Green Vegetables for Good health

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 Greens

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Is Vegetarianism Healthy?

Vegetarianism is Healthy – Fact, Fad or Fallacy

Our bodies are only as good as the food we eat – a cliché that rings true in an age and time when life threatening diseases strike seemingly healthy people, partly because, they have not been eating healthy. Food that tingles the taste buds, with its taste and flavor is one of the pleasures of life that the best of us succumb to – for only what is pleasantly palatable, will be gladly taken in.
Research costing millions of dollars has created a strong awareness about what foods are healthy, and all the processed foods we savor, are not good at all for our health. Little wonder then, that the list of foods being termed ‘junk foods’ is growing longer, and the ranks of people avoiding all kinds of meat is growing globally. A significant part of this list includes non-vegetarian foods, which are delectable, addictive and damaging.
Non- vegetarian food includes all eating red meat, fish, poultry, and other products derived from animals. This division is a bit hazy, since milk, derived from animals, is considered vegetarian, and forms a significant part of all hard core vegetarian diets.
Over the last two decades, vegetarianism has caught on, and is widely perceived as ‘healthy’, which actually means that it is healthier than a non-vegetarian diet. Vegetarianism refers to a lifestyle, the most significant part of which is following a vegetarian diet that includes plant produce and abstinence of flesh and foods that have an animal source.
Types of vegetarian diets
A diet that includes all plant produce, milk and soy products is loosely classified as a vegetarian diet. Personal preferences, religious beliefs, aversions and convictions have led to the emergence of specific vegetarian diets which include:
• The vegan diet – The most restrictive form of a vegetarian diet includes avoiding all meats and animal products including milk in all forms and eggs. Many vegans do not have honey also. Their diet includes only fruits and vegetables and soy products.
• Lacto-vegetarians – A large section of vegetarians fall in this category, whose diet includes vegetables, fruits, beans and nuts as well as dairy products. They abstain from having meat, poultry, fish and eggs.
• Lacto-ovo-vegetarians – This category of vegetarians excludes meat, poultry, fish but have eggs and dairy products besides vegetarian foods.
• Pesco-vegetarians – these people avoid meats and poultry, but eat fish, eggs, dairy products and vegetables etc.
• Semi-vegetarian/flexitarian diet – this is the most flexible diet since it permits certain types of meats, once or twice a week, supplemented by all vegetarian foods. This makes the diet less limiting and healthier since it provides the benefits of both.
People following each of the above mentioned diets strongly believe in the benefits of the diet they follow. For them it is a lifestyle reinforced by strong beliefs in avoiding cruelty to other living beings who have as much a right to live as human beings-the motto being, live, and let live. Most vegetarians in the US and Canada have been motivated by a desire for self improvement, to lead a longer, healthier life.
Vegetarian food facts
Vegetarianism is viewed mainly in a positive light around the world, and in many countries gets legal and cultural support due to its link to religious beliefs and practices, in countries like India and the UK. The dictates of religion in India, had kept a larger proportion of the country’s population, vegetarian, for centuries. In such countries, being vegetarian is not limiting in any way since ample non meat food options are available due to greater demand for the same.
Most non-vegetarians wrinkle their nose at the prospect of having a vegetarian meal. Beans and leaves are the least appetizing for them and equivalent to not eating at all. Perhaps they do not realize the health and overall benefits of a plant rich diet, and the ill effects of consuming high-fat animal protein and meats.
Some vital facts about vegetarian diets:
• According to the American Heart Association, vegetarians have a lower risk of obesity, hypertension and coronary heart disease. This is because their diet is low in saturated fat, high in fiber and easier to digest. Food of plant origin is generally devoid of the ‘bad’ cholesterol.
• They are also at a lower risk of certain types of cancer especially those linked to the digestive system, colo-rectal cancer in particular. This can be attributed to the high level of cancer-protecting phyto-chemicals in vegetarian food.
• Vegetarian diets are a rich source of iron and B-vitamins essential for the body, besides phyto-chemical nutrients that facilitate the functioning of every organ of the body and prevent degenerative diseases.
