Saturday, October 2, 2010

Quinoa, East Indian food, Bengali food, and the village life

I love rice, the staple of choice for the consummate Bengali.  A pointed heap of rice occupying a good fifty percent of a brass dinner place, a little hole indented into the top to pour gravy, ghee or dal into; such are the memories of meals in Bengal.  The near instant energy that its simple carbs liberate rejuvenated our rural ancestors after the long day of toiling the fields, or herding their buffaloes across the river.  To me and my urban contemporaries who have retained these dietary habits but cast away the physical effort, this indulgence brings nothing but grief.  Rice has a high glycemic index (impact that a food has on your blood glucose content) and glycemic load (that also factors in the carbohydrate load).  This is not good news.  Bengalis have one of the highest incidences of heart disease and diabetes.  So, a good 5 or 6 years ago, with wisdom settling in along with a receding (or rather a deeply incursive and collapsing) hairline, I decided to switch and join M for a couple of chapathis (rotis) every night instead of rice.  Hand made whole wheat tortillas from Trader Joe's.  The healthiest I could find.  This was not fun.  Rotis are fine for a restaurant meal, but not at home for dinner. Yet,  I kept at it.  Rice I recoursed to only for special occasions, sometimes dipping into my sons’ supplies for dinner. Being Bengalis, they too prefer rice, especially the younger one whose predilection for anything that goes from dish to glucose in the time it takes to pass your esophagus, is downright scary—donuts and potatoes included.

Then one day, a scientist friend of mine, and someone with diabetes, told me about some experiments that he had been conducting.  He would ingest various grains and staples, and then do a time dependent measurement of his blood sugar.  Rice was bad.  Whole wheat tortillas were not that great either.  But he highly recommended quinoa (“keenwa”).  M of course already knew about quinoa.  And various other assorted grains and staples with healthy sounding names that seemed to come from the middle east.  Quinoa originates from Peru and it is technically a grass, not a grain.  So next time, at Trader Joe’s, we picked up some quinoa (it is also available at Mrs. Greens).  Get the white colored ones and not the dark ones (I don’t know the technical difference, just go with this optical inspection for now). 

M cooked it like rice.  Two parts water and one part quinoa.  Cooktop or microwave both work.  On the cooktop it take a bit longer to cook (about 10-15% longer).  I use it just as rice, mixed with East Indian dishes.  It is somewhat less firm than rice, so you cannot form it like you can with rice.  And of course it does not have the aroma that some rice grains have.  It take a couple of tries to get used to, like switching from left full back to right full back in soccer.  But the game, and the thrill, are about the same.  Quinoa blends in perfectly with the meats and curries of Bengali dishes and you can even mix in pickles or yogurt.  It goes very well with East Indian food.  I say East Indian and not just Bengali, because M sometimes cooks Assamese food.  A light delicate, tangy gravy called Tenga, a cross between Bengali curries and Thai soups, cooked with fish like Arctic Char. 

The name quinoa itself sounds as if it was made for the Bengali lexicon. In the patois of my forefathers, I can imagine myself hear them say, “Aazkey kwinwa khaitey mon kortasey”, if only the Peruvian trader could have unloaded his produce at the docks by the Ganga, after a new trade route had magically opened up between Lima and Bengal in the 19th century.  M cooked some khichuri the other day, a rainy day food, a mush of cholar dal (a kind of gram) and rice cooked together.  Except this time she substituted half the rice with quinoa.  Even my younger son did not complain.

I do not miss rice, and I feel good these days about quinoa.  It is a grain (nay, grass) whose time has come. It makes you feel healthy, it has that urban health nut ring to it, its grains staring at you from plastic bins in Mrs. Greens, screaming out restraint.  It is an oats swirling, pilates flexing, no antibiotics in my milk world, a return--as a housing development ad screamed at me this weekend in the newspapers--to the “village life”.


  1. can u please tell me where i can get quinoa? i mean as of now i am living in jaipur, rajasthan and i haven't seen any treader joe's or mrs green's here......... can u please help me?

  2. You could try in Bangalore, India. This is the only place that I know of that sells quinoa in India.