Global Diet Trends Keep Changing My Local Food Culture

When you think of ordering a healthy meal, what do you think of?

A woman scoops pooris, disks of puffed, fried dough, from a pot of oil with a steel ladle.
Photo by Ashwini Chaudhary via Unsplash

Pooris fresh from the fryer

When you think of ordering a healthy meal, what do you think of? Growing up, I was taught that healthy meals mean no carbs and lean protein, so I’d probably say grilled chicken or a salad. But even if your idea of a healthy meal looks different, takeout from the South Asian eatery around the corner probably wasn’t a contender, was it?

You wouldn’t be alone in leaving curries and parathas off your healthy-eating list. Maha Naz Jamil is a 33-year-old Pakistani entrepreneur and writer who goes by the pen name Mia Rose. She grew up between the UK and Saudi Arabia and is now based in Lahore, and describes the South Asian food she’s eaten at restaurants outside of Pakistan as “heavy.” She says in the UK and Saudi Arabia, familiar dishes felt unhealthier than the versions she cooks at home.

UK-based medical doctor, personal trainer, and weight-loss coach Dr. Aishah Iqbal helps women understand nutrition and meet their health goals, and says she hears similar concerns from patients.

South Asian cuisine has many dishes that include the exact nutrition a healthy diet should include.

“I’ve worked with a number of women from South Asian backgrounds who have struggled to ‘eat healthy,’” she says, “because they feel that South Asian cuisine is neither healthy, nor can it be made healthy.” But, she told me, this idea is a misconception, “as the cuisine has many dishes that include the exact nutrition that a healthy diet should include: complex carbohydrates from rice and flatbreads; protein from lentils, beans, and chicken; healthy fats from oils.”

This misconception isn’t just a problem outside South Asia. Today’s globalized culture means that ideas about food from North America and Europe not only impact South Asians who live in those places (like Iqbal’s patients), but also spread around the world where they can alter perceptions and eating habits in ways that are harmful to local food systems.

I grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, surrounded by a community obsessed with weight loss. I often heard that South Asian food is unhealthy. Someone I knew was always on a diet, and when they were, they would eat special diet food that never matched the food we usually ate. From an early age, I knew the differences between “normal” food and “diet” food. The former would be a typical home-cooked dinner like pulao — a dish of rice cooked in a meat broth — and the latter would probably be lean meat with some vegetables.

For a long time this mentality coloured my own perceptions of what a healthy lifestyle was. I saw only very specific meals like grilled chicken or sautéed vegetables as being “healthy.” During times when I tried to be healthy, the pressure to limit myself to those foods — and guilt when I “cheated” — was overwhelming.

Someone I knew was always on a diet, eating special diet food that never matched the food we ate.

This exporting of diet trends ignores the fact that cuisines don’t evolve in a vacuum, but in response to local circumstances. For instance, Karachi-based fitness coach Mahwish Shahkil points out that, “when you look at rural workers who still follow traditional [agricultural] lifestyles, South Asian cuisine is great for them because they burn that energy off.”

Nonetheless, among my own family and friends working with nutritionists or paying for diet plans that send you pre-prepared meals — both increasingly popular in my circles — most of the “healthy” food being promoted in Pakistan leans toward Mediterranean recipes or East Asian stir-frys. My father is currently following such a meal plan, and receives meals like grilled chicken, open-faced sandwiches, or stir-fries of chicken and vegetables.

Alisha Haque-Burns is the co-owner of Lahore’s School of Culinary and Finishing Arts, and says the popularity of these diets does impact the way we view local foods. “[Popular diet trends] do take away from South Asian cuisine,” she says, “as the fats and cooking methods are very different to how most South Asian meals are made.” According to her, they make us give less value to the food we cook in our own homes, and force us to look to outside sources to feel healthier.

