Making healthy food choices...

indulgence

Making healthy food choices...

Pooja Dhingra is sitting across me with a cup of filter coffee. But she doesn’t add sugar to it. She reveals she is cutting down on it. But earlier that afternoon, she tells me, she indulged in a traditional south Indian meal on a banana leaf. “I never deny my body what it is craving. But I do make up for it by eating healthy later and working out,” she says with a grin.

This is just one of the many changes the macaron queen of the country has incorporated into her lifestyle, something that has been on her mind ever since she found climbing five floors daunting.

Pooja has earned her name in the dessert world, one delicious macaron at a time. Her subsequent outings with Studio Fifteen (a culinary centre dedicated to teaching baking) and Le 15 Cafe (the go-to space for wholesome meals in Mumbai), have proved her worth as a culinary genius. But when you work in a pastry kitchen with at least 1,000 kg of chocolate around you all the time, and have to constantly taste and test new dessert recipes, you are bound to put on a little extra weight.

“I have always had issues with my weight. But when I couldn’t climb five flights of stairs, it was like a wake-up call. I decided to do something about it. I wanted to be fit to run a marathon,” Pooja says. But when she couldn’t find anything truly ‘healthy’ in the market, she headed back into her own kitchen and started to experiment with new ingredients and recipes.

Soon, her version of healthy foods started to make their way into her friends’ homes and Le 15 Cafe. Eventually, these recipes formed the essence of her new book, The Wholesome Kitchen.

This young culinary star talks about the importance of healthy food, the joy of home-cooked meals, and her philosophy of indulging in cheat meals once in a while. Some excerpts:

Healthy food is generally associated with salads and other raw foods. But that’s not true, right?

It’s a big misconception that you have to count calories to become healthy. People delete whole food groups from their meals in the name of diet. But that isn’t sustainable. In my book, my sister-in-law (who is also a nutritionist) explains how a slice of pizza and paratha have the same number of calories. But the pizza is made of maida, all empty calories. Whereas the paratha is made of whole wheat flour and ghee, things that add nutrition to your body. Healthy food is all about balance and how you cook your ingredients.

What are the easiest ways to eat healthy in today’s age?

Nobody has time for healthy eating any more. Indian cuisine, on its own, is definitely healthy, but how many people do you think would eat home-cooked meals all the time? And temptation is all around us today. Lifestyle changes have also taken their toll on our eating habits. I believe we make wrong decisions when it comes to food, because we don’t plan well. Stick to home-cooked food. Try to plan your meals better. Don’t deprive yourself of anything. And when you do indulge, don’t feel guilty about it. Set aside an hour every day for fitness – be it yoga, dance, spinning or running. Such things will automatically make you want to make healthier choices.

Has Indian cuisine finally arrived at the global scene?

I think it is getting there. Back in the day, when someone talked about Indian food, all people thought about was chicken tikka masala and naan. But if you look at the food scene in London now, you will see many Indian restaurants that are representing our food in a new manner. Today, different regions of the country are being represented through their food.

What foods do you think will trend this year?

I feel a lot of Indian ingredients will trend and people will go back to their roots. Look at the international scene. Turmeric is like the biggest ‘in’ thing right now. Whether it’s dessert or latte, they are using turmeric everywhere. Ghee is also trending: it’s much bigger than butter and coconut oil, actually.

What advice would you give to beginners in cooking?

To start with, don’t be scared. I remember my mum telling me how she started cooking only after marriage. So, she used to follow recipes to the T. The same goes for beginners. Follow the recipes diligently till you get comfortable with the flavours and the kitchen. Then, when you know how things work, rely on your own taste buds and flavour preferences. Experiment and have fun. When it comes to baking, I would suggest you start with a simple chocolate cake, or fudges or bars.

What are your sources of inspiration and what’s your comfort food?

I went to Japan last year and when I came back, I had this whole line of Japanese-inspired range of macarons in Le15 Patisserie. When I came back from New York, I created a cheesecake collection. Travelling and looking at how different chefs cook with different foods is inspiring. My comfort food is varan bhaat.

Is there anything we could learn from other cuisines in the world?

There’s a lot actually. I feel Indian cuisine, in general, is just a lot of spices mixed together, wherein you don’t really taste one flavour. If you eat a curry, you don’t know what you are eating, but you will predominantly taste the spices. But if you take other cuisines, like the French cuisine, you will notice how they respect their ingredients.

What do you think about foreign ingredients flooding Indian markets?

It’s a great thing that everything is available so easy now. The biggest problem I faced when I started was that I couldn’t find many ingredients I wanted. And I feel that has changed now for the better. The more ingredients are available, the more chefs can do with them. People can try more things. It also changes your palate, opens it up to new textures.

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