Back to basics: Delhi-based chefs share alternative ingredients to make this festive season healthy

Two chefs from Delhi-NCR share their thoughts about choosing alternative ingredients and the technique of slow cooking for festive Punjabi fare
Gajar ka halwa
Gajar ka halwa

An array of harvest festivals such as Magh Bihu, Pongal, and Makar Sankranti—it is today—will be enjoyed with warm hands, feet, and hearts across the nation over the next few days. The festival of Lohri, which was celebrated with the thumping beats of dhols and the blue sky freckled with kites across North India on Friday, is loved for the blazing bonfire and constant munching of groundnuts, revdi, and popcorn. Many of us might be looking to extend Lohri celebrations to relish the scrumptious feast. 

The fervour of Lohri is often reflected in the sweet and fat content of the delicacies prepared. However, with the fitness fad spreading like wildfire during and post the pandemic, people are constantly looking to give a healthy spin to festive dining. Known for the wrong reasons among weight watchers, Punjabi cuisine that is popular during Lohri might not seem the right choice for those looking to continue their new year’s resolutions to stay healthy and eat right. Delhi-based Chefs Sweety Baluja aka Harjinder Singh and Sareen Madhiyan are of the opinion that, when done right, these dishes are not as unhealthy as they are wrongly accused of being.

Chef Sareen Madhiyan
Chef Sareen Madhiyan

Pick alternatives wisely
Lohri feasts are characterised by dishes such as sarso ka saag, pindi chhole, gajar ka halwa, panjiri, and a variety of dry fruits. There is no health twist you can add to traditional recipes because their original forms were constructed to be both light and lip-smacking at the same time. 

Back in 1890, Chef Baluja’s father ran a dhaba—food back then was nothing but healthy and untainted, blessed with ghee and free from cream and cashews.  “This generation doesn’t know what to eat,” quips Chef Baluja—who is known for conducting Punjabi pop-ups across the globe including at The Claridges and Novotel New Delhi Aerocity in the city as well as Trident Hotel Gurgaon—with disappointment in his voice. As far as Lohri delicacies go, it is never about eating heavy, delicious calories. “It is all about slow cooking,” he adds when describing simple dishes such as Dal Makhani that are now made with heavy cream. 

Keeping mom’s kitchen principles close to heart, Chef Baluja advises that one must eat according to the season and keep away from onion, garlic, and cooking soda. Stating that Punjabi food is often wrongly defined as ‘too spicy’ and ‘too heavy’, he shares that it is contrary to how the recipes were originally prepared. “That is not how my mother did it,” he adds, highlighting that he avoids ingredients such as cashew, cream, and butter to keep the dishes light yet delicious. 

Chef Sareen—the executive chef of Punjab Grill—is on the same page with Chef Baluja when it comes to cooking with seasonal vegetables. “I will admit that it is a little difficult to do this,” he adds with a chuckle when asked for healthy Lohri dishes. There is no specific health twist as such that can be added to sarso ka saag. All you have to do is stick to the traditional recipe, which involves slow cooking. The calories in gajar ka halwa can be drastically reduced by replacing sugar with jaggery powder, adding nuts generously, and skipping the boiling method to cook the grated carrots as is. 

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