There are few things Bengalis fear as much as a choa dhekur, the local word for a sulphur burp, which is typically induced by dining table excesses and distinguished by its revolting rotten-egg-like odour. The fear is usually foreshadowed by the threat of badh hajam and ambol (indigestion and heartburn) that has haunted the race forever, prompting a life-long dependence on antacids. It torments Bengalis in their waking hours and in their sleep. In fact, should a Bengali have a frightening dream, it is likely to be blamed on indigestion.
But Bengalis shouldn’t be the only ones to bear the ridicule for this curious fixation with digestion. As author Sudhir Kakar observed in his book The Indians: Portrait of a People, “The most common pan-Indian preoccupation with food relates to its digestion.”
This preoccupation with digestion is manifest in the smidgen of hing or asafoetida added to spicy curries, or the pinch of carom seeds thrown into the paratha dough, the small lump of jaggery that grandmothers often eat after dinner, especially during the cold months, or even the mandatory after-meal platter of fennel seeds, synonymous with desi restaurants.
Ancient Ayurveda emphasises the curative virtues of food and its role in maintaining and restoring good health. According to the Sushruta Samhita, one of the foundational texts of Ayurveda, “By changing dietary habits, the human organism may be cured without any medicine, while with hundreds of good medicines, diseases of the human organism cannot be cured if the food is wrong. Right food is the only key to good health.” And these healing properties of food can only be realised if it is properly digested.
For this reason, food must be cooked in a way that not only makes it delicious but also digestible. This can be achieved, Ayurveda says, by finding the right balance of the six rasas or tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent) – a principle that has guided kitchens across the country for centuries.
Ayurvedic texts are peppered with references to ingredients and preparations that aid and promote digestion. In her book Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, Colleen Taylor Sen writes that according to the ancient Indian physician Sushruta, “Common digestifs are cold or warm water, a drink made from mung dal, the juice of sour fruit, sour rice gruel, milk, concentrated meat broth, asava (wine) and madya (spirits).”
Chinese traveller I-Ching, who lived in India for over two decades in the seventh century, recorded how meals served to Buddhist monks at the time began with “two pieces of ginger and some salt”, and were accompanied by beverages such as buttermilk and fermented sour rice gruel. Betel leaves carrying fragrant spices were served at the end of the meal, wrote food historian KT Achaya in his book Indian Food: A Historical Companion. It was a meal seriously mindful of its proper digestion.
Ayurvedic stipulations eventually found their way into domestic kitchens and common culinary lore and evolved into home-spun remedies. They also birthed a range of drinks and dishes that are not only steeped in digestive properties but score big on taste as well. In fact, every Indian community, depending on factors like local produce and climate, has its pet remedies to keep the digestive fire strong. The ancient knowledge has also become part of certain dining practices and culinary traditions unique to some communities.
For instance, the small, ripe banana typically served as part of the sadya in Kerala has perhaps a more specific role other than complementing the payasam – aiding in the digestion of the heavy, multiple-course meal. Author Harish Johari, in his book Ayurvedic Healing Cuisine, wrote, “Bananas are best eaten after other foods so they can aid in digestion”, which perhaps explains the South Indian tradition of ending a feast with a banana. “In case of a weak digestive fire, bananas can be given with tamarind and salt,” he wrote.
Or take, for example, rasam – the peppery, tangy and soupy staple in South Indian homes, albeit with different names such as saaru in Kannada and chaaru in Telugu. Rasam is often the preferred drink to wash down a meal, and mixed with rice, it is cherished comfort food. Every home makes rasam differently, but the spices and souring agents typically used are particularly good for boosting metabolism and aiding digestion. “Sometimes we also add ingredients like betel leaf and neem flowers, which further boost digestion,” said YouTuber Preetha Srinivasan.
In most South Indian homes, meals typically end with a small portion of curd or buttermilk and rice muddled together, to cool the stomach after a rush of spices. Sindhis do a slight variation of this: they mix cooked rice with curd and leave it overnight to ferment. “We eat it the next morning with more fresh curd and mustard powder,” said Alka Keswani, a food blogger. The dish is called Khato Bahtu.
