Community Kitchen – A Biohacker’s Pantry in Times of Social Distancing

Community Kitchen – A Biohacker’s Pantry in Times of Social Distancing

I am writing this article while sitting on the steps of our ancestral home in a small village in Gujarat, India, where my family and I have resided for the last 3 months during the Covid 19 epidemic. This is a far cry from my usual lifestyle in London where I was born and raised. Although I have been living on and off in India for the last 10 years, I grew accustomed to the city life of Mumbai and Delhi with all conveniences at hand.  

When the Covid 19 pandemic hit India, my husband and I decided the best place for our family was in our ancestral home in the village. Giving up modernity and luxuries we packed our bags and headed to Gujarat before the borders were sealed and social distancing became the norm for the foreseen future. For me the village offered safety, freedom for my kids to run around, plentiful local produce and most of all, a sense of community.

 Our ancestral home is usually empty in the summer months and  this was the first time I would open the doors of this grand house and be the head of the kitchen. With my boys’ healthy appetites, my first call of action was to stock the kitchen pantry with staples to see us through at least a few months. Unlike the city this wasn’t a simple trip to the supermarket to fill my trolley with easy to cook ingredients. Everything was locally sourced, mostly seasonal or in whole grain form and there was no processed foods, which was actually a bonus! Although it is far more laborious making meals in the village, what else was there to do except embrace the experience and enjoy the traditional preparations of wholesome meals. What I had always believed in theory, about sticking to the ancestral diet and lifestyle, not only proved to be true for our health but also to our pockets.

 I don’t expect everyone to hide away in a remote village during these times but I do believe that anyone can adopt the principles I have learned whilst being here. Let me share with you, not only how to biohack your pantry for optimal health but also save you trips to the supermarket in times of social distancing. Soon enough the world will start to open up again but it is important we continue some of the lessons we have learned during this time. 

How do we move on from here and still stay safe?

Keep an abundance mind-frame.

Just because there are no big supermarkets or a huge variety of international products available here in the village there is definitely no lack of food. In fact what is available is plant based, highly nutritious, local, seasonal and unprocessed other than ground or dried. This is what we should be opting for, to build optimal health and strong immunity. We should not act like there is a shortage of food but instead keep an abundance mindset knowing that there  is plenty to go round. 

As soon as news of Covid 19 took over our lives, there was a huge surge of panic buying and hoarding, leaving the supermarket shelves bare. We went back to our hunter gatherer instincts and the only thing that was in our control was to stay safely sheltered away from risk and make sure we had enough food to survive. But what will really get you through this difficult time?

Sharing food and being charitable. 

On the first day we arrived in the village it was 6pm, the house still needed a good clean and the kitchen was not up and running. I hadn’t brought much more than some insta-noodles for the kids and some biscuits with me. However, come dinner time, to my surprise, a kind neighbor, hearing of our arrival, brought over our first meal and some homemade snacks. Another brought over onions, tomatoes and pearl millet from their farm. The local Miller sent over Whole-wheat flour and Maize. I was overwhelmed and humbled with their generosity and soon enough others turned up with various vegetables and fruits from their farms. This would probably not have happened in the city. For me it was this sense of community and rallying round to support each other that showed me the importance of charity. When you do go to the supermarket, try to contribute a few items to charity for those in need. When you are clearing out your kitchen cupboards and find tins or packets of food that you might not use, donate them. If anything I believe we have learned how important a sense of community is through all this. Even when this is all behind us, let us not forget the importance and impact of giving.

How to shop and save money

Limit exposure by avoiding too many trips to the supermarket while saving money.  Keep 14 days worth of food to limit trips to the supermarket and in case you fall ill or can’t get out for a while. Before the pandemic started the average person went to the supermarket 1.6 times a week and they spent on average 45 minutes each time, reports Statista. Add to that online shopping or local shops and markets and it adds up to a lot of time and money. The multitude of items available to us in the average supermarket is 39,005, according to FMI.org. Then came self isolation, and those trips to the supermarket were only made out of necessity.

 Going to the supermarket became high risk not to mention the time queuing. It was easy to see that in the past we were shopping more out of habit, buying into marketing tactics and overbuying products that no longer benefit our lifestyle. Many took to growing their own vegetables at home. I would recommend ordering online and  supporting local small businesses by getting milk delivered from a local dairy, fruit and veg boxes delivered by local producers, etc.  Social distancing doesn’t mean we still can’t have be there for each other in other ways. 

