Protein is one of the most essential macronutrients. Depending on your body type and activity level, your body can require anything from 15% to 30% calories coming from proteins.
The Indian diet can become carbohydrate-heavy if enough care is not taken. However, we do have tons of high protein foods that can make the process of healthy eating easy and delicious. I have compiled a list of some protein sources that are very easily available and easy on the pocket. Try and incorporate these into your meal.
Legumes: All dals, chickpeas, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, lentils, peas, chana fall in the category. Typically, one cup of the cooked legume will give you around 10 grams of protein, which is 15-20% of your daily protein requirement in one cup! Horse gram (kulith) and waals (lima beans) are two types of legumes that are highly underutilized in India and these are honestly some of the most power packaged legumes India has to offer. Always remember to soak them for 12-16 hours before cooking them and always cook with hing, ginger, or ajwain in order to improve digestibility.
Milk: Milk is a very crucial part of our culture in India and very rightfully so! It is an excellent source of good quality protein and it provides good quality fat, calcium, magnesium, vitamin D, and all of this in an easy-to-absorb form for your gut. In the current environment, however, milk has found itself wrapped in controversy. This is because of two issues that are very unique to the 21st century: Firstly, the adulteration of perishable foods has become increasingly prevalent. This starts right from the time a cow is purchased and tied at a farm. The cow is injected with hormones to increase milk production artificially. The position of cows has also shifted from "Gaai humari maata hai" where nothing in a household could move forward without her blessings to her being fed garbage, being loaded in trucks like cargo, and living a life of torture and abuse. Other than the obvious humanitarian concern, this is also leading to milk which is doing more harm than good. The injected hormones, garbage, and abuse lead to milk which should not be consumed if one wants to live a healthy life. The adulteration does not stop here. After all of this, the milk is further diluted and then thickened with artificial thickening agents, and with every additional middle man, you can expect another layer of adulteration coming in. A couple of years ago, there was also news of milk vendors "making their own milk" with starch, glue, and some more similar ingredients. The second reason, green gas emissions are a cause of concern giving the current health of our planet. The dairy industry has been known for the impact it has. A lot of people are going vegan simply to save their home (Earth). If you must have milk, then make sure it is either your own cow (and treated like family) or you get your milk from a farm that takes could care of their cows. Also, get it directly from the farm, reduce the number of middlemen to reduce the chances of adulteration. A glass of milk, at bedtime, is a great way of incorporating milk into your daily life. It is personally, my favorite way of doing it.
Dahi: Curd or Dahi is an essential item in every Indian kitchen. It is consumed in sickness and in health. "Dahi chawal" is that comfort food that so many of us reach out to when you are having a bad day or stomach infection. Nutritionally, dahi is quite interesting. It has all the benefits of milk but in addition, the lactose (milk sugar) is broken down my bacteria for the curds to be formed. This breakdown makes curd very easy to digest and the presence of healthy bacteria is why our tummies love the daily cup of curd. As far as you are sourcing your milk from a good farm, your daily cup of curd will go a long way in your journey to good health.
Local ferments: Idli, dosa, dhoklas, handvas, medu vada, bajra ki raab, ragi koozh, panta bhat, akhuni and many more such local ferments are phenomenal sources of protein. This is not the sheer amount of protein, but the form itself. The process of soaking and fermenting increases the digestibility of proteins and makes minerals like iron, zinc, calcium, etc more available for your body to absorb. Whether it is Idli from South India, dhoklas from Gujarat, Raabdi from Rajasthan, Poita Bhat from Odisa, or Akhuni from Nagaland, wherever you travel across in India, you are bound to find some of these local treasures, proving a whole spectrum of nutrients including our hero today, proteins.
Chana Sattu: Bihar's gift to the world, chana sattu is whole chana which is dry roasted in sand and then powdered. It is extremely nutrient-dense. It contains a good amount of protein along with iron. It cools the stomach, making an excellent source of protein for our hot summers. You can make a drink with it with kala namak, lime juice, onion, coriander, and water. You can also stuff your rotis with it, make a kadhi, make pancakes, crackers, ladoos, and other similar stuff. It behaves and tastes a lot like besan, so you can try using it anywhere where you would have otherwise used besan.
