Traditional Foods and Their Health Benefits – Fourteen Foods to Try
Rebecca Robin, IIN Content Editor
Traditional foods have a historic tie to a certain culture or region, often passed down from generation to generation. From Indian curry to Italian ragù, these meals hold strong connections to their places of origin with delicious flavors and spices! Traditional dishes are nutrient-dense and often free of processed ingredients, relying on whole foods such as grains, meat and poultry, fish, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Traditional foods can provide connection and comfort, especially if a person grew up eating those foods, which impacts a person’s bio-individual health – the foods and lifestyle practices that allow them to thrive as their unique selves. Food is so much more than just fuel for your body – the quality and preparation of traditional foods, in particular, can have a profound effect on one’s emotional and spiritual well-being.
Depending on your upbringing, traditions, and cultural practices, you may gravitate toward certain flavors and dishes, especially during the holiday season. These familiar foods can be reminiscent of love, family tradition, and sometimes even hardship. Cooking and enjoying these dishes as an adult can instill a sense of pride in the roots that shaped who you are today.
Doris Dahdouh, an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and IIN admissions representative, shares her take on traditional foods:
"Traditional foods are not only historical but can give you a personal glimpse into someone’s journal. It tells a story about where a person came from, how they grew up, and what sort of things matter for that family during a holiday, a season, or even an illness. There are a lot of things people may not agree on these days. But the one thing I think we can all agree on is that a taste of a traditional dish can give a feeling that transports us back in time. It’s a beautiful thing."
Traditional foods meet the health needs of that culture.
Traditional foods are often viewed as being heavier dishes served in larger portions and can be cooked with ample dairy and animal fat, meat, or carbohydrates. Traditional foods are often served family style, and some foods may be reserved for special occasions where that meal is the only one of the day. However, it’s important to remember the cultures from which these traditional foods originate, such as where in the world they’re located, what foods are available during each season, and how food is used as a vehicle for both celebration and mourning. The lifestyle practices and nutritional choices of each culture are different and will suit their specific needs – that's bio-individuality in action!
Some of your favorite traditional dishes might include ingredients that are encouraged to be eaten in moderation – such as heavy cream, red meat, or butter – but that doesn’t mean those dishes should be avoided! The emotional benefits of enjoying a home-cooked meal with family, friends, and loved ones, during the holidays or not, strengthen your connections to community and spirituality, and go a long way in promoting overall health.
Fourteen traditional foods and spices to inspire your next home-cooked meal:
As a legume that has been eaten for over 7,500 years, chickpeas are a staple in hearty stews, dips, and rice-based dishes. The chickpea’s nutty flavor lends itself well in anything from a creamy hummus dip to protein-filled topping in a taco bowl. For a traditional and more aromatic take on this ancient ingredient, we’d recommend making a warm masala stew – perfect for a cold winter night!
This versatile protein is native to the western coast of India and is known to resemble the taste and texture of pulled pork. It’s rich in vitamin C and also contains carotenoids, a pigment that gives the fruit its natural yellow color and provides antioxidants that protect the cells in your body from free radical damage. Try experimenting with jackfruit to create a plant-based barbeque meal or to create this Jamaican rice dish. This superfood has a subtle, sweet flavor that pairs well with a variety of traditional spices and marinades.
This unique fruit found in different shades of purple originates from Southeast Asia and has grown to become a staple in many traditional cuisines. Its firm texture makes it perfect for sautéing and frying, but when roasted, it softens to create beautiful, silky dips. Eggplant is the star of dishes like the Italian delicacy eggplant parmigiana, the Middle Eastern dip known as baba ghanoush, and the Chinese favorite stir-fried eggplant with garlic sauce. This superfood is a good source of antioxidants and fiber, managing blood sugar and hunger.
4. Bell peppers
Bell peppers are a delicious way to add vibrant color and a good dose of potassium and vitamins A and C to any meal.You can grind them up to create a flavorful Moroccan dip known as matbucha or use them as the main ingredient in Cuban stuffed peppers, filled with ground beef and fresh herbs.
Tamarind is a delicious pod-like fruit that has become a staple in Southeast Asia, Mexico, and the Caribbean. With its sweet and tangy taste, it is commonly used as a paste to flavor chutneys, salsas, barbeque marinades, and pad thai! It’s a naturally sweet addition to dishes, also providing a variety of B vitamins and antioxidants.
Jicama is a root vegetable that comes from the potato family and has been eaten for centuries in Mexico and Central America. Jicama is super crunchy, can be eaten raw, and has a sweet flavor that is often described as the cross between an apple and a radish. Jicama also packs a good amount of fiber, helping to improve digestion and lower cholesterol. Its flavor and texture pair well with chili and lime, making it a great ingredient in citrus salad or homemade salsa, or as a topping for tacos.