Mindful not wasteful.

Nothing grown and consumed in the villages goes to waste. Here there was a food waste system in place way before coloured bins arrived in the Western world. All households are predominantly vegetarian so all food waste is organic. Whatever is not consumed is given to the cows except onion peelings –  they don’t like those! Food that is still consumable but in excess is either up-cycled into other dishes or offered to those who may not have enough to eat. Whether it is a bowl of rice, a few chapatti or some vegetables, they are always gratefully received by someone in need.

 Payment for small jobs is often given in grains or produce from their farms instead of money. Even the miller takes payment in grains for those who bring their harvest to be milled. He then sells the flour to others and makes his money that way. Be mindful of food waste and  if you have made extra on occasion then maybe offer to a friend or neighbor who would appreciate the gesture.

Planning meals

Take stock of what you already have in your pantry cupboards and refrigerator. Fruit and vegetables that I wasn’t going to use before they spoiled I chopped up and put in freezer bags for later use. We often buy way more than we need, hoard it or throw it away. I would recommend trying it out for yourself. Use everything you already have in the house before you go shopping. This way you rotate products that may never see the light beyond the cupboard doors. Be more adventurous with the ingredients at hand and substitute ingredients that are not available. Get creative!

Buy multi purpose ingredients, ones you can use to create more than one meal. Plan meals and shopping lists of necessities to avoid unnecessary items and overspending, especially with fresh produce. 

What does your body need rather than what your taste buds want?

Choose ingredients that have high nutritional value, vitamin, minerals and antioxidants to boost immunity. It is far easier for me to do that here than in the city because of all the temptation of snacks and fast food options that comes with city-life. But since going out to eat or even ordering in became a risk, everyone got back to home cooked meals and were probably a lot healthier for it;  I know I was. 

At first I was in despair at not being able to order my favorite take out, but eventually once my body got all the nutrients it needed from the wholesome foods I cooked at home, my health improved and the cravings disappeared. Select the freshest produce with the longest shelf life and choose whole grains instead of refined and processed foods.  Pulses and legumes will give you the protein you need plus essential nutrients with a long shelf life.

Use spices and herbs for flavour and micronutrients. To boost my family’s immune system or cure teh most common ailments from colds, coughs and even cuts, I turn to my spice cupboard. These have to be on the essentials list not just for flavour but for optimal health. I noticed in all the time I have been here that people very rarely get sick and they rarely go to the GP or hospital. They go to the local Vaid (Ayurvedic Practitioner) who learned the science of ayurveda from his forefathers. His  methods of healing and future prevention of ailments is all natural and mostly plant based. What keeps them healthy is a combination of their daily routine, diet, low stress levels and a sense of community and belonging. Nobody is alone here or goes hungry and that is what keeps them living up to and beyond 100 years of age. 

The lack of modern facilities and doing things the traditional way meant I did not have a  microwave, oven, toaster, kettle, food processor or electric whisk! – All things that most regard as kitchen must-haves in Urban homes. For the last 3 months non stick pans were out and traditional pots and pans came back into use. I can tell you, hand on my heart, that I have not missed a single one. I learned to turn my pressure cooker into an oven, I made tea the Indian way on the stove and I am in love with the old durable cookware that has lasted since the 1950’s.   Not only are there no toxins leaching into our food anymore, but I am fortifying my food with trace minerals from the cookware, such as  iron and earth minerals from clay. Why not give your cookware a check and get rid of anything that may be toxic such as aluminum or scratched non stick pans. Replace them with cast iron, ceramic or stainless steel. 

Keep a well stocked pantry

Stock up on staples like whole grains, beans and lentils. These will provide you with a good source of carbohydrates, protein and essential nutrients. Try to stick to ones that are from your ancestral diet or are local for the most benefits. Try and find local ethnic stores as the products may be cheaper and in bigger packs. 

 A little tip; before storing grains and legumes, run a few drops of oil such as sunflower through them to preserve shelf life and avoid pests. Rinse thoroughly before use and always pre-soak legumes before cooking.

Ancestral diet 

Our eating habits have changed drastically in only a generation or two, as have the health risks we face because of them. Think back to your childhood or your grandma’s kitchen and the food memories and flavours it evokes. I’m pretty sure nothing you have eaten this week could be recalled with as much fondness. I know I have rediscovered ingredients and recipes that my ancestors prepared here in the village and tasted food they would have enjoyed. 

