Homey's Guide to a Healthy Ramadan
This summer I was fortunate enough to collaborate with the Landmark Group as part of their Beat Diabetes initiative. With the aim of creating awareness about the prevention and management of diabetes, the Beat Diabetes initiative was launched in 2009 in UAE as part of the Group's Corporate Social Responsibility.
Diabetes rates are soaring in the Middle East, it's one of the world’s fastest growing regions for diabetes. Globally one person dies due to diabetes every 7 seconds. Consider this – in the time it takes you to read this piece, about 50 people would have died due to diabetes. Six countries – Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – are amongst the world’s top 15 countries with the highest prevalence of diabetes and impaired glucose tolerance. However, up to 70% of type 2 diabetes cases can be prevented or delayed by adopting healthier lifestyles; and the greatest cause of concern is the lack of awareness about the condition itself and methods for prevention.
A month before Ramadan, I was approached by Sumitra Roy at APCO worldwide, one of my favorite PR companies to work with, for a potential collaboration on an e-cookbook with recipes to encourage healthy eating during Ramadan. I thought it was a brilliant initiative because speaking as someone who fasts during Ramadan, I find it very difficult to control my cravings for fried and sugary food during iftar. When you haven't eaten all day and your blood sugar levels are at a low, all you crave is junk food. The point of the cookbook isn't to encourage people who haven't eaten all day, to restrict their intake to only gluten-free, carb-free and dairy-free food, it's to encourage people to simply substitute whatever ingredients and methods of cooking that they can, for healthier alternatives. You’ll notice a lot of this as you go through the recipes. Healthy eating is not a diet, it is a lifestyle and mindset change and I'd be a hypocrite if I said that I'd mastered it. I definitely haven't! I've never been extremely health conscious about my diet and being a pastry chef by profession didn't help much. So this was a definite challenge for me, to create 20 healthy recipes out of which 4 had to be desserts... With no refined sugar... and minimal gluten & dairy. But it taught me that good food doesn’t need to be complicated, expensive and time consuming to make.
After 2 weeks of constant recipe development, testing and tweeking in the kitchen, I finalized my 20 dishes. I used ingredients and techniques that celebrate the pleasures of eating simple, real, seasonal, natural and wholesome food. Then came shoot day. This was the first time I had ever experienced professional food photography and all the lights, tools, ladders, wires and lenses that come with it. My spacious kitchen was suddenly so cramped we could barely take 2 steps without tripping on something! I'm inclined to believe that it is the most time consuming and difficult type of photography because the food doesn't help you in any way! No. It just sits there. It's your job to make it look pretty, make sure the lighting is perfect, the styling is fitting and the colors are popping. Silvester Clifferd De Rose, the head photographer then went on to make 'Tasty-style' videos for 5 of the 20 recipes. Never did I think, in the hours of time I spend binge watching Tasty videos, that they would in reality, be so difficult to execute. The props, textures, hand and arm angles, backgrounds, oh my god! I don't think I have the patience for it! It took me 3 takes just to get the first bowl in the dead centre of the table because I had to be sitting in order for my arms not to come in at a skewed angle, and couldn't judge where exactly the centre was. Towards the end though it became a lot easier, once I got the hang of it. Here's some behind the scenes fun that Lavina Israni captured on the day:
Here are some of my favorites of the 20 recipes:
Veg Shepherds Pie with Sweet Potato Mash
Opting for sweet potatoes rather than the traditional white adds an extra dose of fiber, and vitamins A, C, and B6. Plus, it cuts out roughly 20 grams of carbohydrates per one-cup serving. Greek yogurt for sour cream in the mash ensures half the fat and calories, yet the taste and texture are virtually identical.
Dark Chocolate Raspberry Tart & Grilled Peach Crumble
Switching out some wheat flour for almond flour to make tart shells and crumble, my favorite swap! This gluten-free switch gives any baked good a dose of protein, omega-3s, and a delicious nutty flavor. Rolled oats instead of instant quick-cooking oats is another easy switch. They are rich in B vitamins, calcium, protein, and lack the added sugar that often comes with instant varieties. And of course avoiding refined sugar by replacing it with more natural sweeteners like maple syrup and honey. Coconut milk to make the ganache for the tart and coconut cream to top the crumble makes the final product dairy free, and who doesn't love a subtle coconut-y aftertaste?!
Baked Lamb Samosa & Fish En Papillote
Roasting, pan frying or grilling instead of deep-frying people! It’s easy to cut fat without sacrificing flavor! Also using more natural oils like avocado, olive, coconut, nut, ghee and seed oils whenever possible. The fish above is sealed in parchment or foil and practically steamed in its' own juices, my absolute favorite way of cooking fish.
Pineapple, Basil & Mint Popsicles
These babies are super refreshing especially in the summer heat, and if you don't have the patience for them to freeze, it can also be served as a granita. The pineapple is blended whole, never discard the pulp of any fruit! Removing it, in turn, removes all the insoluble fiber - which keeps your digestive tract healthy and slows down the absorption of sugar.
Vegan Quinoa Chilli
This is so rich and filling that just a few bites and you're good and done. Swapping your white carbs for more healthy ones like brown rice and bread, quinoa, soba noodles or spelt pasta, polenta etc. is another easy swap. As is boiling all your beans as opposed to buying them canned, this decreases the sodium content in your body.
Launch night for the cookbook was an iftar hosted at Culinary Boutique displaying some of the recipes in the book on sharing platters, and I was asked to cater. Being one person I usually only cater smaller events and only supply canapés and desserts. So this was definitely a first. 50 people, 1 amuse bouche, 1 welcome drink, 4 starters, 4 mains, 2 desserts, an absolutely stunning kitchen and not much sleep later - It was a very successful evening (thankfully). Lots of cameras in my face which is something I'm definitely not used to, I think at some point the photographers and camera crews were laughing at me. And when you have awesome friends who would rather stay with you in the kitchen than sit down and eat dinner, the result is a collection of pictures and a video for me to remember the evening with, because in my head, it was all a blur!
Overall, the experience was incredible. I learned so much about working with corporate companies - the good and the bad - And I most definitely couldn't have done any of it without the support and guidance of Rishi Talwalker, Sumitra Roy and Bilawal Shaikh of the APCO team, who always had my best interest at heart. It opened my eyes to the scope of a career and future in catering and gave my work a lot of exposure; not to mention, it gave me the opportunity to publish some of my own recipes, and I have to say, I'm very proud of the work we all did together and what it stood for.