Turmeric is a vibrant yellow spice used to flavor soups, curries, and vegetable dishes. It contains a bioactive compound called curcumin, an anti-inflammatory agent that works to reduce inflammation, bring down triglyceride levels, and improve blood flow. This spice has been used for thousands of years, and is well-known for the earthy and aromatic flavor that it adds to traditional dishes from all types of cuisines. Some delicious options include South African yellow rice, Persian chicken, or Aloo Masala, a spiced potato curry.
Did you know coriander is both a spice and an herb? The seeds are ground into a spice and the leafy part is the herb known as cilantro! Used in European, Asian, Latin, and Indian cuisines, it has a refreshing citrus flavor that adds a kick to Thai curries, Vietnamese Pho (the national dish of Vietnam), and Mexican guacamole. Coriander is known for its antiseptic and antioxidant properties, and has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine to promote digestion and blood flow.
9. Miso and tofu
These soy products are the focal point of many traditional Asian dishes. Miso is a fermented paste made by combining soy and koji, a mold that ferments the soy. Tofu is condensed soy milk, and the process to make tofu is a lot like cheesemaking! Both are packed with nutrition, with tofu containing eight essential amino acids and miso providing the gut with healthy bacteria, a variety of B vitamins, and zinc.
This tropical plant has long been used in herbal medicines and aromatherapy due to its antioxidant properties. Its leaves are often ground into skin-care products as well as included in herbal teas. When it comes to traditional cuisines, lemongrass provides a lemony-mint flavor that is a staple in Thai Green Curry, Vietnamese-style chicken, and Tom Yum soup.
Cassava is a versatile root vegetable used in many stews and soups, and is often ground into flour to make breads, crackers, and wraps. Its sweet, nutty flavor is a key component of African dishes, like Cassava Leaf Soup and garri, a fermented cassava mash that can be used in soups, stews, and even as a cereal! The cassava plant is rich in vitamin C and beta carotene, improving immunity and boosting digestion.
12. Coconut milk
Used across a variety of dishes from Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and many more nations, coconut milk adds a distinct, rich flavor to soups, stews, curries, and dips. Coconut contains healthy fats comprised of short- and medium-chain triglycerides, a great source of energy for the brain. You can implement the use of coconut milk into your dinners with Nasi Melak, a Malaysian coconut milk-infused rice, or Ginataang Manok, a spicy Filipino chicken dish.
13. Sweet potato and yams
Originating in Central and South America, sweet potatoes have come to be enjoyed in cuisines across the globe. Yams are an entirely different tuber, and they are native to Asia and Africa. These terms are often used interchangeably, but sweet potatoes are the tuber commonly found in big grocery stores containing Western foods. Sweet potatoes are a highly nutritious source of fiber and antioxidants, promoting digestion and gut health. Whether you decide to use them in a Cuban Picadillo bowl, this African peanut stew, or Cherokee yam cakes, this starch is a healthy option for any meal!
Rice is a basic grain found in most households, but its use looks different across a variety of cultures and cuisines. Persians use it to create tahdig, a rice dish spiced with saffron and cooked to create a golden crust. Nigerians make jollof rice, a dish flavored with tomato paste and thyme, and Japanese make kamameshi, a kettle-cooked stew of rice, vegetables, chicken, and tsuyu-seasoned broth, a rich broth with a deep umami flavor. There are about 40,000 varieties of rice, like basmati, jasmine, black, red, brown, and more. Regardless of the grain that works for you and the dishes you like to make, rice is anti-inflammatory, gluten-free, and a good source of B vitamins.
Stay mindful of your health this holiday season and beyond.
The source as well as the preparation of the foods on your plate can have a powerful impact on your physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. If you’re finding you’re craving comfort foods and meals you used to eat as a child, it may be beneficial to reflect on why these cravings are coming up for you. Are you actually craving emotional connection? Are those the foods you actually enjoy eating? These traditional meals and flavors can help you address these questions, and find ways to incorporate these foods into your routine to nourish your body and soul.
During the holidays in particular, mealtime and cooking is a great way to strengthen your interpersonal relationships and your mental health – what we call primary food, the “foods” off your plate that nourish your personal health and happiness. Whether you make time to cook a family recipe with your kids or sit down to a festive meal with loved ones, remember to soak in these moments! Traditional, home-cooked meals can be a great source of comfort and good health as you navigate the winter season.
An IIN education can give you the toolkit to start creating healthier habits – both in and outside the kitchen! Check out our Curriculum Guide today to learn more.