My daily routine here is probably not so far removed from hers: rising early, doing the chores, cooking for my family and chatting on the steps of our home to the neighbors in the evening before retiring to sleep under the ceiling fan. Our ancestors held on to tradition, and no matter where in the world they lived, they were reluctant to change and for good reason too. They had simple and nutritious diets that kept them healthy and strong till old age.The more ancient the diet, the better it is for you . The benefits of the ancestral diet have been extensively researched by Steven Le’s  and documented in his book, ‘100 Million Years of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate and Why It Matters Today.’ Science aside, ancestral eating habits cut down on ingredients and decision making. Most traditional eating habits rotate foods and are seasonal rather than too much variety. I am sure a relative would be absolutely thrilled to share some recipes. 

My Pantry 

These ingredients below seemed to work for my family and I.  Please feel free to use them as a starting guide for your pantry.  Mine is predominantly influenced by my ancestral diet, but most of these ingredients are versatile in creating flavours from all over the world. If you trace back your ancestral diet as far back as you can, it won’t differ too much from one person to the next. The key similarities include its natural and unprocessed elements. Only the flavour profile and regional varieties may vary noticeably. 

Food GroupVarietyMy Star ingredientWorldly ingredients 
GrainsBasmati riceLocal short grain riceRice flourBeaten rice pohasemolinaCracked bulgerwheat Wholewheat flourOatsCornmealRice contains an essential amino acid called lysine which is essential to the HGH (human growth hormone) that helps our bodies repair and grow. promotes digestion and gut flora, anti aging properties and breaks down fat. Also allows for better absorption of vitamin D and calcium.Plain unbleached flourPastaRice noodles
MilletsAmaranth rajagiri Pearl millet bajraFinger millet jowar Raji Amaranth is an ancient grain and is rich in fiber, protein and is gluten free. A good source of manganese, magnesium, phosphorus and iron. Improves brain function and strengthens bones. High in phenolic acids that act as an antioxidant.  Regulates cholesterol and insulin production.
LegumesBeansLentilsChickpeas kabuli white and desi blackSplit chickpeas Chand dhalBesan chickpea flourKidney beans rajmaBlack gram whole and splitMung whole and split with husk/ without husk yellowMasoor split Pidgeon peas split toor dhalVaal hyacinth beanBlack eyed bean lobiaMung bean bought in any form whether fresh, dried,  whole, split, husked, sprouted or ground has numerous benefits. It is the super legume, high in protein, fiber, rich in amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Sprouted mung beans also reduce levels of phytic acid, an anti nutrient that reduces the absorption of minerals. The Antioxidants reduce risk of diabetes, heart disease, heat stroke.Also  aids the healthy gut biome.   Heinz Baked Beans
SweetenersNatural cane sugar brown and whiteJaggeryRaw honey local and organicJaggery/ Gur is made from unrefined cane sugar and contains trace amounts of micronutrients including iron, potassium, magnesium, and B-vitamins. Jaggery is great for digestion and many more health benefits.Golden Caster sugarIcing sugarPomegranate molasses 
Nuts seedsAlmondsCashewsPeanutsPistachiosWalnutsSunflower seedsSesame seeds (unhulled)Flax seeds Melon seedsPoppy seeds Khus Khus Sesame seedscontain lots of Lignins, which act as an antioxidant and is converted by your gut into another lignin called enterolactone. Enterolactone acts similar to the sex hormone estrogen and may help in the prevention of breast cancer and early menopause. Great source of non dairy calcium, bone health, lowers cholesterol and triglycerides for better heart health. Source of B vitamins. 
SpicesTurmericRed chillies dry whole and ground 2 varieties hot and mild Cumin whole and groundCoriander whole and groundBlack Mustard seedsFenugreek seedsFenugreek leaves driedFennel seedsCarom / ajwain seedsHimalayan pink rock salt pure saltBlack pepper whole and groundWhite pepper whole nd groundMace/ javitriCinnamon bark and groundCloves wholeAsafoetidaCurry leaves driedSaffron Cardamom green and blackTej patta Indian bay/cinnamon leafKokum Tamarind Star aniseaniseed variyaliGaram masala own blendchai masala own blendGround dried ginger Individually Black pepper & Turmeric have huge benefits to health, but as a duo they amplify benefits by 2000%.Together they improve digestion, immunity, kidney and liver function, skin, teeth, appetite. They also help reduce weight, gas, congestion, arthritis, depression, cancer risk, inflammation, diabetes risk and probably a lot more. Spanish Smoked paprika Oregano
FatsGheeCoconut oilSunflower oilSesame oilGhee is liquid gold and nourishes the whole body. Ghee has SCFA (short chain fatty acids), the best kind of fatty acids.  Promoting fat burning, gut flora, healthy heart, brain function and radiant skin. Reduces the glycemic index in foods. Regulates blood sugar levels, thyroid function.I make my own because it  is fairly easy. However it  has become more widely available globally. Olive oil
Miscellaneous Pickles IndianPopadoms/PapadVadi dried lentil cakesHomemade savouries TeaPickles.Whether they are Indian or not doesn’t matter as long as they have undergone fermentation and preservation, they will aid your digestion system and allow your gut biome to flourish. They also add so much depth of flavour to a meal. English mustardKetchupBrown saucemalt vinegarApple cider vinegarSoy sauceRice wine vinegarNoriBalsamic vinegarhot sauces varietyPickled onionsCoffeeYeast

