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Natural Cuisine From Around the World
Andrea Donsky and Randy Boyer
Sushi, a nutritious Japanese favorite
It's no secret that people who follow traditional styles of eating are generally healthier than those of us who've adopted a Western-style diet.
Cultures that enjoy diets that are based on natural foods, whole grains, fish, and limited unhealthy fats continue to reap the health rewards.
Take the best of what each traditional diet has to offer. Spice up your boring repertoire of weekly meals with a different meal each day featuring traditional cuisine from around the world.
The traditional Mexican diet is full of flavor, fiber, and fervor. The cuisine south of the border is known for its variety of native spices and ingredients, corn-based dishes like tacos, tostadas, and quesadillas prepared with chili peppers, beans and fresh vegetables. Popular ingredients include avocado, guava, papaya, jicama, squash, and chocolate produce an abundance of tasty and healthy meals.
As is typical with most traditional diets, in Mexico plant-based foods are combined to create a balanced protein in the absence of meat. Corn and beans are each deficient in certain essential amino acids but when combined, they form a complete protein.
Chocolate, derived from the word xocolatl, originated in Mexico by the Aztecs who mixed ground cacao seeds with seasonings to make a spicy, frothy drink. Today chocolate is one of the main ingredients in mole (pronounced moh-lay) poblano, a delicious sauce usually served with poultry.
Also dating back to the Aztecs is guacamole. While countless variations exist, the most basic recipe includes only ripe avocado, salt, and tomato.
The distorted Americanized "Tex Mex" menu is not representative of authentic Mexican cuisine. Outside of tourist areas, you would be hard-pressed to find nachos loaded with cheddar cheese and iceberg lettuce.
The traditional Indian diet is primarily vegetarian, the staples being rice, whole wheat flour, and a variety of pulses - red lentils, mung beans, and pigeon peas, either whole, split (dal) or ground into a flour. Spices, however, are the soul of Indian cuisine. A skilled Indian cook subtly blends aromatic spices to enhance the flavor of each dish. The most important spices in Indian cuisine include turmeric, fenugreek, cumin, chili pepper, coriander, ginger, and garlic. Each spice is toasted, ground, and has a warming or cooling property to it. A favorite spice mix is called garam masala, a powdered blend of five or more dried spices, commonly including cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper and clove and added just before serving a dish.
Ancient Ayurvedic scripts describe the therapeutic properties of various spices and herbs. Turmeric, a powerful antioxidant, has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine to treat inflammation and osteoarthritis. Fenugreek helps balance blood sugar levels and is an immune booster. Combined with pepper it can serve as an antihistamine to treat allergies. Many herbs are added to pulses to aid digestion. Ginger root and asafetida are added to lentils to counter gas and colic. India's substitute for the after dinner mint is an assortment of fragrant spices with digestive properties such as aniseed, fennel, cardamom and cloves.
Curry is a mixture of dozens of herbs, spices, fruits, rhizomes, bulbs, barks and roots. The numerous curry combinations can be subtle or strong tasting, hot or savory.
Most of us are familiar with the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet - red wine, olive oil, tomatoes, beans, fresh herbs, and small amounts of fresh meat. Nowhere is this diet better exemplified than in Greece. Greek cuisine makes wide use of olive oil (in fact, 40 percent of calories in the traditional Greek diet are from olive oil), vegetables and herbs, grains and bread, cheese, yogurt, wine, fish, lamb, pork, goat and chicken. Desserts often include nuts and honey.
A typical Greek table resembles a buffet: one or two all-in-one-pan dishes and a variety of mezes. Mezes can include nutritious dips like tzatziki (a yogurt-based dip) or taramosalata (fish roe mixed with potato) served with pita bread, grape leaves or zucchini flowers stuffed with rice, fava beans, or spanakopita (spinach, feta cheese and dill wrapped in filo dough).