Naturally fermented food items like curd and buttermilk are rich in probiotics that aid in digestion, making them the most widely consumed accompaniments to heavy Indian meals across the country. In Bihar, mattha or buttermilk spiced with ginger, rock salt and mint leaves is a must after lunch. “Growing up, I would often help my grandmother make mattha the traditional way, in a clay pot with a butter churner,” said chef Rachna Prasad of Ambrosia Kitchen in Mumbai.
There are several other such homely concoctions that mothers and grandmothers drum up in Bihari homes. “A particularly potent digestif is burnt lemon juice, spiked with rock salt and cumin powder,” said Prasad. There are also sharbats made with ajwain, hing and rock salt, or with jaggery. Prasad says Bihari homes make a simple concoction of cumin seeds boiled in water, which is referred to as a Ram Baan (Hindu god Ram’s arrow) against indigestion.
Around India, there are even more elaborate drinks that are steeped in flavour and digestive properties in equal measure. Some of them are seasonal specialties. “Panakam, a summer drink made with lime juice and jaggery, and spiced with dried ginger, cardamom and black pepper, is also a fantastic digestif,” said Srinivasan. The panakam (or panaka) is typically made on Ram Navami in Tamil, Kannadiga and Telugu homes. The festival is usually celebrated just before the onset of summer, but the drink is popular throughout the hot months as well.
In North India, kanji, a fermented winter drink typically made with carrots and even beetroot and spiced simply with mustard powder, not only bursts with complex flavours but is also a feted digestif. Black carrots, which are in season during the late winters, are preferred to regular carrots in making kanji. In Rajasthan, moong dal vadas are also added to the tangy, slightly pungent kanji – the resultant dish, Kanji Vada, is a street-food favourite.
In Konkan region, sol kadhi – a tangy, spicy concoction of coconut milk and kokum – is a widely popular accompaniment to spicy meals all year round. Drunk straight from a tumbler, or mixed with rice, sol kadhi is for the soul and the digestive system. While coconut milk is cooling, kokum is a natural digestif. “In Koli homes [Maharashtra’s traditional fishing community], kokum is the go-to antidote for indigestion-induced ailments,” said blogger and home chef Anjali Koli.
Kolis also love their Kadve Vaal or bitter field beans. The sprouted and de-skinned beans are cooked with onions and coconut to make a delicious curry. But the dish is notorious for its flatulence-inducing properties. “So, a meal featuring Kadve Vaal curry would invariably be followed by Kokum sharbat,” said Koli.
On the other end of the country, in Assam, thekera, a close cousin of kokum, is added to tenga (light soupy curries) or used to make a refreshing sharbat. “The thekera, typically dried and stored in jars, are available in Assamese homes all year around,” said chef Kashmiri Barkakti Nath. “The fruit is a potent digestive and cools the stomach.”
In Sindhi homes, newborns are given a pinch of a powdered and sieved concoction of cardamom and sugar candy. “Once the baby is 40 days old, peppermint tablets, crushed thoroughly, are added to the mixture,” said Keswani. It is mandatory for lactating mothers to chew on fakki before their meals for proper digestion. The fakki is made with a long list of ingredients, including fennel seeds, dry ginger, shah jeera (caraway seeds), green cardamom, liquorice, peppercorns, fenugreek seeds, peppermint tablets, almonds, vaavinger and tabasheer, which are pounded together and mixed with mishri.
A Tamil counterpart of the fakki is perhaps the Angaya podi – a mix made with a range of digestive spices, such as black pepper, cumin and coriander, curry leaves, turkey berries and neem flowers – which is eaten with hot rice and ghee. While it is predominantly given to lactating mothers, its digestive properties could benefit everyone.
It is during festival season, a time for excesses, that the dread of indigestion is at its height. And nothing speaks indulgence like Diwali. “Growing up, we would be served a concoction made by soaking Embelia ribes in water overnight, right after our Diwali faraal breakfast,” said Koli. In Tamil homes, the inji legiyam, also known as the Deepavali legiyam, a thick glutinous medicinal concoction, is a must on Diwali morning. “The traditional recipe calls for a long list of ingredients, including liquorice root, palm sugar, ghee, two kinds of long pepper, dry ginger, black pepper, coriander, carom seeds and more,” said Srinivasan. “It helps fortify the body for the overindulgence that is likely to follow.”
Talk about being safe than sorry.
All illustrations by Nithya Subramanian.