Reducing Cholesterol: An Indian Approach

TIMES STAFF WRITER

High cholesterol. Chest pains. A bypass operation. This was the scary series of events that turned Fatima Lakhani into a dietary researcher and cookbook author.

It was her husband, Aziz, who suffered the health crisis. Today, following diet and lifestyle changes, Aziz Lakhani can say: “I’m a completely changed person. I feel absolutely normal--as a matter of fact, better than before.”

The Lakhanis are Indians from Africa. Before settling in Southern California, they lived in England, where Aziz was diagnosed with high cholesterol. A prescribed diet failed to help, although he followed it rigorously. “We didn’t eat ice cream for seven years,” Fatima recalls.

Aziz had surgery in 1986, but his cholesterol remained stubbornly high, even though Fatima watched his food intake carefully. “The problem,” she eventually realized, “was the total approach, and not any single dish.”

So she set to work studying with dietitians, then modified her recipes and reworked her cooking techniques to reduce the use of fats and oils. She learned about stress management and the importance of exercise, which is not usually part of the Indian lifestyle. The kitchen of the Lakhani home in Rancho Palos Verdes became a laboratory as she experimented with cutting out fats, sugars and sodium, ran nutrient analyses, then stripped out even more of the culprits.

Five years of intense effort resulted in a book, “Indian Recipes for a Healthy Heart” (Fahil Publishing Co.: $14.95). The final group of 140 recipes (104 of them vegetarian) was culled from more than 2,000. Because Indians resist deviating from their accustomed diet, Fatima shows how to make the dishes healthful without sacrificing authentic flavor. Each recipe is accompanied by a nutrient analysis. Aziz, a consultant in computer information systems, collaborated on the calculations, using American and Canadian data bases and nutrient information supplied by product manufacturers.

“Indian food is potentially the healthiest food ever,” Fatima says. Vegetarianism is common on the subcontinent. Meat is not widely affordable, and so legumes, grains, vegetables and yogurt predominate. Negative factors include the use of ghee (a form of clarified butter), consumption of full-cream yogurt and milk, the popularity of deep-fried foods and excessively sweetened desserts. Unless they are vegetarians, Indians who migrate to the West are likely to consume more meat than they would in India, thus increasing their cholesterol intake.

In a foreword to the book, Dr. Shahbudin H. Rahimtoola, George C. Griffith professor of cardiology and chief of the division of cardiology at the USC School of Medicine, notes that individuals from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka who settle in Western countries “appear to develop coronary heart disease at a young age.” Studies in England have shown that Indian migrants living there died from circulatory disease at a rate in excess of Europeans. Thus the book provides an assist to a community with a special need.

Suggested techniques include cooking with canola oil, using nonfat or low-fat milk products, removing skin and fat from chicken, emphasizing lentils for protein and reducing or avoiding salt. Lakhani introduces some ingredients foreign to Indian cookery. Ground turkey, along with chicken and fish, dominates the non-vegetarian recipes, and oat bran slips into such classic breads as chapatis , paratha s and pooris .

Not all deep-frying has been eliminated because, as Fatima observes in the book, “complete deprivation never works,” and certain deep-fried snacks are popular with Indians. However, she emphasizes that such foods be eaten only occasionally, no matter how healthful their ingredients may be.

The book is designed for healthy people who want to control their cholesterol as well as those who need to restrict their diets. Therefore, it acknowledges the taste for meat and offers beef and lamb curries along with poultry and seafood dishes.

In addition to recipes, the reader gets an education in fitness, food products and label reading--what Fatima learned with painstaking effort, distilled into short, easy-to-understand passages. The recipes are carefully and clearly written. Those I tried on my own worked well, and lunch at the Lakhani home was a feast, an opportunity to indulge in wonderful-tasting food without pangs of guilt.

One counter in the Lakhani kitchen is lined with jars containing lentils and a rich array of Indian seasonings: garam masala, coriander, turmeric, chili powder, cumin and curry leaves needed for everyday cooking and ongoing experiments that may yield future books.

For the meal, she added chicken tikka to an assortment of ornately seasoned vegetarian dishes--a pilaf that mixed basmati rice with peas, tomatoes, potatoes and yogurt; a curried combination of eggplant, tomatoes, peas, green beans and potatoes; a tangy carrot pickle; and two breads, crisp papadums and whole-wheat chapatis . In a departure from Western custom, a sweet dish started the meal--a gesture of special hospitality to honor a guest. This introductory sweet was sevian --vermicelli combined with raisins and nuts and spiced with cinnamon, cardamom and saffron. To reduce its richness, Fatima had cooked the vermicelli in water rather than the usual milk.