While fish, lamb, pork and chicken are commonly grilled on a skewer, vegetarian dishes are plentiful, especially during periods of fasting. Green beans and potatoes stewed with tomato sauce; green peppers and tomatoes stuffed with rice and baked; briam - Greece's version of ratatouille, and Greek village salad, a colorful blend of tomatoes, green peppers, onions and feta cheese (sans iceberg lettuce) are popular main dishes.
The Japanese are known around the world for their seafood, sushi, and fermented soy foods. Until recently, Buddhism prohibited meat eating in Japan and taught that food is to be "eaten with the eyes." Even today, the Japanese take great pride in beautifully displaying food to provide the eater with a visually stimulating experience.
The Japanese diet is low in fat but rich in minerals (including sodium). Japanese cuisine is based on combining rice or noodles with a soup or with fish, meat, vegetables, or tofu. A standard meal typically consists of several of these dishes, known as okazu (which translates to 'side dish') flavored with miso, soy sauce, or dashi (broth).
The short-grain Japonica rice is the rice most often served in Japan. Featured in many soup dishes, a variety of noodles can replace rice in most meals. Udon noodles (made from wheat) or gluten-free soba noodles made from buckwheat flour are the main types of noodles found in Japanese cuisine.
Sushi, made with sticky short-grain sushi rice mixed with vinegar, salt, and sugar is topped with seafood, raw fish, vegetables or tofu and hand-rolled in nori (seaweed). It's commonly served with soy sauce, wasabi, pickled ginger and green tea.
Delicious and nutritious miso soup is made from fermented soybean and boasts numerous health benefits. Not only can miso soup help reduce the risk of both breast and prostate cancer, but it helps mitigate the symptoms of menopause, slow the aging process and boosts the immune system.
To make miso soup, bring 3 cups of dashi stock (a stock flavored with fish flakes and kombu seaweed) or vegetarian stock (made by seaweed soaked in water for 10 minutes) to a boil and simmer for 3 minutes. In a small bowl, mix together 1.5 tablespoons of miso paste and 1 tablespoon soy sauce and add it to the dashi stock. Add 1.5 oz. silken tofu cut into cubes, turning up the heat. Just before it comes to a boil, pour the soup into bowls and garnish with half a thinly sliced scallion.
Loved around the world, Middle Eastern cuisine encompasses the cooking styles of many countries including Egypt, Iran, Syria, Morocco, Turkey, and the Arabian peninsula.
Lamb, rice and various legumes (lentils and chickpeas in particular) are popular staples throughout the region. Falafel made from chickpeas or fava beans formed into balls and fried is a traditional favorite. In addition to rice, bulgur (or burghul) made from durum wheat is used in pilafs, soup, and is the main ingredient in tabbouleh (a salad made with parsley and mint).
World famous dips like hummus, tahini and babaghanoush originated in the Mid-East. These deliciously healthy spreads are served with pita, a versatile flat bread that can be opened to form a pocket for stuffing salad, meat or falafel, or rolled up into a wrap.
Lamb is prepared in a variety of ways including shish kebab, spit-roasted, or stewed. Lamb's rich taste is balanced with the astringent spices and flavors Middle Eastern cuisine is famous for -- mint, rosemary, parsley, turmeric and saffron.
Fresh fruits in season, dates, and yogurt are the desserts of choice. Bowls of fresh fruit on coffee tables invite guests to enjoy a nutritious snack.
Nowhere else is there such a fusion of flavors and cultures and one of the healthiest traditional diets in the world to boot.
A typical meal eaten in Italy will contain no fewer than three to four courses and can last for several hours. The social atmosphere is as important as the food and meals are seen as an opportunity to spend time with family and friends.
Balancing crusty fresh bread, pasta (and more pasta), risotto, and pizza are seasonal vegetables and meat. While the amount of starch causes carbo-phobes to gasp, Italian food is rich in fresh vegetables, herbs, and of course, resveratrol-rich red wine. There's nothing like sun-ripened tomatoes flavored with mouth-watering sweet basil. Tomatoes are a staple and it is rare to find an Italian household without a family recipe for tomato sauce. Fresh herbs like basil and oregano brilliantly accompany artichokes, peppers, eggplant, olives and a variety of legumes.
