Traditional Indian probiotic foods

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Rohini Diniz

The traditional Indian diet includes many fermented foods and drinks that are not only tasty but nutritious too. Different foods and drinks are made by different species of microorganisms which give each food distinct flavour characteristics, and these foods and drinks become a source of probiotics or good bacteria which helps keep our digestive system healthy.

Fermentation is an anaerobic process in which certain desirable bacteria or yeasts naturally present in foods, convert the sugars in food into other compounds like alcohol or organic acids, while also producing energy for themselves. The process of fermentation increases the digestibility since the starch and protein are in pre-digested form. It also doubles the vitamin B content and increases the bio-availability of iron. Fermentation particularly of pulses and cereals eliminates antinutrients such as phytic acid which would hinder the absorption of the nutrients.

Here are some of the indigenous probiotic foods.

 Fermented ragi: Known as ambali, it is a gluten-free, fermented, semi-liquid beverage from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Ambali is prepared from ragi or nachni flour and is a rich source of protein, calcium, potassium, B-complex vitamins and bioavailable iron. It contains carbohydrates from starch and dietary fibre. Being fibre rich, ambali is digested slowly and this keeps one full for longer, thereby helping to control food intake and preventing spikes in blood sugar levels. Its high calcium content helps strengthen the bones thereby reducing the risk of fractures and the development of osteoporosis. It also has a high content of antioxidant polyphenols which have several health benefits. Consumption of ragi is believed to help relax the body and aid in wound healing. Ambali is prepared by cooking ragi flour in water for a few minutes. It is then cooled and mixed with beaten curd or buttermilk along with jeera, salt and chopped onions and is tempered with mustard seeds, hing and curry leaves.

 Fermented rice gruel: Known as pazhankanji or pokhala bhaat or panta bhaat, this humble food item was a poor man’s breakfast particularly in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal and Assam along with buttermilk and chilli chutney. Fermented rice is prepared by soaking leftover cooked brown rice in water overnight in an earthen vessel. It is found that the bacteria generated in the rice during fermentation produces lactic acid, which breaks down the anti-nutritional factors in rice resulting in increased bioavailability of minerals such as iron, calcium and potassium. The high potassium content helps reduce blood pressure. Fermented rice is rich in magnesium and selenium. Magnesium along with calcium helps strengthen the bones while selenium is an antioxidant which helps protect the body from degenerative disease and cancer. Although there is no concrete evidence available, studies have shown that consumption of fermented rice helps prevent fatigue, cures ulcers, helps relieve constipation, increases the secretion of breast milk in lactating mothers.

 Gajjar ki kanji: This is a traditional wine-coloured beverage that is prepared during winter in North India. This beverage is prepared by boiling pieces of purple-coloured carrots (kali gajjar) in water. The boiled carrot pieces along with the water are placed in a jar along with mustard powder, rock salt, asafoetida and red chilli powder and the closed jar is kept in the sun for four to five days for the carrots to ferment. The fermentation process results in the development of probiotics. Gajjar ki kanji is rich in beta-carotene, vitamin C and potassium. It contains anthocyanin pigments that belong to the polyphenol family. Anthocyanins function as antioxidants, protecting the body from damage due to oxidative stress. Oxidative stress has been linked to the development of inflammation, cancer and other degenerative disorders.

To be continued . . .

(Writer is a consultant nutritionist with 22 years of experience, practicing at Panaji and can be contacted on [email protected])