Besan or Chickpea Flour: The world of Vegans all over the world is right now tripping over the powers of besan. Besan is a staple ingredient in all our homes. It is used for making rotis, kadhis, as a thickening agent (Who needs cornflour when you've got besan), vegetable preparations, bhujia, namkeens, pakodas, dhoklas, and so much more. I cannot even imagine a life without besan ka laddoo in it. Besan is quite tough to digest though, so always combine it with buttermilk, hing, ajwain, or ginger. Also, cooking besan foods in ghee instead of oils will further improve the digestibility.
Seafood: There are lakhs of people in India who's livelihood depends on fish. All across the coastal regions, you will find a high consumption of seafood and fish being dried or pickled for use throughout the year. Seafood is a great source of protein, contains between 17-22 grams of Protein per 100 grams.
Fresh Legumes: There's a lot more in the category than Green Peas. In winters, you will find fresh red gram (toor), chana, chawli and other similar pods. Typically, 75-100gms of pod beans will give you 6-9 grams of protein. They are slightly tough to digest, so make sure you cook them thoroughly.
Nuts and Seeds: Peanuts, Almonds, Pistachios, Sesame Seeds, Flaxseeds, and Walnuts are consumed wildly across India. One serving is about 15 gms which gives 3-4 gms of protein. All these seeds are power-packed with nutrients. They come with fiber, good fats, minerals, B vitamins, and lots of phytonutrients that protect you from diseases and keep your body functioning right. 2-3 servings are essential for overall health. You can soak them for 8-10 hours and then have them as is, in salads, or blend them and use them as a paste in your gravies. They give a nice creamy texture to everything. You can also roast them, grind them and add as garnishing to your meals. Another interesting way of using these is podi masalas. These masalas are quite high in protein and minerals. Make your own concoctions. Fresh hot rice with ghee and podi masala is pure bliss!
Amaranth: Amaranth seeds and leaves are both great additions to the kitchen. The seeds are called "rajgira" or "ramdana" in Hindi. This royal nomenclature is possibly because of the amazing nutritional benefits these humble seeds come with. They are one of the rare plant-based protein sources that provide complete protein. They contain high-quality protein and are very rich in calcium. Vegans and vegetarians benefit a lot from this. I remember, having popped amaranth seeds with sugar and almonds as a kid. Amaranth rotis are quite delicious as well. You can also make a granola-like mix with the popped amaranth seeds by mixing them with some nuts, seeds, and dates puree. Amaranth leaves, known as "lal bhaji", "maath", "chawlai" across India is a very good source of protein. 1 cup of cooked amaranth leaves will give you close 8 grams of protein along with Iron, Folic Acid, Beta Carotene, Selenium, Vitamin E and other nutrients. You can cook it like a sweet, sour, and tangy saag. It tastes delicious with white rice, ghee, and some roasted sesame powder.
Mangodi & wadis: Every state in India has a type of wadi. This is basically a dal (mostly moong or urad) that has been soaked, ground into a paste with vegetables or spices, sun-dried, and then stored for consumption for 6-7 months. When consuming, you are to roast it in ghee, crush it into granules, boil it, and then added to whatever preparation one has in mind. This food is quite an interesting one actually. The entire processing it goes through seems to be for one goal (and no, it's not to increase shelf life). This processing reduces antinutrients namely, lectins and phytic acids in the dals. The presence of these antinutrients is the reason dals are considered heavy to digest. The wadi-making process ends up increasing protein digestibility by 20-25% and makes the other minerals more available for the body to use.
Wherever you are located, you will get some of these local underdogs. Please explore your immediate surroundings and your family's food traditions. We are in an age where protein supplements and high protein bread seem like the norm, but, I can promise you, our amazing food wisdom, as well as the produce we enjoy here in India, will give you all the protein you need. In your journey to getting healthy, I urge you to do so in a sustainable and inclusive way. Promoting the local economy is one of the easiest ways of getting started. So start now! #UnprocessYourLife