Healthy Indian Cooking, with TV Chef Manju Malhi

The pressure to eat healthily has never been greater than now. As Europe is gently resuming normal service after lockdown the imposed period of staying at home has given many of us time to reflect on lifestyle choices and especially what we eat and more importantly how well we are as a result of what we eat. I caught up with London based food book writer and TV chef Manju Malhi to examine her unique approach to Indian cooking.
Manju grew up in west London with Indian parents she was surrounded by the culture and food of India. But several important years were spent in India exploring the vast and varied cuisine of the sub-continent and what it has to offer to the curious culinary traveller. After entering a competition with the BBC she found herself cooking live on their flagship cookery programme Food and Drink. This led to her first book deal, Brit Spice was published and became a runaway success, then more TV followed. She has even reversed the immigrant stereotype and broadcast to an audience of 800 million in India on the virtues of English cooking.

I asked Manju about her approach to plant-based cooking given that most Indian food is vegetarian.

“In recent years, I’ve had to tailor my style of cooking to reach audiences who are aware of maintaining good health. With the rise in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and other food related illnesses, much of my cooking is vegetarian. I’m passionate about making easy, simple and good home cooked food from scratch focusing on vegetables, herbs, fruits and spices. As my father suffered from heart disease, I also have to be mindful of what I eat so it’s also in my best interests to focus on more vegetarian foods”. Coming from an Indian background and having lived and worked in India how she found the range of produce available in the UK and Europe? “I think we’re really spoilt for choice here in Europe and in particular the UK. There are so many places to get hold of Asian ingredients and spices from shops, supermarkets and online. Indian cuisines are extremely popular, and northern Indian dishes such as Paalak Paneer (Spinach with Indian cheese), Dal Makhani (Buttery Black Lentils) and Tarka Dal (Seasoned Red Lentils) preparations never seem to tire the western palate. I’m impressed with the availability of Kashmiri chilli powder, tamarind and the best ever chana spice blend in the world in Europe”. Thinking about the global palette Manju, do you find tastes differ depending what country you’re working in? “What I’ve noticed wherever I go is whatever vegetable preparation I make people seem to enjoy the spiciness of the dishes. Many Indian ingredients work extremely well with all kinds of vegetables so the theme of spice is common around the world but the levels of spice in the dishes may differ”.

Adaption seems to have been key to many in the hospitality world during the crisis, as well as developing recipes Manju has also diversified into Zoom cooking lessons, I wondered what have been the challenges with this, does she feel it is here to stay?

“Before the lockdown, much of my daily cooking work was face to face with people, be it through healthy cooking sessions with charities or corporate classes in homes and kitchens. The importance of this was engaging with individuals through food, educating, informing and in particular for members of the community, making them come out of the house to talk to others. Lately, it has been challenging to get people to come on video conferencing, either for technological reasons or sheer laziness that has set in over the past few months. Many very likely have become isolated and that is not a good thing for mental health. The biggest challenge has been to reconnect with vulnerable members of the community. But for now, it seems, zoom is here to stay and is the new normal”.

Meal kits are popular right now, where ingredients are sent to subscribers who are then given instructions via zoom on how to prepare and cook the dish for that almost restaurant experience. I asked Manju what she thought of this relatively new phenomenon.

“It is a good idea to use meal kits because it is better than convenience meals. A meal kit has the elements of an individual doing some basic cooking. Subscribers learn about the ingredients that go into the dishes. Meal kits are a little on the pricey side, but it is a good education in learning basic cooking skills”.

With your cookbooks Manju have you consciously concentrated on seasonality?

“As my books are sold globally, I have had to be aware of availability of ingredients more than seasonality. But for most of the time, the ingredients used to make dishes from my cookbooks are seasonal or mainly available all year round and often I suggest seasonal substitutes”. Talking of substitutes what is your approach to vegan and non-meat cooking? Indian cuisine traditionally is predominantly vegan with a lot of pulses, grains and vegetables combined with spices to create dishes. So, it has never been impossible to offer a vegan option. In terms of non-meat cooking, there are a plethora of replacements that can be used for biryani dishes or long established non vegetarian dishes. The only thing one needs to be aware of is many of the products on offer are processed or created in a factory and too much of that sort of food could be detrimental to a healthy and balanced diet. In addition, one could develop a dependency on these ‘food’ sources”.

Your break-through book Brit Spice was a fusion of Indian and British food Manju, do you feel you helped create a new genre and where do you think food trends are taking us now?

“I don’t think I created a new genre as such, but I’d like to think that I challenged the concept of Indian food by using British ingredients with Indian spices to come up with an easily accessible cuisine for its time. Brit Spice was hopefully an injection of something refreshing and different to the traditional restaurant male dominated ‘chef white’ cookbooks on the market shelves. Trends come and go but what I’ve noticed is that good old-fashioned home cooking is where or what we return to depending on the state of the nation economically. But the trends are updated to meet with the pulse of the current climate”

Where do you see the industry (assuming things get back to normal at some time) regarding the rise of vegetarianism in the mainstream?

Supermarkets offer more and more options but are cookbooks keeping up? “With health very much on everybody’s mind, it has been important to maintain a healthy diet as part of one’s lifestyle which means consuming less meat and poultry products and eating fresh fruit and vegetables as much as possible. Also, many cannot afford to spend any money on high end or luxury food products. The food industry needs to be vigilant to cater to the needs of people who may not be returning to jobs or may have had to tighten their belts. Likewise, cookbooks do need to be aspirational and forward thinking and to reflect on the foods available in the supermarkets and responsibly offering guidance to those suffering from food related illnesses to make them more often than not, to eat to live and not the other way around”.

You’ve made the importance of health in cooking a talking point Manju, how does this relate to your recipes?

“As my father died of heart disease at a young age, I have been aware that it could be inherited genetically so it’s not only important to the communities I teach but also to me and my peers about the value of maintaining a balanced diet especially post covid”.

And finally what are you working on at the moment?

“I’m exploring a book concept of four ways of eating as part of a healthy lifestyle for those with food related illnesses and in particular those with Type 2 diabetes. I went on a course run by the National Health Service in UK which opened my eyes about eating properly. I’m also looking at an aspiring book about biryanis and where they come from. Everyone in India knows a place they’ve eaten a good biryani and there are so many recipes that even non-Indian vegetarians love so a Big Book of Biryanis is something that I’m sure we will all hanker for”.

Find out more about Manju Malhi here