Full steam ahead: Why Indian tradition of steaming food is a very healthy way of cooking

This article is authored by Dr. Dharini Krishnan, an award-winning Consultant Dietitian, she believes that for a healthy body and mind, we must combine modern medicine with native Indian practices which are proven to benefit us.

Most of us know what eating right involves—a balance of staples such as rice and dal with plenty of vegetables and fruits, and a good mix of spices. However, just as important as what we eat is how we cook it before eating.

Traditional Indian food boasts of a range of cooking methods, from frying to smoking, to sautéing or roasting, to boiling and tempering. However, when it comes to getting the right mix of healthy and flavourful cooking, few methods compare to steaming.

Long traditions of steam cooking

Eat Breakfast

Across India, steam cooking has always been a popular method for preparing healthy snacks and meals. In the south, for instance, breakfasts have often included steamed dishes such as idli, puttu, and idiyappam. In Tamil Nadu, steamed dal is used to make ‘usli’ with different vegetables.

Kozhukattai, made with a variety of ingredients such as rice flour, jaggery, dal, and sesame, are a mainstay for special occasions. In the north eastern parts of the country, momos are made from a variety of vegetable and meat ingredients. Gujarat offers a variety of steamed snacks such as dhoklas made with rice or besan, muthias or steamed cutlets, and patra made with colocasia leaves. In Bengal, steaming is used for cooking several dishes from fish (bhapa ilish) to sweets (bhapa sandesh).

Why steaming is so healthy

Steamed foods are prepared by cooking them on a perforated plate or vessel placed inside or over a larger vessel containing boiling water. As the water boils, it turns to steam, and it is this steam that comes into contact with the food and cooks it.

Since the food doesn’t come directly into contact with the water, all of its nutrients are retained. Also, because steam cooking helps food retain its moisture and cook thoroughly, no extra fats or oils are needed, thus eliminating the hidden calories of other cooking methods. And because the food is cooked continuously at a low and steady temperature, nutrients destroyed at higher temperatures, are conserved.

Losing popularity

Unfortunately, however, the practice of steaming is losing popularity for reasons of convenience and taste. For one, the rapid spread of processed and junk foods has changed our palates, as we look for the crisp and fatty flavours of fried foods everywhere. By comparison, we tend to think of steamed foods as bland. What’s more, there is a perception that cooking with steam is more cumbersome and involves more preparation.

Making steamed food fun

Skin Care

Steamed food need not be boring and tedious, however. With just a few tweaks, we can add a variety of tasty as well as nutritious foods to our diet. Idlis and dhoklas , for instance, can be given more variety by adding vegetables such as grated carrot or cabbage, or other ingredients such as paneer cubes. These inherently healthy snacks are also good sources ofprotein because of ingredients such as urad dal and besan, adding vegetables adds fibre and makes them healthier. They can also be given extra flavour by pairing them with tangy and spicy chutneys or other side dishes. Steaming vegetables such as broccoli, corn and peas, and seasoning them with herbs and spices is another simple way to snack healthily. Momos made from wheat flour with a variety of vegetables, meats, or even dry fruits are another healthy alternative.

While many of us tend to dismiss steamed foods as boring, steaming is an excellent method for preparing nutritious, juicy, and flavourful food. With just a few flavour-rich tweaks, steamed food can be a wonderful addition to our diets.


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