CHENNAI: The sweet, fragrant and warm smell of spices, ghee and jaggery fill 43-year-old Chella Roja’s kitchen. She meticulously whisks the batter, turns the stove on and stirs the mix to prepare Kavuni arisi halwa, one of her signature dishes. The cooking enthusiast-cum-foodie loves experimenting with traditional rice varieties and herbs, to give healthy dishes a modern twist.
After garnishing the halwa with fried cashews and grated coconut, she says, “Honestly, I started cooking because it was a need, rather than genuine interest. Twenty-two years ago, after marriage, I learnt the art from scratch. My grandmother’s knowledge and my mother’s tips and tricks on basic cooking helped me. But after a year, I was bored with regular food and started experimenting from cookbooks and cookery shows.”
Cut to present, Roja tries out a new dish every week and shares her recipes with friends and family on WhatsApp. Her focus is always about making any dish healthy using alternative ingredients without compromising on quality and taste. This homemaker and a mother of two believes that healthy eating is the key to a healthy life. “I can cook cuisines from Kerala, Andhra, Karnataka, Thailand and Italy. For example, pizza is not a ‘junk food’ by itself. It is the ingredients we use that make it unhealthy. I have tried making pizzas using millet flour to make it healthier. After two to three times of trying, it came out well,” she shares.
The herbs that one can find in Roja’s kitchen are used to make more than just kashayams. She uses tulsi (Holy Basil) in juices and soups; karpooravalli (Indian Borage) in bajji and rasam, vetrilai (Betel leaf) to make rice, aavarampoo (Tanner’s Cassia) in dosai and curries, flaxseed chutney and idli podi, vallarai (Centella Asiatica) in dosai and pakoda, and sembaruthi in milkshakes and tea.
She lists down the alternatives that can be used — honey, brown sugar, jaggery and karupatti, in place of white sugar; vaazhakkai, sakkaravallikizhangu instead of potato; millet flour, ragi, kambu and cholam instead of wheat flour.
She also gives details on different rice varieties which can be substituted in place of white rice. For instance, kavuni arisi (black rice) which is rich with antioxidants, B-vitamins and Anthocyanin helps prevent cancer; kattu yanam helps control diabetes; poongar arisi increases the haemoglobin content and restores hormone imbalances; red rice has B-vitamins and helps prevent cancer; maappillai samba rice improves stamina and moongil arisi (Bamboo rice) increases bone strength.
“I don’t use white rice in my house. I use kavuni arisi and make biryani, dosai and halwa which my kids love. I get the satisfaction of serving them food that is both, healthy and enjoyable. I switch between different varieties of rice each month,” says Roja.
Roja was part of two reality cooking shows, recently. “My idea was to spread awareness about traditional rice varieties to people. After it was telecast on TV, many asked me about the availability of these varieties and the recipes,” beams Roja.
There is a notion that these varieties have been newly introduced in organic stores. But the rice varieties have been around for a very long time. The high price of the unpolished rice is due to the lack of demand and harvest by the farmers. “Once people start buying these from stores, the demand will increase and the prices will eventually reduce. This can change the face of the thriving white rice economy,” she says.
Roja’s mantra to healthy eating is a balanced diet. She believes that it is the cook’s responsibility to ensure that the right proportion of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals and fibre are included in the diet.
“Earlier, the joint family system meant that there were more people to cook dishes. But now, there is not much time. The key is to incorporate various ingredients into one dish. Five different vegetables can be used in sambar. I use at least ten vegetables in kootu. The nutrient content can easily be identified with the colour of the vegetables,” says Roja.
Before she heads back into the kitchen, she reiterates an old Tamil saying, marundena vendam yakkaikku, atradhu arindhu potrumin which translates into, man doesn’t need to have medicines if he is aware of the nutritious food which he can have in place of medication.