Food

Eating Indian Food Could Cure Your Winter Cold

As November’s chill sets in, rather than reach for the flu tablets, I pull out the ingredients for khichdi (the Indian answer to chicken soup) or Masala chai, the original cold cure.

by Zab Mustefa
08 November 2017, 12:00pm

The bus ride to work is overrun with sniffing commuters, your office sounds like an orchestra of chesty coughs, and the doctor gives a forced smile as she repeats to you what she's told six other patients this morning: drink a lot of fluids, get some bed rest, and your nasty cold will eventually run its course.

Welcome back winter, we haven't missed you.

But as November's chill sets in, rather than reach for the Lemsip or cold and flu tablets, I pull out the ingredients for khichdi, the Indian answer to chicken soup and a natural immune booster.

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Khichdi, an Indian dish made with basmati rice, lentils, garlic, and ginger. All photos by the author.

The basic recipe is basmati rice, lentils, garlic, and ginger, keeping the dish light and easy to digest. Influenced by ancient Ayurvedic medicine, khichdi was also popular with British colonialists, so much so that it inspired an Anglo-Indian version known as kedgeree, often eaten at breakfast. Cooked with smoked haddock, boiled eggs, and parsley, kedgeree is moist, lightly spicy, and soothing to the stomach.

"Indian Hindus have always strongly associated food with health," explains Dr Priya Deshingkar, a migration researcher at the University of Sussex. "Ascribing a number of herbs and ingredients with health enhancing properties."

READ MORE: The Edible Plant That Might Kill You May Cure Herpes

Nowadays, most of Britain's second and third generation Indian children don't take traditional remedies seriously but Ayurvedic methods are still used by many older generations. I have bad memories of the honey and black pepper plate that would await me in the kitchen on winter mornings before school, but little did I know that the mix is often used to fight off coughs and colds. (It's unsavoury taste also make it every child's nightmare dish.)

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Traditional turmeric milk and Masala chai drinks.

As an asthmatic child, my mum would also instruct me have honey and black pepper during the summer months to help soothe my chest and reduce chances of an infection. It seems unappetising but the remedy has been used throughout the Indian subcontinent to treat viral infections for centuries, with the honey's stickiness combining with the pepper to soothe mucous membranes in the throat. It also beats spending every day in the school nurse's office with an inhaler.

Of course, the benefits of such homespun remedies can err on the side of folklore but growing up, our kitchen cupboards were always full of seeds, dried leaves, and powders brought back from Pakistan—all to be used as alternative medicines.

When I was sick, the sound of elderly aunts pouring Masala chai from one cup to another was instantly soothing. Commonly cooked with milk, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom, the drink's aromatic flavours were a cold remedy long before Starbucks started mixing them with excess milk and sugar.

"There are a number of home remedies based on common ingredients found in most Indian homes," adds Deshingkar. "At the same time, certain foods are thought to result in an imbalance of the or humours of the body."

Deshingkar also runs an Indian restaurant specialising in Maharashtrian cuisine and explains how such Ayurvedic remedies were taken from an ancient Sanskrit text.

"The origins of these practices can probably be traced to the Ayurvedic principles outlined in the ancient Indian text of the Charaka Samhita, which dates back to around 500 BC," she says.

One example Deshingkar gives me is turmeric and hot milk (haldi dhood in Hindi), a simple recipe for chest infections and the flu.

"Turmeric has strong antibacterial properties and the milk ensures that it coats the back of the throat, thereby killing the germs that are causing the sore throat," she explains. "Turmeric is also applied neat to small wounds and cuts to prevent them from becoming infected."

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Bhindi Masala curry.

The benefits of Ayurvedic medicine are still being researched in the UK, with doctors warning against certain elements of the practice, such as herbal pills found to contain dangerous amounts of lead. But in Glasgow's Wee Curry Shop, Ayurvedic principles have had a strong influence on the cooking of chef Vini Sharma.

"Indian food is full of great spices like cinnamon we use in cooking or black pepper, turmeric, and a lot of chilies," he says. "All of these have a great benefit for your health. I try to use all the spices available in the market as much as possible and our customers love the flavours they bring out. The restaurant has been here a long time and we really want to keep up our reputation by using fresh ingredients."

Sharma recalls being forced to drink rink haldi dhood by his elders back in New Delhi but now appreciates the tradition.

"Obviously when you're growing up, mixing turmeric with hot milk is the last thing you want as a child but in the long run, you realise the benefits and want to pass on this tradition to your own kids," he says. "I've been healthy all my life and I've never fallen sick so it's a great thing to keep going."

Sharma points to the spices neatly lined up in glass jars at the entrance of his restaurant as evidence.

READ MORE: There's a Scientific Reason Why Indian Food Is So Delicious

"I love Masala chai and haldi with milk because they are great for the immune system," he adds. "It makes you stronger. We use a lot of turmeric in our cooking whether that's Indian or Pakistani—it all has the same roots."

A plate of bhindi Masala sits on the countertop in front of us. With okra, caramelised onions, chili, and turmeric, the vegetarian curry is packed with Ayurvedic-approved, cold-fighting ingredients.

It also looks delicious—something that probably can't be said for Beecham's Cold & Flu.

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in November 2015.