put it into a dekchi or wok full of hot oil and you do not need to let it go all the way in. It simply floats on the surface. And as soon as the drying process begins on one side, you quickly turn it over and fry the other side. (The steaming process explains why a poori puffs up in the dekchi as the moisture turns into steam and evaporates). Consequently, it absorbs much less oil than any Western food that goes into a deep fat fryer.
Exactly the same thing is true of a pakora or a kachori or a samosa. Because it is surface frying, the absorption of oil is much less than we think.
But not all Indian food necessarily has less oil. Manjit gave me the example of the paratha. Many cooks (especially some of the famous street side parathawallas) take a shallow pan and fill it with fat. When the paratha goes into the tawa, it stays there long enough to suck up the fat it is immersed in. So while the parathas that come out of these pans may taste delicious, it is possible that they actually have absorbed more fat (upto 700 per cent more) than a poori. And yet we have been brought up to believe that a paratha is always healthier than a poori! (A paratha made at home in a tawa with very little oil is of course quite healthy. It’s the parathas you get outside you should worry about).
Manjit suggests a simple test. Take a roadside paratha and a home-made poori and squeeze them both. See which one oozes out the most oil. It will always be the paratha and not the poori.
Manjit says that, at an intuitive level, Indians usually shun oily, fried food. A good pakora is one that is light and firm. If somebody serves us a soggy pakora (or a bhajjiya) that oozes oil, we regard it as a failure. If we are served a poori that has been over-browned in the dekchi because it has been fried for too long, we send it back. So, the truth is that, Indians don’t like too much oil in their fried food. We only like food that has been quickly fried on the surface of a wok.
When Manjit first presented this thesis to his boss at ITC, Nakul Anand, he was greeted with scepticism. Nakul was as disbelieving as I was. But because he is of a numbers-oriented nature, Nakul had the fat-content tested. In nearly every case, he found, Indian deep-fried foods had much less oil than Western fried foods. And in many cases, the Indian deep-fried dishes contained less fat than the dishes we regard as shallow-fried and therefore, healthy.
What this means is that there are no hard and fast rules. If you eat your channa with a kulcha rather than a bhatura because you think the kulcha is healthier, think again. It may be a shallow-fried dish but the chances are that the bhatura is actually healthier. You may be better off eating poori-aloo for breakfast than an aloo paratha, because the poori may have less oil.
One of the problems we face as Indians is that nutritional and diet orthodoxies follow the Western models. Thus we are told that red meat is bad and full of saturated fat on the basis of American research which uses ‘red meat’ as a synonym for ‘beef’. Actually, goat (which is what we eat in India) has much less saturated fat than beef and can often be healthier than the chickens we get in our shops.
So it is with deep frying.
Yes, any food that is immersed in hot oil will end up soaking up some of the fat. So Western nutritionists are right to warn against deep frying. But their method of deep frying is not the same as ours. And so their orthodoxies cannot always be transferred to the Indian context or to our cuisine.
Manjit also makes the point about refined flour. In India, he notes, we rarely use maida in our home-cooking. These days, Western nutritionists keep telling us how bad refined flour and white bread are. But most Indians use virtually no refined floor on a day-to-day basis. We use whole wheat (atta) or we use besan (which is made from
channa), both of which are much healthier than maida. Pakoras and pooris are better than white bread, at least in term of flour. (The exception is the Bengali luchi which is made with maida).
So, the next time somebody offers you a deep-fried Indian food, don’t get all self-righteous and go on about health issues. Embrace our own food culture.
You’ll find that good home-style Indian food is about a million times healthier than Western fast food.
Manjit Gill’s recipe for a light and delicious poori
Poori is an ancient bread from Vedic time and falls in the category of pucca khanna. It is customary to fry it in a wok. The whole wheat flour is coarsely ground. The dough is similar to that of chapatis. A little less water is used, so the dough is firm. It is shortened with a little ghee or oil and salt to bring out the flavour.
2 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon rock salt
1 1/2 tablespoon ghee or oil
1/3 cup warm water (40°C)
Ghee or oil for frying
1. Place flour and salt in a large mixing bowl and mix gently. Make a small bay, add melted ghee, warm water and mix. Rub between the fingers until oil and water are thoroughly incorporated. Add a little water slowly and knead until the dough is formed and kneadable. The dough should be pliable but moderately stiff. You may use little less than 1/2 cup of water to achieve the consistency. Apply oil or ghee on the hands and knead the dough for about 4-6 minutes until firm and smooth. Form into a ball, lightly apply ghee or oil, keep it covered and let the dough rest for 1.5-3 hours.
2. Keep ready all the tools required for pooris – small rolling pin, slotted spoon for frying, a tray lined with paper towel and a wok with enough ghee or oil to fry (approx 3-5 inches deep).
3. Place the dough on a clean surface and knead for a few seconds. Divide the dough in 16 equal portions and cover with a damp cloth. Now take each portion of the dough, roll into a ball and flatten into half inch disc, pour melted ghee or oil and roll it out, exerting equal pressure into 4.5- 5 inch diameter. Roll out all the pooris, place it on a sheet and cover with damp cloth. Don’t use dry flour/dust to roll the pooris at all.
4. Now heat the ghee or oil over moderate heat until it reaches 185°C, lift up rolled up poori and carefully slip into the hot ghee or oil and make sure it remains flat and does not fold over. The poori will sink to the bottom of the pan and quickly rise to the surface. As it begins to puff, very gently press it with the back of the slotted spoon until it puffs out completely. Take care not to press the poori hard, it will form a tear in the crust that could allow the ghee or oil inside. When lightly browned on the bottom, carefully turn over and brown the second side. It should not take more than 40-50 seconds of frying.
Remove the poori with the slotted spoon.
Repeat the procedure for all the pooris, adjusting the heat to achieve even temperature.
From HT Brunch, August 11
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