Sabja has an established list of benefits from aiding digestion and calming your mind to refreshing your skin. Here’s why they should be part of your diet.
‘Eat your way to a facelift’. Really? Sigh. Here we go again. Another ecstatic headline. Another super food. Another trip to the gourmet store. Health trend addicts must be exhausted. And broke. Super foods tend to be super expensive. Blame their inexhaustible PR machines.
The smartest move right now, of course, is to investigate local alternatives. Admittedly, information is not as easily available. Especially in the case of chia versus sabja seeds, my conundrum du jour. Nevertheless, its research well worth taking on, even if it’s just to prove that local alternatives are not inferior alternatives.
If you’ve browsed a health website, you’ve heard of chia — it seems next to impossible to read about super foods without hearing about this wonder seed. A source of Omega 3, this hydrophilic seed hold 10 times its weight in water. It’s closest Indian equivalent is sabja. (Also known as sabsa, selasih and tukmaria in India.) The English term is ‘Basil seeds,’ though most of you will probably know them as falooda seeds. Sabja has an established laundry list of benefits — the seeds are hailed to be ‘cooling’ which is why they find their way into summer drinks, from Indian faloodas to Iranian sharbath-e-Tokme. Good for digestion, they are said to have a calming effect on your mind. Additionally, sabja is reportedly great for the skin, as it is high in antioxidants.
Kavita Mukhi, who studied eco-nutrition and self-healing in the U.S., began ‘Conscious Food,’ which sources products from small organic farms and communities across India in 1990. Which makes her an ideal source on desi super foods. Except, she’s pooh-poohs the concept of a ‘super food’ to begin with. “The truth is every natural food is good for you. And every natural food is a super food,” she says, adding that to be truly healthy, people should eat an entire spectrum of ingredients instead of counting on the promises of a handful of imported, overly-promoted foods.
“Chia, quinoa, goji… They just have good PR,” she says, adding, “And we Indians tend to be fascinated by anything ‘foreign.’ But products you find at local markets are best — not just because they’re good for your body, but also because they enable you to connect with your environment.” She does add, however, that seeds are a great addition to any diet. “Basically all seeds have similar benefits. They are high in Omega 3, and micro nutrients. And they are very much a part of our culture. Think of falooda, made with sabja. And laddoos made with halim seeds.” Halim (Aliv or watercress seeds) are celebrated for their high levels of iron, calcium and beta-carotene. Add Vitamins C and E to the mix and you’ll understand why they’re credited with all kinds of powers, from fighting age, to fighting cancer.
Assuming all seeds are equal, then the next obvious question is how to use them. And, can sabja and halim be used as substitutes for chia? After all the Internet heaves with alluring recipes for chia, while sabja and aliv are confined to faloodas and ladoos.
I pick up a packet of each — they’re easily available and cheap. Both have to be soaked overnight according to instructions. The sabja swells alarmingly, quadrupling in size in the first five minutes. Halim, which a couple of recipes recommend soaking in coconut water, is less dramatic. About 12 hours later, sabja is still relatively tasteless — which makes it easy to incorporate into a host of recipes. Halim is trickier. While it doesn’t have the peppery-fresh flavour of watercress leaves, it does taste a little like chewing on a random flower stalk. Not wholly appealing — but I’m determined to keep an open mind.
For the halim, I roast grated coconut with shards of jaggery in a little ghee. (Halim seeds are naturally rich in oil.) I add raisins, cardamom powder, a healthy pinch of salt and a handful of roasted semolina to the mix, before pouring in the halim, which has turned into a thin but determined gel. After some stirring, it comes together into a malleable mass, which can be fashioned into ladoos. The texture takes some getting used too, since the seeds verge on juicy, but it’s not intimidating. They’re tasty but require such a generous amount of jaggery I’m cautious about labelling this as health food.
But then, as Kavita points out, none of us should eat a food just for its ‘healthy’ label. It makes ‘clean living’ seem both intimidating as well as incredibly dull.
Adding seeds like this to your diet, is beneficial because it expands your culinary repertoire — essential in an age when we open a packet of chips for fun, and then guiltily add a clutch of vitamin pills to supplement them. Instead, we need to find ways to create meals that are both delicious and nutritious. It’s an added bonus if they’re easy.
Like my sabja pudding. The seeds are soaked in coconut milk with cinnamon and a little sugar. There are as many alternatives as there are ingredients. Soak them in milk, in juice, in nut milk. Sweeten with dates, with maple syrup, with jaggery. Add almonds, figs, chocolate chunks… Then bask in the glow of self-satisfaction. Eat your way to a face lift? You’re half way there.