Carbs… and colour

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A chef’s endeavour to innovate gourmet fare that is gentler on one’s system.

Hale and hearty: K. Natarajan puts together a deliciously healthful spread at Taj Hotels.
Hale and hearty: K. Natarajan puts together a deliciously healthful spread at Taj Hotels.

Rasheeda Bhagat

As people get more conscious about health and fitness, and the food they eat, the calories they consume and the adverse effect these calories can have on their health, gourmet guardians and chefs world over constantly endeavour to provide low-calorie food that is also tasty.

“Yes, this is indeed the challenge, but as I keep telling our chefs that every bit of food you cook should be as healthy as possible and you don’t need to compromise on taste to do that. There are enough spices and herbs available today to bring out the taste and flavour in any food, at the same time ensuring that it doesn’t give any health problems,” says K. Natarajan, Corporate Chef of the Taj Hotels Leisure Division.

He says once upon a time all reputed chefs used butter to add taste to the food they cooked. “But those days are gone and today we completely avoid butter and trans fats in our cooking. I keep telling my chefs that we have a responsibility to our guests and hence we should use ingredients that are both healthy and as fresh as possible. We now use sea salt instead of rock salt; this has more minerals, vitamins and a better flavour. While only olive oil is used in our spa cuisine, in other food we use only vegetable oils, and no trans fats.”

But Chef Natarajan, in charge of Food and Beverage in 31 Taj leisure hotels, and currently posted at Fisherman’s Cove near Chennai, admits that promotion of healthy food has to be done in a subtle manner. “When you say a health, or low calorie or weight-watchers’ menu, people don’t like to go for it!” But that doesn’t prevent chefs like him from innovating gourmet fare that is gentler on one’s system.

A catering graduate from Chennai, Chef Natarajan began his career with the Taj’s flagship Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai in 1981 and specialised in Western cuisine at its restaurants such as Rendevouz and Chambers, before being transferred to Fisherman’s Cove, a Taj leisure hotel, in 1987. Two years later he was transferred to the Taj Coromandel where he opened Patio and later Southern Spice (after 30 months of research in south Indian food) and re-launched the Golden Dragon.

Health menu

Two years ago he introduced a new “health menu”, which has now been fine-tuned and integrated into the Taj Spa menu. “Taj has introduced in many of its hotels its own brand of spa called the ‘Taj Spa’ and in the leisure category we have Taj Spa in seven leisure hotels, where special treatment, including a little bit of ayurvedic treatment, is offered to the guests. It is an exclusive service and we have specially-trained people offering massages and other services; in each of these hotels four-five treatment rooms are reserved for massage and other wellness, rejuvenation and relaxation measures. So we thought we’d introduce a special cuisine to go along with this service, because after all food is an integral part of wellness,” he says.

Spa cuisine

After six months of research where special recipes, organic ingredients, etc were gathered, the Taj Spa menu was launched a year ago. Here only olive oil is used as the cooking medium for both Western and Indian food, the sweetening agent is not sugar but sometimes jaggery and most of the time Stevia, the natural substitute for sugar, available in both leaf and powder forms. “In the Taj Spa cuisine each and every ingredient is very carefully selected and sourced from specified locations and we use only fresh and organic vegetables.”

So do such ingredients make a difference to the taste? And has this menu become popular?

“It’s very difficult to make out a difference, but if you use fresh vegetables, a fresh flavour comes into the food, which is not camouflaged by chemicals. As for popularity, I wouldn’t say it is very popular but those who try it, do appreciate it and it is slowly picking up.”

Also, there is increasing awareness that it’s healthy to eat organically grown fruits and vegetables. What has caught on, adds the chef, is the juices — sometimes a mix of fruits and vegetables — that are flavoured and spiced by special herbs, ginger, mint, etc. “Pomegranate juice, with a pinch of ginger and mint, is the best. We also offer spinach juice. We add a short note on the menu mentioning the special benefits of these juices — anti-oxidants, minerals, etc — and have educated our staff too, so they are able to explain the beneficial effects of such food to our guests.”

A niche market

Chef Natarajan says that the combination of vegetable and fruit juices has a niche market; “those who understand its value really enjoy them. Though we don’t want to push all this as ‘healthy cuisine’ — Spa cuisine is at present served only in the designated area and through room service.Slowly we’d like to introduce it in other restaurants in the common menu. That is our ultimate aim.”

He is also concentrating on increasing the use of organic ingredients, and now “we have started growing our own vegetables and herbs. At Fisherman’s Cove, the first crop of organically grown brinjals, tomatoes, chillies etc, is now ready. We are planning to give our guests a tour of the garden area and a chance to pluck their own vegetables!” This would be replicated at other Taj hotels too, he added

A healthy breakfast

The chef has now turned his attention to a more healthy breakfast offering. “The breakfast is supposed to be the most important meal of the day, and generally all hotels offer a big spread for breakfast, with butter, cheese and such items not so helpful where good health is concerned.”

After extensive reading on carbohydrates, fats, etc he admits “this can be confusing because everybody gives their own theories. For example, everybody says olive oil is very good but let’s not forget the calorific content in a spoon of olive oil and traditional oils is the same. But of course the difference comes in terms of cholesterol, and other health factors.”

Similarly a blanket ban on carbohydrates, recommended by some, doesn’t make sense, “as there are both simple and complex carbohydrates, and the intake should be in proportion to that fruit or vegetable’s ranking on the Glycemic Index (GI)”, he says

(GI ranks carbohydrates according to their effect on blood glucose levels. Choosing low GI carbs — the ones that produce only small fluctuations in the blood glucose and insulin levels — can reduce risk of heart disease and diabetes and is the key to sustainable weight loss.)

Elaborating, he says that fortunately vegetables fall under the low GI ranking of less than 50, as do some fruits like apples. But mango, chikoo, and surprisingly watermelon have a high GI value, the last thanks to its high sweetness content. When it comes to wheat, the GI value depends on whether the dough/batter is from refined or whole wheat or from multigrains. “Multigrain dough has a low GI value. So in the newer offerings on our breakfast buffet we use ragi, oats and barley, which are low on the GI; and we’re also making whole wheat and multigrain croissants and idlis with red rice and lentils.” This offering, where the different healthier choices are put together, has been introduced at the Fisherman’s Cove two months ago.

His parting message: You don’t have to give up carbs totally; you can take in rice and wheat but in moderate quantities and small portions. “As a rule of thumb, have six small, rather than three large, meals a day. And, stop eating when about two-thirds of your stomach is full; it’s always good to leave one-third empty as digestion will be easier.”

Are women and men different when it comes to selecting food?

“I find that women tend to be more attracted by colour when it comes to food selection; they go in for colourful food, preferring food that is red, orange or any other bright colour.”

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(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated October 12, 2007)
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