• Fruits and vegetables contain Vitamins C and E, and cartenoids. All these act as anti-oxidants that protect the body cells from free radicals capable of destroying them.
• The fiber content of whole grains, legumes, beans and fruits improves digestion and prevents diseases like diabetes and other illnesses.
• Vegetarians tend to consume fewer calories since the volume of fruit, vegetables, beans and nuts compared to their equivalent of meat, has a lower calorie count.
• Bacteria and harmful chemicals like pesticides are easier to remove from plant produce than meats.
• Plant based diets are better for the planet as well, according to environmentalists.
• Vegetarians have better overall health and quality of life than non vegetarians.
• According to one of the latest research reports, vegetarians are 12% less likely to die of any cause than non vegetarians.
• Vegetarian meals cause less eating disorders than meat based meals.
Is vegetarianism just a fad?
Vegetarianism has been practiced for far too long to be just a fad, though it cannot be denied that it is becoming increasingly fashionable to be a vegetarian. From the earliest time in history, there have been advocates of vegetarianism who used religious, moral and spiritual arguments to woo the meat eating crowd in an attempt to convert them to a diet including the produce of the earth than live beings walking, swimming or flying. The 19th century, and scientific research started popularizing vegetarian diet as being more healthy but till late in the 20th century, vegetarians were a small sect, surviving on the fringe of society and not part of the main stream, except in countries like India, where religion dictated lifestyles and eating habits.
Like so many new ‘diets’ being touted as the best for weight loss, heart health, fitness etc, vegetarianism has also been tried initially as perhaps a fad, but the feeling of well being it brings, has converted non vegetarians into vegetarians.
It is in keeping with ‘being cool’ and ‘going green’, but with no harm done, it may be the best route to good health. It may be a fad, but will last out longer than any other, and one that is going to spread across borders, even in places where vegetarian options are limited.
The vegetarianism fallacy
Meat lovers and hard core non-vegetarians have long criticized vegetarianism on various counts. And this is not entirely without reason. Since any food devoid of meat qualifies as vegetarian, a section of people feel eating a bowl of French fries, onion rings, fried dumplings, fritters and other oil-rich foods are healthy too. Just keeping meat out a nutrient-empty diet does not make it healthy. It has to have the requisite nutrients like fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals to qualify as healthy.
It is not entirely true that all vegetarians have lower cholesterol. Vegetarians thriving on heavy fried foods, potatoes and fat rich sweets and savories, are bound to have obesity problems along with cholesterol, hypertension, diabetes and coronary heart disease. India, with a vast vegetarian population, is a typical example.
Vegetarianism has been defined as lifestyle that involves balance, moderation and a conscious effort to balance daily nutrition with the produce of the earth.
Where vegetarianism falls short
There have been concerns about vegetarian diets providing the entire basket of nutrients needed by the human body. The question is about optimal calcium levels which come from milk, and therefore vegans would lose out unless they take calcium supplements.
Meats are a rich source of protein which vegetarians can get from beans, lentils and nuts. Minerals like iron are found in green leafy vegetables like spinach and broccoli, prunes and nuts. The deficiency of Vitamin B-12 needs to be addressed with supplements by vegans though other vegetarians get this vitamin from milk and eggs.
A good vegetarian diet
A balanced nutritive vegetarian diet should include, whole grains and cereal, beans and lentils, fruits and nuts, rice, wheat and vegetables. Ovo-vegetarians would have the nutritional benefits of eggs, and lacto-ovo-vegetarians gain from the wholesome goodness of milk and milk products like yoghurt, cheese etc. Vegans can substitute milk with soy milk and other soy products and get wholesome, balanced nutrition.
Vegetarianism in Myanmar
It is not difficult being a vegetarian in Myanmar with its rich variety of agricultural produce, including fresh fruits and vegetables, numerous varieties of beans and pulses, soy and dairy products. In fact, most salads and soups in Myanmar cuisine can be adapted to a vegetarian palette and supplemented with stir fries that are completely vegetarian if fish sauce and shrimp paste are avoided. The distinct Indian influence in the country ensures plenty of potato based snacks and curries. Every restaurant has vegetarian options, called “the-taa-lo”. Shaan noodles, tofu curry, vegetable fried rice, dosa, vegetable biryani and vegetable hotpot are some of the safe meal options that are easy to find.