Gulab jamun --fried balls of a milk-based dough--ended the parade of food. Fatima lightened these by using nonfat rather than whole milk powder and lessening the sweetness of the syrup in which they soaked.

“Food is our life,” Fatima says. “We can’t take it lightly. We have to capture nature’s way now.”

“Indian Recipes for a Healthy Heart” is available in bookstores or can be ordered by mail. Send a check for $18.72 to Fahil Publishing Co., P.O. Box 7000, Suite 310, Palos Verdes, Calif. 90274. (Cost includes sales tax, postage and handling.) For credit - card orders, call (800) 247-6553.

CHICKEN TIKKA

1 cup nonfat yogurt

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 teaspoons canola oil

2 teaspoons minced garlic

2 teaspoons minced ginger root

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon garam masala (Indian spice blend)

1/4 teaspoon red chili powder

1/4 teaspoon salt, optional

Dash saffron

1/8 teaspoon orange food color

1 pound chicken breast meat, cut into 8 pieces

1 medium onion, sliced and separated into rings

1/2 cup cilantro leaves, chopped

4 lemon wedges

In bowl combine yogurt, lemon juice, canola oil, garlic, ginger, cumin, garam masala, chili powder, salt, saffron and food color. Mix well. Add chicken and mix. Cover and marinate in refrigerator 4 to 5 hours or overnight.

Transfer chicken and marinade to saucepan. Cover and cook over medium heat 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Uncover, raise heat to high and cook 10 minutes longer or until most, but not all, liquid has evaporated and chicken pieces are tender and juicy. Serve on platter, garnished with onion rings, cilantro and lemon wedges. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving, without salt, contains about:

104 calories; 56 mg sodium; 14 mg cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 10 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 0.4 grams fiber; 32% calories from fat.

MIXED VEGETABLE CURRY

2 cups tomatoes, fresh or canned without salt, finely chopped

1/2 cup finely diced onions

1/4 cup tomato paste without salt

4 teaspoons garlic, minced

2 tablespoons ground coriander

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon garam masala (Indian spice blend)

3/4 teaspoon salt, optional

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/4 teaspoon red chili powder, optional

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 cup diced onion

1 cup green beans, cut into small pieces

Water

1 pound eggplant, cut into cubes

1 cup green peas

1 pound potatoes, peeled and cubed

1/4 cup cilantro leaves, chopped

Combine tomatoes, 1/2 cup finely diced onions, tomato paste, garlic, coriander, cumin, garam masala, salt, turmeric and chili powder in bowl.

Heat canola oil in saucepan over medium-high heat. Add 1 cup diced onion and cook until golden. Carefully add spice mixture, mix well and cook 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in green beans, cover and cook over medium heat 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add some water if mixture becomes too dry.

Add eggplant, peas, potatoes and 2 1/2 cups water. Mix well, cover and cook 10 to 15 minutes, or until potatoes are done. Garnish with chopped cilantro. Makes 8 servings.

Each serving, without salt, contains about:

146 calories; 21 mg sodium; 0 mg cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 25 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 2 grams fiber; 26% calories from fat.

PEAS PILAV

2 cups tomatoes (fresh or canned without salt), finely chopped

1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen green peas

1/4 cup low-fat yogurt

4 teaspoons minced garlic

4 teaspoons minced ginger root

2 teaspoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon garam masala

1 1/4 teaspoons salt, optional

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 cup finely diced onion

1 or 2 green chiles

2 (1-inch) sticks cinnamon

16 black peppercorns

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

3 cups water, about

3/4 pound potatoes, cut into 16 pieces

1/4 cup cilantro, finely chopped

2 cups basmati rice, washed and drained

Combine tomatoes, peas, yogurt, garlic, ginger, coriander, cumin, garam masala, 1/2 teaspoon salt and turmeric in bowl.

Heat canola oil in large saucepan. Add onion, green chiles, cinnamon sticks, peppercorns and cumin seeds and saute until onion starts to turn golden. Add tomato mixture and stir. Cover and cook over medium heat 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add water, remaining 3/4 teaspoon salt, potatoes and cilantro. Stir well, cover and bring to boil.

Add rice, stir gently and cook, covered, until almost all water has been absorbed, about 10 minutes. Reduce heat to low and cook 10 to 15 minutes, or until rice is tender. Makes 8 servings.

Each serving, without salt, contains about:

288 calories; 19 mg sodium; 0 mg cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 56 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 1.7 grams fiber; 14% calories from fat.