Excitement at the prospect of good food is what keeps us going through a long, busy day. A typical Pakistani dining table has dishes rich in flavour. There is the flavorsome aloo keema, aloo gosht, haleem or an assortment of vegetables cooked with meat, accompanied by hot, steaming nan.
In Pakistani cuisine, the main ingredients including meat, vegetables, pulses and yogurt all have nutritional value. The spices used have anti-clotting, anti-inflammatory, carminative, and anti-flatulent properties. These contain minerals needed for growth and development of human body and are also frequently used in treatment of illnesses such as sore throats, bronchitis, colds, influenza, mild fevers, and indigestion.
Kamran Sheikh, a serial restaurateur and former chairman of the Lahore Restaurant Association, says ingredients used in food cooked in this region are balanced in terms of nutritional value and health benefits but the problem lies with the way food is cooked. “Our cuisine is traditionally more focused towards preserving food. Due to the lack of refrigeration in the past, a lot of salt and spices were added to food and it also was overcooked to keep it from spoiling. The problem is that the more you cook food, the more its nutritional value is lost. Our popular dish Haleem was made this way so they could eat it for days and not just that very hour or day.”
Sheikh says, “Health is not a big consideration in our diet. We are mostly meat-eaters in this part of the world and there are very few things that we eat in their natural form. If we see any vegetables, we just make chutneys and pickles out of them.” In order to make our food more healthy, the entire Pakistani cuisine has to be rethought, he adds.
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Dr. Farzeen Malik, a dietician, stresses the need for adjusting cooking practices to preserve nutritional content of food. “Pakistani and Indian cuisine is actually quite healthy but it all depends on the way you are cooking it. Stir fry vegetables instead and don’t cook them till they turn brown because you lose its flavour then.”
“The other thing to be kept in mind is that you shouldn’t put spices in at once. Spices have a de-generation time and they have to be put in at a certain time,” she says. She notes that the amount of sugar used in traditional desserts is just too much. “Use brown sugar instead as it is a dietary aid,” she adds.
Dr Malik stresses that it is important to have a balanced diet that limits saturated fats and trans-fats, added sugars, and sodium. While a certain amount of oil is needed in our diet, the amount used in Pakistani cuisine far surpasses it, she says.
Yet, food cooked in desi ghee and butter is in high demand. Muhammad Ayub, a food restaurateur in Lahore, says, “We use desi ghee and butter because our customers love it. You can’t name a single dish served in our restaurant that doesn’t have butter in it.”
Even if one day Pakistanis become more conscious about nutritional balance in their food, experts say that the poor quality of ingredients available in the market will still remain a problem to be dealt with. “Milk that is being sold in Pakistan would not pass for milk anywhere else in the world. If you get natural milk from a cow, it would also contain a shot of steroids or some other toxin. Similarly, the water in Pakistan today is not suitable for plants, let alone human consumption,” Sheikh notes.
“That’s why you see stunted growth, shorter life expectancies, and too many people getting diseases that we were not hearing of before,” he adds.