One of the narratives of Mangalkavya, a large corpus of Bengali-Hindu poetry, composed between 15th and 18th centuries, is the story of a wealthy merchant named Dhanapati. According to the text, when Dhanapati’s second wife Khullana is pregnant, his first wife cooks a range of dishes for her that includes more than 10 types of fish (including a carnivorous one) and venison (with clove and asafoetida).
Pregnant women receive a lot of advice, particularly about what they should consume during the time they are carrying, and later breast-feeding, a baby. On June 14, a Hindustan Times report said that according to a booklet titled Mother and Child Care, released by the Union Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy, women should not eat meat or have sex.
The report was met with outrage on social media, with several doctors and mothers debunking the advisory.
The Ministry has since issued several clarifications: the principles of Yoga and Naturopathy, it said, have always promoted a satvik (righteous) diet, and the booklet advised women to abstain from meat, refined flour, oily food, caffeine and spice. it added: “Some news reports carry an assertion that the booklet puts forward the ‘prescription’ that ‘pregnant women in India’ should ‘say no to sex after conception’. This is far from the truth. In fact, the words ‘no sex’ do not feature at all in the booklet.” The ministry also pointed out that “this publication has been in distribution through the units of the erstwhile Department of AYUSH since 2013”.
Meat of the story
Hindu culture has not always been opposed to the idea of pregnant women eating meat. In ancient Indian medical works, such Charaka Samhita (on Ayurvedic medicine) and Sushruta Samhita (on medicine and surgery), beef was recommended for pregnant women, but prohibited for everyday use by everybody else.
“Apart from lots of ghee and vegetables, the Bengali community traditionally considers fish, especially small fish and varieties of catfish of the magur or shingi family, very important for pregnant women,” said Pritha Sen, writer and historian.
Studies have shown that varieties like the swordfish and king mackerel, have high levels of mercury and should be avoided but most others are safe to consume and in fact are beneficial.
“Fish is rich in energy, phosphorus and calcium, chicken stews and paya (trotters) soup is also eaten for the same reason,” Sen added. “It is much easier to absorb minerals like phosphorous from animal protein rather than from plant protein. It also depends on foods that your constitution is used to and what your genes and DNA support.”
It is not just the Bengalis who consider meat healthy for pregnant women. In Kerala, Meghalaya and Assam, meat dishes which are a rich source of concentrated protein and iron are cooked for expecting mothers.
While some dietary advice for pregnant women is based on superstitions (for example, drinking saffron and turmeric milk will produce fair babies), most are rooted in traditional understanding of nutrition.
Across cultures, for instance, pregnant women are told to avoid eating papayas, which are natural abortifacients, or have contraceptive qualities. Researchers at Britain’s University of Sussex who studied the tropical fruit said: “In Sri Lanka, women use papaya fruit as contraceptives because they are cheap and natural... If they want to become pregnant, they simply avoid eating them.”
The health benefits of ghee and coconut are also unanimously accepted across Indian cultures – ghee is a good source of saturated fat and the lauric acid present in coconut helps increase breast milk production and prevents joint pain during pregnancy.
In Uttar Pradesh, women are fed almonds and the seeds of musk melon which are rich in fatty acids and help in the brain development of the foetus. Along with these, a variety of laddoos containing gond, or resin, and a generous helping of dry fruits are prepared. In parts of Maharashtra, dill leaves, or shepu, is considered beneficial during pregnancies for its iron rich properties.
In Assam, desi chicken cooked in a thin curry is a favourite among pregnant women. “Women do reduce the intake of red meat when expecting,” said Gitika Saikia, an Assamese home chef and food curator, who has been generating awareness about Assamese food in Mumbai. “But leaner desi chicken, raised without chemical feed and on a diet of locally grown grains, is slow-cooked for over an hour, which makes it tender and is served with a thin curry.” Herbs typical to the North East region, like the Asiatic Pennywort, referred to as manimuni in Assam, and Skunkvive, or Bhedai Lota, are incorporated in curries. “Black sesame is also given to women to ensure the child has good hair,” Saikia added.
According to Lathika George, author of The Suriani Kitchen: Recipes and Recollections from the Syrian Christians of Kerala, the food habits of families in Kerala, regardless of their religion, give a lot of importance to the nutritive and medicinal value of certain foods.
“A normal diet with great emphasis on nutritious, well cooked, lightly spiced food is recommended for pregnant women,” said George. “This includes lots of green vegetables, fruits, dates, spinach, drumstick, gooseberry, coconut, meat and fish which supply protein, calcium, iron and vitamins to the body. Fish is especially recommended, but only small fish like sardines lightly cooked with coconut. Mutton and chicken broth are essential, as is rice kanjee (a porridge dish) made with matta or njavara rice.”
Ayurvedic wisdom for pregnant women, said George, also advises the inclusion of herbs that grow abundantly in Kerala. “Milk [usually not recommended in Ayurveda] is infused with herbs like shatavari (Indian asparagus) and brahmi (bacopa monnieri),” said George. “They are also given lots of medicated ghee and saffron milk. Ayurvedic herbal tonics – arishtyams, lehyams, kashayams – are specially made for easy deliveries. Much of this is in an advisory book called Garbini Parichaya, also based on Ayurveda which details prenatal care through the months.”
Lathika George’s recipe for a nourishing broth for pregnant women and lactating mothers:
500 gm mutton bones with meat (chicken and beef can be used)
125 gm liver, chopped
3 onions, chopped
2 whole bay leaves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
12 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cinnamon sticks
1 tablespoon crushed black peppercorns
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
12 cups water
Put all the ingredients in a large stockpot, cover and simmer over low heat for 3 hours.
Remove from heat and strain the soup, discarding the solids before serving broth.
According the Suriani Kitchen, the broth is “traditionally simmered in a barani (a ceramic jar) sealed shut with a paste of dough”.