Spice up mealtimes with healthy ethnic foods

30 June 2009

Spice up mealtimes with healthy ethnic foodsWe may be eating out less during the recession and cutting back on ready meals and takeaways, but that doesn't mean we're giving up our favourite ethnic foods. Instead, we're cooking them at home. So how can we make sure they're healthy?

Chinese food is Britain's most popular ethnic cuisine, according to a recent poll by market research group Mintel, with Indian food coming a close second. In terms of retail sales, however, Indian food comes out on top, surpassing Chinese cuisine by £189 million last year. Between them, these two cuisines account for 70 per cent of the retail market in ethnic foods in the UK.

Mintel predicts that the value of retail market in ethnic foods will increase to more than £1.5 billion by 2013. However, its latest research shows that sales of ready meals have declined, while the value of accompaniments and sauces has increased, suggesting that more of us are choosing to cook Chinese, Indian and other ethnic foods ourselves.

"The current economic climate seems to be impacting on Brits seeking to recreate the restaurant experience at home," says Emmanuelle Bouvier, a senior market analyst at Mintel.

Two-thirds of the poll respondents believed that cooking ethnic food at home was cheaper than getting a takeaway. But in addition to saving money, greater awareness about healthy eating and a desire to adapt meals to personal taste appear to be factors in the trend towards more home cooking.

"Stir fries tend to be seen as healthy meal solutions that are also convenient," explains Ms Bouvier, "while cooking aids, such as pastes and spices, give consumers the freedom to tailor their meals to their taste, which they cannot do with ready meals."

Ethnic foods and healthy eating

Healthy eating is as much about the different balance of foods on our plate as it is about the individual foods, notes dietitian Azmina Govindji.

"Dishes like curry, dhal, roti and rice can be healthy, but if the portion of dhal is tiny and the meat curry is smothering the rice you’ve probably got the balance wrong," says Azmina. She points out that one serving of lamb biryani could contain as much as 44g of fat — "around the same amount of fat as 4 tablespoons of oil".

Research has shown that the UK's South Asian population is at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, with diet believed to be a contributory factor. According to Douglas Smallwood, chief executive of Diabetes UK, "South Asian people are more likely to develop the condition, and factors such as eating traditional foods high in salt and fat alongside Western ‘fast foods’ compound their risk."

A new report from Diabetes UK suggests that children of South Asian origin in the UK are 13 times more likely to have type 2 diabetes than white children. “It is very worrying that any child is developing type 2 diabetes as it is usually only found in adults, but it is particularly alarming that South Asian children are at such high risk," says Mr Smallwood.

An online Nutrition Centre has been launched to raise awareness of the link between diabetes 2 and diet among the UK's South Asian community. The website (www.TheIsmaili.org/nutrition) is a joint initiative of the Aga Khan Health Board (UK) and TheIsmaili.org, the official website of the global Ismaili Muslim community.

It includes traditional South Asian recipes that are traffic light coded using the Food Standards Agency’s traffic light system, "so people can see how well (or not) they fit into balanced eating," says Azmina.

"Many recipes get the greens and ambers, so you can enjoy them with a clear conscience," she advises. "But go easy on the ones made with ghee or liberal amounts of oil and salt."

"Even if one recipe is healthier than another, it doesn’t mean you can eat it in unlimited quantities and still be healthy."

Healthy ingredients for authentic ethnic cuisine

Using traditional ingredients when preparing ethnic foods at home will increase the authentic texture and flavour of your cooking, and some are especially nutritious. Our nutritionists have come up with a selection of healthy, traditional ingredients used in different ethnic cuisines that you can source in supermarkets or specialist groceries.

  • Yam is the staple crop in many tropical countries and it can grow to marrow-like proportions. Although it is similar in appearance to the sweet potato, the two are not related. Yam has almost 50 per cent more protein than sweet potato and more than three times as much starch, making it a good source of long-lasting energy.Yam is a good source of potassium, needed for muscle and nerve function, and also contains the antioxidant vitamin, beta-carotene. Yams are extremely versatile and can be cooked as you would an ordinary potato: ie boiled, baked, mashed, fried and roasted.
  • Tofu is widely used in far-eastern countries, including Japan and China. It is made by grinding cooked soya beans to produce a milk that is then solidified with a calcium additive.Tofu is high in protein, very low in saturated fat, and is a good source of vitamins and minerals including iron and the antioxidant vitamin E. Soya beans and their products help to lower blood cholesterol levels, thereby protecting against cardiovascular disease.As tofu is naturally bland, it can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes. Firm tofu can be stir-fried, grilled, scrambled, baked and barbecued.