The case for vegetarianism grows stronger with every passing day. Science and the environment all favor this diet path. For those looking for role models find philosophers like Plato and Nietzche, political leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Benjamin Franklin, and pop icons like Paul McCartney and Bob Marley, propagating the diets they followed throughout their lives. Turning vegetarian may become a turning point in your lives too.

The Diary of a Vegetarian in Yangon

There was a time when vegetarians had to literally hunt for safe places to get a palatable meat-free meal once they stepped out of their homes. Thankfully now, vegetarian options are available in varying proportions across the globe. Vegetarianism is becomingly increasingly popular for numerous reasons, at least one of which is health. Living in Yangon as a vegetarian, is not really a challenge, but interesting culinary experiences give us reasons to smile, even here.

Myanmar with its wide variety of earthy produce, a phenomenal variety of greens, tofu and lentils, has endless non-meat options. In fact, it is easier to survive in Myanmar with such preferences than other tourist friendly Asian countries like Thailand and Malaysia. Myanmar cuisine has numerous vegetable-rich salads, soups that can easily be kept vegetarian as well as rice and curries that are delicious even without the addition of meats.  Yet vegetarianism is not very common among the locals, since dried fish, meats and seafood are added to nearly every preparation to make them tastier, nutritious, and more of a complete one-dish meal. The word to know is “thut-thut-lau” pronounced as “tatalou”, which actually means ‘lifeless’ but implies vegetarian. Interestingly, eggs are not considered to be non-vegetarian.

The ever increasing class of vegetarians can be attributed to the greater awareness about cruelty meted to animals, and also those who avoid meats for religious beliefs. Buddhism does not impose food restrictions but Hinduism does. Many Hindus are pure vegetarians and many are selectively vegetarian on specific days of the week and at certain times in the year. Myanmar has thousands of Indians residing for generations and though many have adapted to local tastes, an equal number have opted to stick to their vegetarian food habits.

Still, as vegetarians, we end up with interesting experiences that become amusing narratives later, the dismay and anger long forgotten. These are almost universal, and anyone with specific food preferences would have been through similar experiences in any country, be it Canada, Philippines, Argentina or any other.

A few years ago, I would have been appalled at the prospect of finding a dubious chunk of something chewy, halfway through my soup. Today, I just put away my plate, take a deep breath, and not think of what has already gone in. It is no longer shocking to ask for fried rice ‘thut-thut-lau’ and find pink, curled pieces of shrimp stirred in.  For many, being vegetarian simply means not eating pieces of meat, so soup, made of meat stock is fine as long as no pieces are visible. Adding fish sauce and shrimp paste to add flavor are also considered acceptable, much to the horror of those who would rather starve.  Some people are highly sensitive to odors and smells and can make out if a ladle of a meaty preparation has touched their food. I am grateful that I am not one of them, or else eating out would have been impossible. Yet I find it difficult to share a table where steamed whole fish is ordered, since I am convinced the fish is looking imploringly at me, to save it…now I try to switch seats so that I face the tail and not the eyes!

The variety on offer in Yangon is much more than other places in Myanmar, which have lesser number of tourists. This helps since it no longer necessitates eating rice with chili paste as I would have done a decade ago. The abundance of fresh fruit is a boon since these can be picked up and eaten on the go. New eateries from noodle shops to international chains like The Pizza Company are transforming the food scene in Yangon and vegetarian options are offered as well. Fine dining restaurants, street stalls and tea shops all have something for the vegetarian. The list of options is endless, whether you walk down Anawratha Road in Downtown Yangon, or along the upscale Dhammazedi. Myanmar cuisine is vast, and delectably so. Its repertoire of salads includes the exotic tea leaf salad made out of fermented tea leaves, rich in caffeine, and mixed with sesame seeds, crushed nuts, cabbage, onions, lime and garlic. Lemon salad is a tangy mix of cabbage, red onions, chili, and sesame seeds. Tomato salad goes beyond traditional tomato slices, to include peanuts, sesame, onions and garlic. Even more sumptuous is the eggplant salad made out of the smoked vegetable that gives it a unique taste. Soups are often thickened with cooked chickpeas, and common ingredients include, tofu, vegetables and noodles. Steamed rice is served with curries that are rich and thick, and can be made with vegetables instead of chicken, fish or red meats. Easily available cauliflower, cabbage, bamboo shoots, beans, potatoes and pumpkins, provide numerous curry options. Noodles are prepared with sauces and vegetables, to be eaten as snack or at mealtimes. Fresh juices, jaggery and coconut sweets serve as perfect accompaniments to a vegetarian meal.

Myanmar cuisine has a strong influence of Indian cooking styles and many common ingredients like beans and pulses, curries and similar style of preparing vegetables. Walking down the streets in the Downtown area, reveals endless stalls selling the ubiquitous Indian ‘samosa’, the deep fried, potato-stuffed wanton. A large flat pancake called ‘dosa’ is served with chutneys, potatoes and a lentil curry called ‘sambhar’, and makes for a delicious meal at all times of the day. The number of Indian eateries is also expanding. All star-rated hotels in Yangon have Indian meal options, and standalone restaurants are opening up. It is easy to find places offering a reasonable vegetarian “thali”, which is a plate of rice with a lentil curry, vegetables and a pickle, or even chapatti and lentil curry called ‘daal’, which is a rich source of protein. Myanmar is a leading exporter of beans and pulses, so the quality couldn’t be better!

Today I am happy with a tea leaf salad or even the Myanmar tomato salad, followed by barbecued or fried vegetables, a tofu noodle soup, some stir fried greens and fried rice. Who can ask for more?