The gut instinct

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The gut instinct

Sunday, 30 December 2018 | Navneet Mendiratta

The gut instinct

A healthy gut contributes to effective digestion, a strong immune system, and our overall health. All these factors in turn keep serious ailments, like cancer, under check. Navneet Mendiratta attempts to decode the latest wellness mantra of feeding in probiotics through fermented foods and discovers how modern India is taking to it in a big way

Wellness chef and Masterchef India finalist, Karishma Sakhrani, likes to begin her day with ginger, turmeric and lemon tonic without fail. For someone who suffered from severe digestive issues about three years ago, she has come a long way, having made planned and systematic changes to nurture her gut health. What’s that? A lot many of you would wonder. Focus on gut health is a very recent health trend that has benefitted many a those plagued by lifestyle-related ailments. “We are going back to the basics,” says Sakhrani. “Once you start getting older, you realise that you have to take care of your health and body. And it all begins with forming good habits. Good health cannot be attained in a day. You can’t eat salad one day and expect to become skinny,” she reasons.

In the same breath, she advocates that you begin by taking care of your gut. “I am a big believer of gut health. Gut is something you have got to nurture and take care of every day. My morning routine is nothing short of a ritual which is consciously planned according to Ayurveda principles. I call it ‘going back to basics’. It is something that has helped me with my digestive issues. Not too long ago, I used to suffer from severe acidity and acid reflux that was almost incurable. Reworking how I looked at my food and gut health is what helped me out of that situation,” she shares.

Depending on the time of the year, she does not hesitate to throw in some seasonal berries and herbs to maximise benefit, such as adding amla in winter. “Herbs like Ashwagandha, even spices like cumin and cinnamon help detoxify in a natural way,” she quips.

Back to the basics

“Thirty to forty per cent of our immune system is in our gastro-intestinal system,” says nutritionist and health writer, Kavita Devgan. “So steeling up the gut is a very good idea. Sometimes, more than big changes, all we need is one small change to net large health gains. Including fermented foods in the diet is that one change I wish everyone would make as they can help restore the natural state of health that a diet of excess sugar, meat, processed foods, and prescription drugs destroys on a daily basis for us,” she adds. Her recent book, Ultimate Grandmother Hacks: 50 Kickass Traditional Habits for a Fitter You, addresses rising concern over lifestyle-aided maladies and advocates switching to time-tested ways to nurture good health.

“With the way we eat, and the way pollution is, and the amount of antibiotics we keep pumping in, the good bacteria in our gut need to be replenished regularly to keep their number up. And replenishing the good bacteria is the way to go,” she says.

Feeding the bacteria

“We need to eat the right sort of foods for healthy bacteria (probiotic bacteria) to feed on. These foods are known as prebiotics, and consist of non-digestible food fibres and complex sugars that specifically stimulate the growth of good bacteria in the bowel. Prebiotics are found naturally in small amounts in foods such as wheat, oats, bananas, asparagus, leeks, garlic, and onions. Breast milk is also rich in prebiotics, which explains why breast-fed babies are healthier and less vulnerable to infections,” she explains.

However, upping the probiotic intake is what has caught the fancy of those swept by the healthy wave in a big way. “One type of food that I see missing extensively in our plates today are fermented foods,” says Devgan. “Somehow we have forgotten about them, and eat them only sparingly. This was not so earlier. In fact, our traditional diets were replete with fermented foods as people understood their importance,” she says.

Bacteria are not all bad and fermented foods, reasons Devgan, are nature’s way of showing us how to put them to good use. “Besides spicing up our taste buds with their rather exciting sour taste, they help us absorb the nutrients we’re consuming better, are easy to digest, and are teeming with enhanced micronutrients,” she informs.

Little wonder then that every culture in the world has its own versions of fermented foods; Kefir (Russia), Tempeh (Indonesia), Miso (Japanese), Kimchi (Korea), and Sauerkraut (German/European) are some of the popular versions. Back home, we have always had our own versions of fermented foods — yogurt, buttermilk, kanji, pickles, dhokla, idli, dosa, appam, uttapam are all made by fermentation, making them high in live cultures of the good bacteria.

Fermented food in Modern kitchens

“Indians have been using fermented foods since as long as they can remember, says Dhruv Oberoi, Head Chef, Olive Qutub (Olive Bar & Kitchen, Delhi). “At Olive, we do our own Kombuchas and fermented foods, primarily for the reason that cause the Umami taste to develop. We love to play with fermentations and flavours and do our own black garlic, black onion, black pear, black apple, besides a whole lot of experimentation with the foods,” he says. This is other than the fact that fermentation helps preserve what is not in the season. 

“We started fermenting in-house about three years ago and took baby steps before adding more to our menu. One of our really popular dishes on the menu is White and Black Trumpets and Strawberries used as a variety of cures like fresh, pickled, fermented, dried, candied, and savory marmalades; fresh figs used in the salads as options of being vinegared, sun dried, brûléed, or used as fig seed crisp or smoked fig leaves,” he shares. The other signature is a Corn Miso dish paired with fish, where miso is prepared in-house.

Chef Matteo Fontana, Chef de Cuisine, Le Cirque at The Leela Palace New Delhi recalls his grandmother’s favourite Sunday preparation for the family. “Every Sunday, my grandmother would do a classic chicken liver pate with cognac for the family. It was a traditional recipe served with orange and apple jam, along with fresh bread, making for a wholesome family meal. Here, I am doing the same recipe but with a touch of truffles and styled to suit the restaurant where we present it in single portion. The other variation is that I do four kinds of jams — raspberry, mango, apple compote, and tomato jam. These jams are what act as probiotic aids to balance the heaviness of the dish,” he shares.