Pakistan has historically thrived on local produce including wheat, pulses, and seasonal fruits. But as more and more restaurants introduce outside cuisines to local palates, tastes are changing. Zain Aziz founded Lahore’s FRED, a space that hosts pop-up restaurants (the name stands for “food, research, experience, and design”). In his time in the food business, he’s noted a mindset that considers imported food and foreign cuisines better than our local ones, and believes it could have a major impact on our food communities.

“Pakistani food has never been allowed to evolve,” he says. He believes the lack of change resulted from the feeling after Pakistan’s 1947 partition from India that staying true to our heritage required sticking to what we knew. In our increasingly globalised world, Pakistanis who want something new are looking beyond our borders — at least, they are if they can afford to.

“We travel to other places and eat their food and want to bring it back with us,” Aziz shares. I often hear people around me ask where they can get imported items like avocados and coffee, or complaining that they’re out of stock. Despite rising prices, and tariffs created to curb purchases of foreign food, the percentage of food imports to Pakistan is currently on the rise, after dropping steadily from 1998 to 2007. The reasons for this increase in imports are complex, but I can’t help thinking the view that foreign food is better is a factor.

Staying true to our heritage required sticking to what we knew. In our increasingly globalised world, Pakistanis are looking beyond our borders.

The team at FRED is trying to cater to these developing palates while supporting local food producers. Pop-ups at FRED may have featured ramen or Persian slow-cooked lamb, but wherever its menus originate, Aziz and his team try to source everything locally.

“[We] are working with local suppliers to form something of a supply chain,” says Nadira Amir, FRED’s head of operations. “We recently sourced oysters from Karachi, which was very exciting — these normally don’t even sell within Pakistan! We’re also working with local farmers to grow herbs, raise cattle, and poultry.”

Where years worth of diet trends had people around me convinced that local food wasn’t desirable, a high-end restaurant like FRED supporting the local food industry can change attitudes. I remember discussions I’ve had with friends about the lack of different kinds of cheese in Pakistan. Eating at FRED and finding that they source cheese locally encouraged me to explore local options instead of assuming what I wanted wasn’t made here.

Imported ideas about food can cause South Asians to question their diets, but can also have the opposite effect. In 2016, American reality TV star Kourtney Kardashian posted on her blog about starting her day with a teaspoonful of ghee (clarified butter) before eating anything else. Ghee is a South Asian staple, used as an alternative to cooking oil and butter. Kardashian didn’t use her ghee for cooking, though, she drank it from a cup. Suddenly, diet-trend followers, and South Asians who’d never thought much about ghee began to see it in a whole new light.

As a Pakistani, seeing this hype was funny to me — after all ghee wasn’t exciting at home. But one celebrity endorsement had all kinds of media talking about it. As a kid I’d heard that “oily” South Asian foods were unhealthy.

Whenever I gained weight, the first thing people advised me to do was stop eating samosas. But when Kourtney Kardashian endorsed ghee, people around me changed their minds. When my family members used to go on a diet, they’d stock their kitchens with cooking sprays and air fryers. Women I knew would dab off oily snacks with a tissue. Now people tell me that “fat-first” is the way to go, and ketogenic diets — which cut out carbs but are high in fat to put the body in a fat-burning metabolic state called “ketosis” — have become popular here.

Whenever I gained weight, the first thing people advised me to do was stop eating samosas.

These constant changes in what’s perceived as “healthy” made me realise it’s more important to listen to my own body than to what others are talking about. A healthy lifestyle for me today is eating as much as my body needs, making sure I eat a good mix of vegetables and meat, and trying to eat at home a majority of the time. I no longer see the traditional foods I grew up with as the opposite of “healthy.”

I believe there’s a long way to go before Pakistani food culture truly honours local ingredients and flavours. I still feel like I have years worth of unlearning to do, and there’s so much that we, as Pakistanis, need to learn about regional food and how it can be a part of healthy eating. In the long run, I hope that people around me shift their focus toward local food for sustainable, healthy meals instead of jumping back and forth between imported diets and “normal” eating. Despite how globalisation and outside influences shape our own food choices, it’s important to realise that no matter what diet trends we’re following, the food we should rely on is the food we call home.

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