Pumpkin, melon and poppy seeds are high on nutrition

This time on, we shall explore the goodies offered to us by three different seeds: pumpkin and melon seeds, both from the gourd family and poppy seeds, which have in many ways scripted history.

Let us look at the pumpkin and melon seeds together; given their kinship, they both have a lot in common. Both seeds have an amazing nutrition profile, packing in iron, copper, omega 3, manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc and proteins besides some B vitamins and calcium. In fact, the zinc in pumpkin seeds is such that WHO recommends it as a good source of this nutrient. Another distinctive feature of pumpkin seeds is the diverse antioxidants it contains. This includes some forms of vitamin E with high bioavailability, which means the body can absorb them easily. It also contains some highly beneficial phytonutrients like lignans and tryptophan, which the body processes into serotonin, which in turn gets converted to melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone which regulates our biorhythm and ensures good sleep. That is why some pharmaceutical companies make melatonin supplements to woo frequent travellers who may suffer from frequent jet lag.

As far as health benefits are concerned, both seeds perform very well. We know that their zinc content is very good for the immune system and the antioxidants scavenge the harmful free radicals. Melons are, seemingly, also beneficial for nervous disorders and both melon and pumpkin promote the good maintenance of our organs. Raw pumpkin seeds eliminate pinworms and other intestinal parasites.

Even though both pumpkin and melon are native to the Americas, they are fairly well spread in India where some fragrant melons are cultivated. In fact, India counts as one of the major producers of pumpkin seeds. You can buy these seeds or save the ones from the pumpkin and melon you buy. In that case, you should first clean them, wash them and then dry them. They are best used toasted and toasting should not exceed twenty minutes or else certain properties get altered.

Toasted seeds can be used as sprinklers on salads, barfis or fudges. You can flavour the seeds by coating them with oil and spicing them with cinnamon and honey, soy sauce or Madras curry powder before baking; these make a wonderful low calorie snack. Seeds should be kept in an airtight container, kept in a cool, dark place.

And now let us set sail on to the “sea of poppies” and take a closer look at the poppy seeds. Before anything else, a little bit of history is called for. Native to the Middle East, the cultivation of Papaver somniferum is now concentrated in the Himalayan foothills and low lying hills. India is a major producer and boasts of the largest opium factory in the world, situated in Ghazipur.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the British India Company fuelled the production of opium to traffic it under the garb of medicine to China, which had banned it since 1729. To meet the demand, the Company introduced the contract farming of poppy, especially around its Ghazipur factory, thereby eliminating diversity from the farms. As a consequence, food security for small farmers could not make enough money to buy the food they earlier grew. This situation led to many small farmers emigrating as indentured labour to colonies such as Mauritius and Trinidad in the 1830s, an exodus which coincided with peak opium traffic, as Amitav Ghosh, author of Sea of Poppies points out. Do we need to add, as Ghosh reveals that, “opium as a commodity, financed the British Raj in India and 20 years after the opium trade slipped, the Raj folded up.”

Called khaskhas in Hindi and pappi vitaikal in Tamil, poppy seeds are just as healthy and nutritious as the other super seeds we have seen so far. They too have omega 3, iron, copper, calcium, potassium, manganese, zinc and magnesium and thus promote healthy bodily functions. Their oleic acid content helps inhibit breast cancer and the linoleic acid helps lower LDL (bad cholesterol) and increase HDL (good cholesterol). This apart, they are an excellent source of dietary fibre with 100 gm of raw seeds providing 19.5g of fibre; in other words, 51% of the recommended daily intake.

As such, they regulate insulin and blood glucose and promote gastrointestinal health. They also have a soothing effect and promote sleep. However, it must be added that they are in no way a source of opium: the drug comes from the unripe seed pods and the seeds come from the dried pods. The seeds are also the least prone to trigger allergies.

On the culinary front, poppy seeds have been used as a seasoning agent in various cuisines from Middle Eastern to Central European to South Asian. Cakes and pastries are baked with them; they are used as sprinklers for salads. In India many a Bengali recipe calls for them, especially poshto; it is also used to enhance the taste of gravies in meat dishes.

And now, a last word of advice regarding seeds and food in general before we sign off. Plants derive their health from the soil they grow in and so if your soil is poor in nutrients or exhausted from an overdose of chemicals, the plant and its seeds will reflect that poverty. A healthy, organic soil, teeming with microbial life which will fix nutrients, will give you thriving plants and seeds; so make sure you buy or grow organic whenever you can.

World-renowned seed activist Vandana Shiva and Navdanya Director Maya Goburdhun believe in the power of local superfoods. Navdanya is actively involved in the rejuvenation of indigenous knowledge, culture and forgotten foods.

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