Have the hots for curry
IT IS a well known fact that Brits adore a curry, but did you know that tucking into the spicy dish could be good for you too?
In 1810, Hindoostane Coffee House, the first Indian restaurant in the UK, opened its doors in central London. Two hundred years later, our love affair with Indian cuisine shows no sign of abating.
In fact, the 2013 Cobra Good Curry Guide recently revealed that Britons spend an average £20 a month cooking an Indian feast at home, and £31 on their favourite curries while eating out - all amounting to a staggering £30,000 lavished on curry across an average lifetime.
So what exactly is it about the eye-watering, aromatic, heat-inducing Asian cuisine that we love - and clearly crave - so much?
One aspect might be our history.
"I think Indian food is so popular in Britain because when the British were in India, they fell in love with the spices and local cuisine," says Vivek Singh, founder and CEO of The Cinnamon Club and one of the most celebrated chefs of Indian cuisine in the UK. "And when they came back, they wanted to recreate this unique taste. So spices started being imported, along with chefs and cooks who had the culinary knowledge."
There's another simple reason we adore our curry too; chillies. Research suggests that when the body defends itself against the heat of a hot chilli it releases endorphins, the body's natural painkillers. "Spicy meals with chillies can be quite addictive as they release endorphins that make you feel good, and you'll want to go back for a second helping," believes Singh.
Delicious and addictive as they are though, curries have also gained a bad reputation over the years, often being associated with high levels of saturated fat, sugar and salt content - particularly the ever-popular chicken tikka masala, voted as Britain's national dish in 2006.
This doesn't mean all Indian fare is bad for you - far from it. Curries contain many spices which boast a huge range of health-boosting benefits.
For example, some of the popular curry ingredients, like coconut milk and ghee, are often thought of as bad due to its saturated fat content. But Priya Tew, a freelance dietician registered with the Health Professions Council and the British Dietetic Association, believes that a small amount of saturated fat not a bad thing.
"Coconut milk does indeed contain saturated fat, but the fat is made up of shorter chain fatty acids which have been shown to be easier for the body to break down and use and have more health benefits including lowering cholesterol, reducing the risk of heart disease and lowering high blood pressure."
Similarly, chilli powder has a bad reputation, but Zainab Jagot Ahmed, blogger and author of Indian SuperMeals: Baby & Toddler Cookbook, suggests that when eaten in right amounts, chilli has huge health-boosting benefits. "Excess consumption of chilli powder is known to cause stomach ulcers, sweating, and eventually, permanent damage to taste buds," she says. "However in small amounts, chilli powder can actually be brilliant for health as it contains Vitamin A and C which are powerful antioxidants and it has been shown to help lower blood pressure."
Anjum Anand, food writer, TV chef and founder of The Spice Tailor is another advocate for the power of curries, believing that by choosing the best ingredients, and balancing the flavours, spices and ingredients, we can all benefit from Indian cuisine.
"People's experience of eating Indian food in the west is not a true reflection of the real food we eat at home, which is lighter, fresher and far more well-balanced than what's offered at takeways," says Anand.
She has been following the principles of Ayurveda, an ancient healing wisdom of India, in her cooking for eight years, and the style is now also gaining popularity in the west for its holistic healing and regenerating benefits.
"The Ayurvedic way of eating is not about cuisine, it's about ingredients," explains Anand. "So what you do with those ingredients is what will make the meal delicious but also healthy."
Health boosters We look at some of the primary ingredients used in Indian cooking, and their health benefits.
:: Turmeric: Turmeric, which is said to give a curry its rich yellow colour, has been long known for its anti-bacterial properties and helping to fight infection in wounds and cuts.
"It also aids digestion, boosts immune system function for cold and flu protection and reduces risk of developing childhood leukaemia" says Jagot. "My grandmother always told me to drink a cup of warm milk mixed with 1 teaspoon of turmeric and a drizzle of honey when I had a cold as it helps the cold to run its course quickly. I always thought it was an old wives tale until I researched spices and found out it was actually true."
:: Coriander: Known for its pungent smell, coriander leaves are used as a garnish on dishes such as daal or poppadums, while the seeds are crushed or roasted and are used to enhance the flavours of Indian food. Coriander aids digestion, treats diarrhoea, provides iron to help prevent anaemia. It also protects skin against eczema and dryness.
:: Cinnamon: Sourced from the inner bark of several trees from the genus Cinnamomum, cinnamon is used in both sweet and savoury foods. "Cinnamon contains anti-oxidant that fight free radicals which cause damage to the body," says Tew. "Studies suggest it can help lower cholesterol levels and may play a role in combating diabetes by aiding blood sugar control."
:: Cumin: The nutty, peppery flavour of the cumin makes it a popular ingredient in Indian kitchens and its seeds are used in both whole and ground form. Jagot suggests, "Cumin supports the development of a healthy immune system, improves oxygen distribution, betters digestion, boosts metabolism, and improves absorption of nutrients."
:: Chilli: Chillies are the heart and soul of a curry and can be used in raw, dried or powder form and used in moderation, a lovely red glow and sharp heat-inducing flavour to dishes. "Chilli peppers also contain Vitamin A and C which are powerful antioxidants and it has been shown to help lower blood pressure. It's also a very useful decongestant for individuals suffering from hay fever, cold or flu," says Jagot.
:: National Curry Week runs from October 7-13
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