Pantry recipes

Khichadi– Indian lentil and rice dish

Everyone should have a stock cupboard recipe or two up their sleeve that is easy and nutritious for the whole family. Khichadi is that perfect meal. It has 84% more absorbable protein than chicken and rice, at a fraction of the cost. You can add a variety of vegetables and spices to liven it up too, along with the added nutritional benefits. It is the perfect food from weaning babies to wise elders. Enjoy with ghee for optimal absorption of nutrients and homemade yogurt for added probiotics.

Serves: 4

Ingredients 

1 1/2 cup Rice

1 1/2 cups Mung Dal/Green gram split with or without husk

1/2 tsp Turmeric powder

1 tsp Cumin seeds

Salt to taste

750ml Water

Ghee to serve.

  1. Wash and Soak the split mung and rice in water for 1 hour; then drain.
  2.  Transfer to a large pot or pressure cooker and add 750ml water.
  3. Add turmeric, cumin seeds and salt.
  4. Cook on a medium heat until almost all the water is absorbed into the khichdi. 
  5. Put the lid on and turn down the heat for a further 5 minutes. 

(If cooking in a pressure cooker, allow to cook for 10 minutes or two whistles on medium heat. Then switch off. Do not remove the lid; leave it to rest for 10 minutes).

 5. Fold in a tablespoon of ghee and serve extra on the side if needed. 

Note

*If you prefer a looser consistency, especially for babies, then just another 200ml of water while cooking. Also experiment with different split lentils (I use Toor Dal/Pigeon Peas split or Masoor Dal/Red split lentil quite often). 

Chai Masala (Spice blend for Indian tea)

25g Cloves

35g Cardamom pods green

80g Black Peppercorns

100g Ground Ginger

60g Whole Cinnamon or 40g Ground 

1/2 Nutmeg grated

  1. Place all the whole spices in a spice or coffee grinder until it’s a fine powder.
  2. Combine with the remaining ground spices and transfer to an airtight jar or tin.

You will never need to buy an expensive Chai latte again!

Add a pinch to your tea, or if you’re like me and prefer going caffeine free (or don’t drink tea), then enjoy in hot milk or even use for delicious spiced desserts as you would a pudding spice blend. 

How to make Indian tea

1 cup water

1 cup milk

2 tsp loose tea extracts leaves depending on strength

1/4 tsp chai masala

Sugar to taste

Optional 1/2 tsp fresh grated ginger

  1. Add the water, tea leaves, sugar and spices to a pan.
  2. On a medium heat, bring to a boil for 2 minutes. 
  3. Add milk and bring back to a boil; don’t walk away, as it can boil over. 
  4. Once it comes to a boil lower the heat and simmer for 4 minutes. 
  5. Then carefully pour tea through a strainer into a pot or cups and discard the tea leaves. 

Enjoy this warming cuppa and the amazing health benefits. It strengthens  the immune system, reduces inflammation, helps blood circulation, improves metabolism, aids digestion, prevents colds and coughs, enhances one’s mood and so much more.

Sonal Patel is a Chef and Wellness Educator working with families in the UK and India to build conscious cooking and lifestyle habits. After appearances on Masterchef in the UK, she journeyed to India to further explore the culinary teachings of her rich ancestry and Ayurveda. It was there where she started Spice Chakra, a conscious food and well-being company. As a mother of two boys while living between two continents, her current focus is on biohacking for children and using food as a powerful medicine.