It is quite in vogue to be a foodie, and to be perceived as a connoisseur of ‘good’ food. We love to talk about what we eat, where, and how much we spend on a meal. Exotic cuisines, however unhealthy, are a talking point amongst the elite, and current trends in Myanmar, still point towards a largely non vegetarian diet. Vegetarianism is not unheard of, and typical local meals are a good blend of vegetables and meats. This makes them healthier, but it is often seen that people wrinkle their nose at the prospect of eating a balanced meal with a larger vegetable component, though they are palatable when combined with some pork, fish, chicken or even processed meats or dried fish. This is more common among the youth due to their very recent exposure to international cuisines with the opening of newer restaurants serving different cuisines, not all of which offer too much variety of vegetable preparations.
Eating greens can be trendy too, in the form of delectable and colorful salads and stir fries, as they adorn a corner in a plate or come as a side dish. But visual appeal apart, green leafy vegetables are nutritional powerhouses that improve health and help the human body fight various diseases. Nearly 70% of all known diseases and ailments are linked to dietary habits and unhealthy eating. The latest research indicates that the fiber intake in most developed and developing countries, is far below the recommended intake levels, by relevant authorities. When newer, refined grain varieties, are fiber depleted, it makes sense to supplement fiber in the form of leafy fiber-rich greens.
Thankfully, all Asian cuisines include vegetables and greens as part of the main meal, and tropical climates ensure sufficient local supply of leafy vegetables which have a shorter shelf life. Some are used for their therapeutic qualities while others to enhance the taste with their strong flavor or sour, tangy taste. The latest fad of course, is ‘organic’, or organically grown vegetables which are easily available in Myanmar now.
The health benefits of green, leafy vegetables
Health is the ever elusive, much feared but often ignored, yet essential part of our lives that determines the length and quality of our existence. However, we conveniently forget how to maintain and preserve, improve and keep our health intact. We focus on our taste buds, and are averse to even trying out foods that are good for us. Eating right, combining what we like with what is good for us, will help us build stamina, raise our energy levels, strengthen our immune system and bring a sense of well being that can be felt with every breath.
Green leafy vegetables are amongst the healthiest foods to eat, forming part of the protective foods category. Low in calories and high in nutrients, they help in preserving good health while shielding the body from illness and disease. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) recommends a daily intake of at least one half cup of green, leafy vegetables, to avoid nutritional deficiencies and serious illnesses.
Some of their benefits include:
- Green colored vegetables are rich in vitamins like vitamin A, C, E and K. Vitamins are essential for the smooth functioning of various body mechanisms and have no substitutes. It is ideal to absorb vitamins from natural foods which must be cooked only so much as to keep their vitamin content intact.
- They are rich in minerals like iron, folic acid, potassium and calcium, and antioxidant compounds like Indoles and Lutein. Minerals keep the body metabolism in place, and ensure bone health, water balance, and are crucial for numerous other reasons. Each mineral, in the smallest quantity has a role to play in the well being of our body.
- They reduce the risk of chronic disorders like obesity, diabetes, coronary artery disease, hypertension and so on. This is because they are able to purify the blood, reduce the oxidative stress, restore smooth cell structure, improve absorption of nutrients and keep the circulatory system healthy.
- They enhance longevity and help build stronger bones in the young. Leafy vegetables boost overall health through improved body functions and strengthening of the immune system. Their low calorie nutrition keeps weight in check, which in turn, improves fitness, and prevents the body from ageing rapidly.
- Greens ensure appropriate nutrition to the body’s tissues and organs, and keep the neural system healthy, thus preventing or at least minimizing the destructive impact of brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.
- Green leafy vegetables contain chlorophyll that alkalinizes the blood and their high fiber content aids the digestive process. They address flatulence and bloating and ensure a healthy colon. Colon cancer has become one of the dangerous forms of cancer afflicting those not consuming leafy green vegetables.
- Phytonutrients or plant derived chemical substances, contained in greens provide the crucial link between health and nutrition, ensuring that the human body stays healthy, the skin clear and improved brain functioning.
- Their low calorie nutrition facilitates weight control and helps to fight obesity without weakening the system.
- Leafy greens help to reduce risk of cancer, fight certain types of cancer, and through immune regulation, help in tumor resolution.
- They help to remove free radicals from the human body before they become harmful and cause damage.
- Visual protection by keeping our eyes healthy is another benefit of greens since they help to filter certain types of high energy light that can damage the eyes. This reduces risk of eye ailments like cataract.
The maximum benefit can be derived if these greens are eaten raw, just slightly cooked or steamed, so that their nutrients remain intact. Overcooking must be avoided since it kills all the essential nutrients contained in the leaves. However, it is safer to soak them in water for some time so that the pesticides and other chemicals are washed off, especially if they are not organically grown.
When leafy greens are missing
Offer a small helping of spinach or water cress to children and most of them will refuse to eat it. There is some kind of mental block in many youngsters about eating any green vegetables, even broccoli, beans, and others. The result is seen in a visit to hospitals and clinics, where so many patients are rather young, and suffering from deficiencies, skin problems, obesity, indigestion and numerous other ailments. A diet without these is bound to lead to problems, diseases and impaired body functioning, which will manifest themselves later in life.
Myanmar cuisine is a good blend of meats and vegetables and its people are accustomed to a diet which includes vegetables in sufficient quantities to promote good health. Over a hundred different vegetables including leafy ones, are grown in the fertile Myanmar countryside under different climatic conditions found in the northern and southern parts of the country. A trip to the vegetable market reveals over a dozen leafy greens, reaching the big Yangon market from farms nearby. Some of these are unique and give Myanmar cuisine its special character, with their distinctive flavor and taste.
Some of the green leafy vegetables found in the markets include:
- Bu Nyunt- This is the young tender vine of the gourd vegetable. It is plucked while young and the stem is still soft, leaves are small and have very fine hair on them. This is used in preparing soups are tossed in garlic and served hot with rice.
- Ka zon ywet- Called water spinach or watercress in english, ong choy in Chinese and phaak boon in Thai, this has thin long leaves and a hollow shoot. It is cooked with garlic, mushrooms and some even like to add dried fish to it.
- Hin nu new ywet- Commonly referred to as spinach, it is a different variety of spinach and is sweeter and milder than the spinach found in other Asian countries. It comes with long stems and round leaves and is cooked with garlic and pine nuts added for flavor.
- Ka mon chin ywet- This plant has leaves that are sour to taste and added to soups to add a tangy taste, especially in fish based soups.
- Myin khwa ywet- This is Asiatic Pennywort and eaten raw as a salad with fish sauce. Its rounded leaves are flavorful and stems are thin and slender. It is known to have medicinal therapeutic properties.
- Mon nyi ywet- Commonly known as Bak choy, this is an Asian favorite and known to be one of the most nutrient rich greens. In Myanmar, it is blanched whole after trimming the base and eaten simply with a bit of oil, salt and garlic.
- Mon nyin zayn- These mustard greens have tender stems and long green leaves with a pungent taste, but are highly nutritious. They are usually cooked with ginger and garlic, red chillies, salt and a bit of sugar to tone down its strong taste.
There are many more seen in the local wet markets, their names and cooking styles still elusive to me, even after thirty months here. Their abundance and freshness is sufficiently pleasing, though not so much as to tempt me to try them out. I am happier buying the familiar ones, to which my palette is seasoned too. For one inclined towards a vegetarian diet, it is heartening to see the extent to which these form part of all local meals, relished by the young and old alike. Preserving the originality and richness of Myanmar cuisine will help to keep the locals healthy too.