From Zofeen Ebrahim
Balance is the absolute key, says Alia Chughtai, a journalist who started a catering service called Aur Chaawal (And Rice) with filmmaker Akhlaque Mahesar two years ago.
She knows what she’s talking about. Chughtai’s journey to a healthy diet began a decade ago after suffering from gastrointestinal problems. After understanding the science behind diet and what a balanced diet meant, she understood what her body had been through. And so began her search for purification.
“I couldn’t eat garlic or onions for eight weeks,” she told IPS.
Two years ago, Chughtai decided to turn their food trip into a small sideline.
“I got here because I had a personal need for clean desi food with no bad oils, chemically added spices, and food coloring,” she said. Today she fights against processed foods, which she believes is the cause of so much suffering, and swears by “hearty vegetables and fruits”.
“But it’s not a solo ride,” she said. So that a well-oiled business can run and expand successfully, the two have divided their tasks. While Chughtai oversees day-to-day business and the “menu idea”, Mahesar takes care of the logistics in the background.
On the way from farm to fork to find the balance between sustainability, nutrition and access, they tried their best to “use locally grown, locally made produce”.
In return, the duo have become aware of the fairer returns for small businesses and farmers.
“Ours is a small business and we are all in favor of helping other small businesses,” said Chughtai’s partner.
The pandemic also acted as a catalyst for many Pakistanis to think and produce locally.
“We’re trying to get as much as possible from all over Pakistan, including the different cheeses and even the pasta,” he said.
But finding quality products takes quite a bit of research, both of which enjoy doing.
“We get a month’s supply of spices from small towns in Sindh; a specific variety of chilli from Muzaffarabad in Punjab Province; Saffron and buckwheat from Hunza in the Gilgit-Baltistan region and saag (mustard plant) from Lahore, also in Punjab. They replace ghee (a kind of clear butter) with cooking oil, which they get weekly from Matiari, also in Sindh.
Fayza Khan, President of the Pakistan Nutrition and Dietetic Society (PNDS), believes the food industry must preach and practice healthy and sustainable eating, advocating science-based diets, reducing meat and highly processed foods, and creating demand from the government better labeling on packaged foods.
To “reduce the burden of malnutrition and non-communicable diseases”, food businesses should “play their part” in promoting healthier ways of preparing food and minimizing food waste.
She frowned at excessive consumption of fatty foods, including baked goods, fast food and sweetened beverages, saying, “Diet and lifestyle related chronic diseases in Pakistan among adults and children, including the prevalence of obesity and the onset of diabetes at a young age spreads quickly. “
Khan therefore recommends “traditional foods” which are healthier when they are “homemade with better cooking techniques“.
And this is what the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition (BCFN) advocates: that healthy eating, especially traditional foods, play an important role in the sustainability of food because it has a low environmental impact.
For example, the Mediterranean diet of fresh fruits, vegetables, fish instead of red meat, and grain products like pasta cooked in olive oil help prevent heart disease. No wonder Italians are rated as the healthiest in the world. Italy has the most centenarians in Europe.
As Chughtai and Mahesar refined their business model, they increasingly understood the integrity of sustainable nutrition strategies and began to exercise caution to minimize the impact on the environment or climate.
“As entrepreneurs in the food industry, it is our responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, ensure animal welfare, and protect smallholders and workers in the food industry,” said Chughtai.
“We used bagasse trays and containers to begin with,” she explained, but had to choose cheaper recycled cardboard boxes because bagasse was too expensive.
“We regularly use reusable plastic boxes that we fill with groceries for a 10% discount on the food,” she says, adding: “People don’t want to pay higher costs for Desi Cuisine!”
They also compost their wet kitchen trash and use it as fertilizer for their vegetable roof garden, where they grow red peppers, chillies, broccoli, tomatoes, eggplant, pumpkin, and some herbs.
But Chughtai, says Aur Chaawal, is not just a business; it is a search for “clean food”.
It took her several years to find out what was causing her stomach problems, Chughtai said, saying everything points to the packaged spices with their overdose of flavors and colors. Disliked by them, at Aur Chaawal they use the old-fashioned pestle and mortar to crush fresh garlic, mash the ginger or chilies, or grind all of the spices into powder.
“Our cooking may be labor intensive, okay,” she admitted, but insisted that it was “clean and healthy”.
Chughtai may not be aware of this, but Aur Chaawal used the Barilla Foundation’s double pyramid model to place the health and climate pyramids side by side to promote healthy eating for people and respect the planet.
In a city like Karachi, which has a deluge of caterers, takeaways and restaurants and a huge population of discerning gourmets, gaining 10,000 followers on Instagram and a steady daily clientele between 35 and 45 in just two years isn’t a given.
“We have to be innovative,” says Mahesar, but attributes the success to the awareness of regular customers (including many working women who want her to cook for their families) that the Aur Chaawal menu will only be wholesome.
The business is also aimed at those who are counting their calories. But Chughtai insisted that a one-size-fits-all formula doesn’t work here.
On average, she said, each body’s plate should be one-fourth filled with protein, one half with vegetables, and one-fourth with complex carbohydrates.
But she emphasized: “Everyone is different; You have to eat according to your health needs. “
For example, since she was low on iron, the amount of protein on her plate would be 1/3 the amount of protein. And this, she said, is the mistake many nutritionists make in Pakistan.
“You can’t apply the 1400/1500 calorie rule to everyone!” Said Chughtai, who was fortunate enough to train under Adrian Leung, a certified nutrition coach and personal trainer, who helped “my brain on good and reconfiguring bad food ”.
When her inner writer gets restless one day, she plans to document her “journey”. She intends to travel from the coastal villages to the mountain peaks and to include recipes that she uses “from the unconventional dishes and those that we have adapted because Karachi is such a hodgepodge of ethnic groups” in a “beautifully designed” combination.
Until then, Aur Chaawal, after growing up eating her mother’s homemade dishes, will continue to serve her customers “clean” meals made with the healthiest, organically grown produce and condiments.