Talking to the Experts: Madhu Gadia

Madhu Gadia is a registered dietitian, fellow food lover, and Indian cuisine expert. We got to know a little bit about Indian home cooking, those fabulous Indian spices, and her new cookbook.

You may not know the name, but you might recognize Madhu Gadia's smiling face from browsing the cookbook section of your bookstore or from seeing her recipe in O Magazine recently. A registered dietitian and Indian cuisine expert, Madhu shared a little bit about Indian home cooking, learning to love those fabulous Indian spices and her new cookbook, The Indian Vegan Kitchen.

Q: Many calorie-conscious home cooks may see the heavy sauces or fried breads often featured in Indian restaurants as too decadent and fatty for an every day meal. Surely, not all of Indian dishes are indulgences. Are there lighter choices to make at home?

Restaurant meals are often high in fat and calories -- whether it is Indian, Italian or American cuisine. For example, alfredo-type creamy sauces in Italian, cheese sauces in Mexican and creamy curry sauce in Indian restaurants are the typical fare [you'll find on menus]. Indian cooking at home rarely, if ever, uses cream as the base. At home, most sauces are made with onion, tomatoes and spices and, for a creamy sauce, yogurt or nuts are added.

As for Indian fried breads and snacks, eat them occasionally as a treat as with any other cuisine. Fried breads such as puris are often similar in fat content to baked pastry=type breads such as croissants or baking powder biscuits. Baking is not a standard Indian mode of cooking. Of course, it is important to limit how often and how much you eat of fried or baked goods.

Q: Are there any specific health benefits to adopting more Indian dishes/flavors into your everyday meals?

Diets rich in beans, vegetables and whole grains makes Indian meals a healthy choice. Studies have indicated that people eat more vegetables and beans when they taste good and Indian dishes are full of flavor and taste.

Spices are used extensively in Indian cooking for flavor but also for their health benefits. Today, researchers and scientists are studying the active compounds in herbs and spices as powerful antioxidants. Spices have been shown to aid in digestion, fight infection as well as prevent Alzheimer’s disease or treat type-2 diabetes. Scientists maybe just discovering the benefits of spices, but I can proudly say Indians have known the health-promoting benefits of spices for centuries.

Ayurvedic cooking (holistic science) is about cooking flavorful dishes that promote good health, clean the accumulated toxins (a result of improperly digested food) and rejuvenate the body as each dish is cooked and spiced to achieve maximum digestibility. For example, beans are cooked with ginger, turmeric and cumin for flavor, but also because those spices help you digest the beans. Indian cooking combines the art and science of preparing food. Although my cookbooks are not Ayurvedic cookbooks, my use of spices and herbs have the same overlay.

Q: Some people who weren't raised with Indian food may not try making it at home because it seems complex or foreign. Is it difficult? What favorite easy dishes do you make?

Indian cooking is actually very simple and fast because majority of the cooking is done on a stove top. People often feel intimidated with Indian cuisine because they are unfamiliar with the spices, but once you learn to use the spices, a whole new dimension of flavors will open up and you’ll want to spice up everything.

In the quest to generalize and make Indian cuisine easy, people often use curry powder. Curry powder is a spice blend that includes turmeric, which makes dishes yellow. Curry powder has one flavor, and it will make dishes have a similar color and taste. Most Indians do not use curry powder, and if they do, it is for seasoning a particular dish. I do not use curry powder at all. For each dish, I use individual spices to create a different flavor and taste. For authentic flavors, you too should use individual spices. I always say, it takes just as much time to put five spices in a dish as it does two.

Here is a Quick Chickpea Curry, which you can serve over rice or enjoy with whole grain bread.

Quick Chickpeas Curry (Kabuli Chane Ki Subji)

Serves: 8
2 (16 ounce) cans chickpeas or 3 cups cooked chickpeas
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/8 teaspoon asafetida powder
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 cup onions, finely chopped
2 teaspoon ginger, grated
1 1/2 cups tomatoes, chopped, or 1/2 cup canned chopped tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons coriander powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, optional
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups water
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
2 teaspoons lemon or lime juice
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped

Rinse canned beans in a strainer. Set aside.

Heat oil in medium skillet on medium high heat. Add asafetida and cumin seeds and cook for a few seconds until cumin seeds turn golden brown. Add the chopped onions and fry until light brown. Add ginger and tomatoes. Cover and cook for about 2 minutes. Use a masher or a back of spoon to mash the tomatoes until well blended.

Add turmeric, coriander powder and cayenne pepper and stir for a few seconds. Add the chickpeas and stir to coat the spices. Add salt and water. Bring to boil, reduce heat to a low boil and simmer for about 10 minutes. Using a back of spoon mash few chickpeas against the pan.

Add garam masala and lemon juice. Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with cilantro.

Nutrition Information (3/4 cup serving):

Calories: 156; Total Fat: 5 gframs (Saturated Fat: 0.5 grams); Carbohydrate: 22 grams; Protein 6 grams, Fiber: 6 grams, Sodium: 297 milligrams

Q: Where did the idea for your newest book The Indian Vegan Kitchen come from?

My love of Indian vegetarian meals was the inspiration. Indian vegetarian meals are a conglomerate of regional cuisines with incredible variety that is flavorful and delicious. The Indian Vegan Kitchen was a unique challenge, an opportunity to showcase pure vegetarian Indian meals. I wanted to provide an option for people who want vegetarian meals and choose to eliminate dairy for personal or health reasons.

To learn more about Madhu, visit her website.
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