Chefs create dishes for a gluten-free casein-free diet
It all began when the children went to the Sheraton Park and Towers for a cake mixing celebration. And, the chefs realised that they couldn't eat cake. “Well, we relaxed the rules that day,” smiles Vasudha. “We couldn't possibly have denied them — it would have been too mean.”
The event did, however, leave an impact — on the chefs, in particular. Which is why we're back at the Sheraton Park and Towers, with Vasudha Prakash, founder-director of the V-Excel Educational Trust, and executive chef Praveen Anand, discussing recipes for Rajma cutlets over coffee.
The Trust is an NGO working for children with mental and developmental disabilities. Set up in 2001, it caters to nearly 5,000 children across urban and rural areas of Tamil Nadu, and now Nasik. Over the last four years, two of their Chennai centres — in Mandaveli and Adyar — have incorporated the Gluten-Free Casein-Free (CFGF) diet for their children with special needs.
Gluten is found in grains such as wheat, and casein is a protein found primarily in cow's milk. Vasudha says children with autism tend to have a leaky-gut syndrome. Additionally, their digestive systems are very tender and vulnerable. Surveys across the world have shown that the CFGF diet helps the children immensely, enabling the their digestive systems to work more effectively. Parents found them more comfortable, calm and articulate.
“We've followed this diet for four years at our centre and seen tremendous improvements,” says Vasudha, adding that it's administered in three phases. She adds that the programme should take just a year, but ends up taking two since parents find it difficult to cook only approved food. “When we tell the parents, they think ‘How can I deny my child ice-cream all his life?' So, we don't say it's a lifetime thing — we do find that after the two years though, that the children automatically avoid cake and other food they know they'll find difficult to digest.”
Although there are 80 children on the programme, aged between four and 22, Vasudha says only about 60 per cent follow it stringently at home. At the centres, however, meals are consistently GFCF. “We don't have cake for birthdays, instead we eat murukku, thattai. We have about 20 recipes — cutlet made of aval, ragi dosa, and lots of ragi for calcium.”
Yet, she found that the children and parents were getting bored with the food. That's where the chefs stepped in, offering to create recipes that stuck to dietary requirements, were easy to handle, and exciting.
Armed with a list of banned food (“a long, long list,” says Praveen), they got together, roped in a dietician, and brainstormed. The chefs decided that creating tasty alternatives was the way to go: “They said that if these kids see their friends eating pizza, they'll want it too. Half of eating is visual… So, we took akki roti, and put a topping of tomatoes etc. It is tasty,” says Praveen.
They also replaced bread with cornmeal bread. Since sugar was banned (“it gives a spurt of energy, and then you're fatigued,” says Vasudha), the chefs created ragi muffins sweetened with honey.
Although these recipes are being developed for V-Excel's centres, Vasudha states that the CFGF diet has proved to be beneficial to children aged till seven. One more incentive? She adds that some of the more diligent parents have started following the diet themselves to encourage their children. “They've lost weight, and are looking so good!” she laughs.