There is a wide variety of locally-caught fish in the Italian diet, while veal, pork, lamb, and wild game are the meats of choice. Formaggio e frutta, cheese and fruits are usually served together as the first dessert (the first dessert? This culture knows how to enjoy life!). Gelato, Italy's low-fat version of ice cream is primarily made from pureed fruit but with such variations as nuts, chocolate, or milk.
The amount of food may seem indulgent, but portions are small, food is eaten slowly in a low-stress environment, and company is enjoyed as much as the food.
Wonderfully balanced Thai cuisine is known worldwide for its use of sweet, sour and salty in a single meal. Thai cooks incorporate savory herbs and spices, fish sauce, and fruits like mango and coconut to create a satisfying profusion of flavors pleasing to every taste bud. Rarely does one crave dessert or 'something sweet' after a well-prepared Thai meal.
A main dish of steamed jasmine or sticky rice with aromatic curry or a stir-fry and several complementary dishes comprise a typical Thai meal. Protein may be added as a supplementary ingredient -- seafood, beef, chicken, pork or tofu.
Thai cuisine incorporates large quantities of chilies, lime, tamarind, lemon grass, and coconut milk. Chilies included in almost every authentic Thai dish may be crushed with garlic and shrimp paste using a mortar and pestle, or mixed with rice vinegar.
Pad Thai, the best known Thai dish, is a stir-fry made with rice noodles, fish sauce, lime juice or tamarind pulp, peanuts, eggs, and tofu, chicken or seafood.
Thai food is generally eaten with a fork held in the left hand, and a spoon in the right. The left hand pushes food into the spoon. Chopsticks are only used for noodle soups.
Science endeavors to discover the 'secret ingredient' that makes traditional diets healthy (think olive oil in the Mediterranean diet, or the role of wine in the French paradox), but reports of one miracle constituent responsible for the health of a nation are unconvincing. It's the combination of factors - a natural diet, healthy relationships, and physical activity built into one's lifestyle that makes for a healthy body and a healthy life.
AROUND THE WORLD IN 7 DAYS: MENU SUGGESTIONS
Japanese: Rice Bowl (a bowl of rice mixed with a raw free-run egg and organic soya sauce or natto)
Mexican: Huevos Rancheros
Mexican: Breakfast burrito
Greek: Scrambled eggs with feta cheese, red peppers and onion
Mexican: Quesadillas stuffed with beans and organic vegetables, serve with brown rice
Thai: Green curry, a spicy curry made with fresh green chilies and chicken
Japanese: Miso soup, sushi
Greek: Vegetarian souvlaki, Greek Village salad
Italian: Steamed arugula salad (drizzled with olive oil and lemon)
Greek: Greek salad, organic green peppers and tomatoes filled with brown rice, onions and mint
Thai: Pad Thai
Indian: Lentil dish, sides of okra, steamed spinach and yogurt
Italian: Brown rice pasta in basil-tomato sauce, grilled eggplant
Middle Eastern: Lamb kebabs, tabbouleh salad
Japanese: Cold soba noodles topped with organic vegetables, fish or chicken
Thai: Chicken satay on jasmine rice
Italian: Frutti di Mare - seafood and fresh fish over pasta served with tomato sauce
SNACKS AND APPETIZERS
Middle Eastern: Whole grain pita with hummus or babaghanoush
Greek: Plain yogurt topped with walnuts and drizzled with unpasteurized honey
Indian: Roasted chick peas and green peas
Italian: Bruschetta (plum tomato, garlic and chopped onion on fresh bread or pita)
Greek: Dried figs
Italian: Roasted garlic drizzled with olive oil, served with pita bread and sundried tomatoes
Mexican: Bean and garlic or chipotle dip served with fresh organic vegetables or tortilla chips
Indian: Whole wheat naan and raita (Indian-style yogurt)
Mexican: Chili spiced nuts
Indian: Baked vegetarian samosas
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