Monday, June 6, 2011

Fighting Cancer with Flavor

We've had cancer in the house lately, so I'm on a bit of a rampage to stamp it out the best way I know how, which is with good food. The radical, invasive stuff is way over my head--and above my pay grade--so I'm leaving that to the medical profession. But I do know a thing or two about food, and the ingredients we can include which fight cancer, boost the immune system, and reduce inflammation. Making food enjoyable is my primary focus, because I feel that experiencing joy is our first and most potent line of defense. I think I've always felt that way, but in the last few years, I've come across a lot of affirming information that supports my theory.

Punjabi tinda

A few days ago, I went to my local Indian market in search of turmeric, red chile, fresh ginger and bitter melon--all known to be powerful anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, immune-boosting foods. While I was there, I discovered a new vegetable I hadn't seen before, called "Punjabi tinda." It looked more like some kind of odd fruit than a vegetable, but I was told it's a variety of squash. I bought a few to try, along with some okra, which I was already imagining as a partner in my first attempt at preparing this new item.

I had been advised to slice the squash, but when I was considering the pairing with okra, I opted to cut it in wedges.

Okra with the stem ends trimmed away.

For the okra, I decided to use a Middle Eastern technique that enables you to cook them whole. If you're familiar with okra, you'll be aware that the stem end is rather tough, and although some lazy Indian cooks are known to include this part in their "bhindi bhaji" dishes, those who have pride in their work always cut it off. But there is a simple way to get around this, which is to simply carve away the tough skin--carefully, so as not to puncture the end, to keep the slimy juices from oozing out. The okra can then be cooked and eaten whole.

Another technique they use on okra in the Middle East is to wash them in a bowl of water with some vinegar added. It's supposed to help keep the sliminess at a minimum. Indian cooks apparently don't bother with this, instead washing them quickly and drying them individually with a towel before cutting them.

Anyway, I began the dish the way many Indian dishes do--first infusing flavor into the cooking oil by gently frying mustard and cumin seeds until they start to pop and release their fragrance. I used to use ghee, or clarified butter, which is a good nonvegan choice, because it will not form transfats, no matter how hot it gets. I now use coconut oil, which as a harder fat, is even better. Coconut oil is also a healthy fat, in spite of being highly saturated (who knew?).

Once the seeds had toasted sufficiently, I added a bunch of very finely diced red onion, fresh ginger and garlic. This is cooked slowly first, well before the other ingredients are added--in much the same way as onions, shallots, and other aromatic vegetables are allowed to "sweat" in French cooking. This further flavors the oil and allows these vegetables to soften into a kind of sauce base before adding the main ingredients.

While the onion mixture is sizzling away, sometimes  a little water--or, in this case, some grated tomato--is added to prevent sticking. At this stage, the base spices are also added--ground turmeric, coriander, red chile, and garam masala, which is a blend of pungent spices including green and black cardamom, clove, cinnamon, and pepper--all beneficial to health, by the way. Bay leaf may also be added. Around this time, the smell is downright intoxicating.

Once the mixture was nice and tender, I added the okra and squash, and tossed it all together. Then I lowered the heat, covered the pot, and let it cook for about 45 minutes to an hour, stirring from time to time. When it was done, I served it generously garnished with cilantro leaves and, heretically, with quinoa on the side.  I had (also heretically) overdone it on the turmeric, because this was intended to be an in-your-face assault on any cancer cells that had evaded the scalpel. This has a way of ruining a dish by throwing the balance off and making it harsh, but I think I managed to keep it within reason, and it was highly edible indeed.

That's the way we fight cancer in our house--eating delicious food packed with therapeutic spices. That, and laughing as much as possible. Joy is the most important component, both for the healthy and the sick. Among other things, it keeps hope in peak condition--so crucial when we're not feeling so good. Without hope, why would you even bother getting well?


  1. What lovely and unusual vegetables. I love trying new things... Especially when they're good for me!

  2. Great attitude and inspiring post, thank you!

  3. Rivki: Here's the conclusion I've come to--ALL fruits and vegetables are good for you, as long as you don't ruin them with a lot of processed grains and sugars, and refined oils. They're even better for you when you prepare them in ways that make your palate (and heart) dance. There's data to back this up!

    Rhonda Thank YOU for visiting and commenting!

  4. Alan, i agree 300% with your recepy for excellent health and prevention of disease, in general:

    1 enjoy very much what you do and eat

    2 eat a lot of fresh vegetables and fruits (as much as you can with lots of variation)

    3 have fun, making your palata and heart dance

    Jos Van Laar, Health scientist, Netherlands

  5. What a great new recipe! I also have never encountered that squash, but may look for it! Thanks for the tip on carving the okra ends!!!!! The thought of this has kept me from cooking it, so though I love Bindi Bhaji, I have not made it. Now I may. I have been cancer free for over 3 years now and sincerely wish you the very best in the quest for total wellness in your home. Love you and thanks for all your cooking help!!