Other than yeast that goes into the making of their breads, fermentation is not a big part of the Italian culinary cuisines. According to Fontana, in south Italy, people take their yeast very seriously. Some families are known to have nurtured a batch going back 200 years! Other than that, Italian cuisine is more about fresh ingredients. Pickle is not something you think about first when you picture Italian food.

Flavour of freshness

For someone who has been listing fermented foods as the big food trend to watch out for since the past three years, Vikramjit Roy, Group Corporate Chef, White Hat Hospitality (the parent company of Whisky Samba, The Wine Company, The Wine Rack and Antares), is happy to see that people are finally waking up to the advantages the process has to offer. 

“Supply change in India is not a dreamy one because of the inconsistency in the produce available. The same applies to the import. I consciously chose to not be affected by it and this is what led me to starting and getting into fermentation,” Roy shares. “It gave me a quality consistent product and I was independent of any forced imports after this. I started making my own soya sauce, miso, gochujang, yellow bean paste, chili bean paste, black bean paste, among others. And I could now choose the consistency and tartness that I wanted in my end product, depending upon the recipe and what I am using it for,” he says.

Other than the processes, he plays on the health benefits of fermentation too and as a responsible chef has incorporates the benefits in balancing the recipes in his kitchen. In his Kosha Mangsho, a traditional recipe from his mother’s kitchen but not the easiest to be digested for all the mustard oil spices that go into it, he has paired it with spinach upma which has fermented mustard in the upma and lacto fermented spinach. The dish has three kinds of onion ferments to go with it, with three different ages.

“While lacto fermentation does nothing to the taste, it only incorporates good bacteria into those elements. So when you are eating it, you are unknowingly eating lacto fermented ingredients which when they go into your stomach aid digestion. So the Kosha Mangsho does not appear that heavy. You don’t feel sluggish after eating a hearty meal,” he explains.

Fermentation is a process that he uses big time in his kitchen. His kitchen is full of jars to store vegetables that are fermented to make them taste uniform at the same time not taking away from the freshness, rather perceived freshness. The other fermented flavour that he feels is underrated and would catch up big time is Kombucha. “The day people realise the benefits of Kombucha, the impact would be amazing,” he says. At Whisky Samba, they do Kombuchas with sparkling and fresh juice for Sunday brunches. “It is not the best way to drink kombucha but it is a start,” he says.

Getting friendly with Kombucha

In the past two years, this ancient Chinese recipe has been slowly but steadily making inroads into the Indian palate in quest for probiotic flavours. Individuals grew their own Scoby (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria And Yeast) passionately and savoured the health benefits these bacteria had to offer to the gut. “The tartness is not something everyone takes well to in the first go,” observes Isha Singh Sawhney, the girl behind Bhu Kombucha, bottled Kombucha available at limited outlets and cafes in Delhi (Nature Basket, GreenR, Coast Café, to name a few).

For someone who started making, rather bottling, Kombucha commercially a year and a half ago, the response she got from the farmers’ markets and pop-ups has been encouraging. “Even in spaces where people are kind of informed, people were like what the hell is it?” she recounts. “Most people, who approach it from a perspective that this is needed to fix a digestive issue they have had for years, don’t know how it works,” she says.

Sawhney’s first Scoby came from Boston through a cousin and she just nurtured it and made it grow. “I am not here to tell people what Kombucha is but that is where my efforts are going,” she says, adding, “Definitely it has changed a lot over the last year.”

“When I started out, my Kombucha was a lot more tart. But over the past year, I have tried to make it more palatable, less sour,” she shares. The fun part about Kombucha is that you can play with it and flavour it. You can make smoothies out of them or play them in cocktails. It is an acquired taste though.

Bhu Kombucha offers six flavours, including two new ones. These are as interesting as cucumber, mint, pineapple, ginger, cinnamon and star anise, apple cinnamon and kefir lime. “Everything starts with gut. And if your gut is not happy, your system is not happy, your mind, joints, body is not happy, your skin is not happy. By adding probiotics in your diet, you are putting good bacteria in and eliminating bad bacteria out of your system. Fermented food bring inflammation down,” Sawhney avers. For those who wish to benefit from the brew should drink it once in two days, about 250 ml. It’s a great digestion aid.

Beauty bytes

When it comes to gut health and skin, the two are interrelated. Leaky gut is a way for the preservatives and toxic stuff to get into your system. And the more toxic stuff gets into the system, the more inflammation occurs. And this shows upon skin as rosacea, eczema, and ageing.

According to Dr Kiran Sethi, beauty and wellness expert, the only way out is to improve your gut health. “You can do that by introducing prebiotic foods like eating six to eight servings of vegetables a day and fermented foods like appams, daal, achaar, at least three days a week. Probiotics is the last option. Changing the food that you eat is the way to go,” she says.

Other than eating fermented food, for a good gut health and a healthier skin, she suggests one take away sugar and dairy and observe intermittent fasting. “Intermittent fasting is recommended for improving gut health. Stop eating at 8 at night and not eat before 8 in the morning. Overload of food causes gut to function overtime, making it sluggish and weak,” she says.

For a good skin, she also advocates including more of Vitamin C in the diet. “Amla is a great source, as is Moringa and even, bone broth, that we had as children,” she suggests. “Sprinkling superfoods in your diet is not going to change your life, it is the way you eat that would bring about the change,” she points out. In short, you are as healthy as the lifestyle changes that you choose to make. Every little change you make would positively affect your gut health and eventually your overall health. So eat sensibly and listen to your gut. The gut is always right.