Canada·First Person

After my mom's health scare, I learned to cook rich desi food in a healthier way

My mother’s angioplasty at the age of 54 was a wake-up call for me to better understand and manage my health, writes Hina Husain.

South Asians like myself have some of the highest prevalence of cardiovascular disease

My mother’s angioplasty at the age of 54 was a wake-up call for me to better understand and manage my health, writes Hina Husain. (Hailley Furkalo/CBC)

This First Person column is written by Hina Husain, a second-generation Pakistani Canadian. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ

I have always loved eating Pakistani food — desi food is rich, spiced with aromatic flavours and packs a punch. And the stereotype that it can be oily… well, that can be true. 

Even though I knew heart disease ran in our family, it was not something my family actively considered. 

That's why my mother's angioplasty at the age of 54 was a wake-up call for me to better understand and manage my health. 

It was only after her diagnosis that I learned that South Asians (including my Pakistani family) have some of the highest prevalence of cardiovascular disease compared to other ethnic groups in Canada. 

Blame it on a more sedentary lifestyle, higher percentages of body fat, and a diet rich in carbohydrates and added sugars — in addition to a genetic disposition for this chronic disease. 

Steamed veggies alone weren't going to cut it

I could see that if I didn't make a change in my life soon, I may very well end up on the same path as my mother. 

So we both resolved to manage our diets better. 

The trick was how to incorporate these changes into our Pakistani diet.

Steamed carrots alone weren't going to cut it. The idea of cutting out desi food from our daily intake was just not a sustainable possibility for our palates.

Hina Husain’s family switched from cooking Pakistani food. This boneless chicken curry was made with avocado oil instead of the more traditional vegetable oil. (Hina Husain)

However, Pakistani food is very high in processed and starch-heavy carbs (naan, roti, paratha, rice), and there isn't a very high intake of fresh vegetables. 

Back in Pakistan, salad meant serving a small side of diced carrots, radishes, or cucumber next to mile-high piles of rotis or naan to eat with a meaty main dish. Red meat was consumed daily in my home, often in the form of a lamb or mutton curry. So the first thing I decided to tackle was my intake of vegetables. To cut back on my meat intake, I started implementing two vegetarian days per week in my house. 

I bought Pakistani cookbooks and learned about tantalizing vegetarian dishes in Pakistani cuisine such as turnip kebabs, Sindhi karri (yogurt and turmeric soup), Kashmiri haak (braised collard greens), and all the different kinds of dals (lentils) one can cook. 

Vegetable and canola oils are a staple in Pakistani kitchens, but the kind of unsaturated fats found in vegetable oils can increase the risk of heart attacks. 

After doing some research, we switched to avocado oil and moderate amounts of coconut oil for our everyday cooking needs.

That Christmas, I bought my mom an electric steamer which she used every day to make steamed sweet potatoes. 

She swapped brown sugar for white sugar to add to her daily cup of chai. She cut back on her meat intake and started exploring more vegetarian foods to cook at home and in her steamer, like Gujarati dhokla. With a similar flavour profile to Pakistani food, my mom quickly developed a taste for Indian vegetarian dishes, particularly dosa

Hina Husain says she was surprised by the variety of local fruits, vegetables and grains that made for tasty side dishes, like this chamborough made with stewed Hunza apricots with cream and apricot kennels. (Hina Husain)

We also began to pay more attention to local produce. 

Balancing meat and veggies

At the grocery store, I started buying vegetables I'd normally stroll past, thinking there was no way I'd enjoy eating them. Most Pakistanis just stick with turnips and spinach and eggplant for their curries (normally cooked in too much oil). If we're open to more experimentation and exploration, I'm sure many of us are bound to find vegetables that we can eat and consume that are not just steamed carrots.

Now, instead of eating stacks of fried parathas with shami kebabs at home for dinner, I serve a generous side of salads made with newly discovered vegetables, such as rapini, chard, Brussels sprouts, and leeks from my grocery store's produce aisle. I make my own salad dressings at home, too, since the sodium content of store-bought brands tends to be very high.

Don't get me wrong, I still enjoy a Pakistani meal of meaty nihari and butter naan, with just a sprinkling of cilantro on top. But those days are a treat which I'm mindful to keep limited. 

Change is hard, and it wasn't easy for my mother to give up foods in her diet that she's enjoyed eating her whole life. 

After years of experimentation and tweaking my eating habits, I'm now at a healthy weight and BMI for my body type, thanks in part to incorporating more exercise and physical activity into my daily life as well.

But knowing how many wonderful varieties of fresh, affordable, local, and healthy food options are available all around us, tweaking a traditional Pakistani diet to be more heart healthy is not as complicated as it might seem.

We don't have to give up kebabs and tandoori chicken and saag gosht. We just need to add in healthier alternatives to starch heavy carbs and incorporate more fresh produce into our daily diets.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hina Husain is a Toronto-based freelance writer and has written for VICE, CBC, Toronto Star, and other publications. You can find her on Twitter @HinaTweetsNow.

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