Traditional foods of NE as medicine during Covid pandemic

Loitongbam Sophia Devi
“Food is Medicine” is a phrase that was originally coined by Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine. Hippocrates said almost 2500 years ago “Leave your drugs in the chemist’s pot if you can heal the patient with food”. It was his belief that illness stemmed from inadequate nutrition and bad eating habits and that if people were to learn good eating habits then optimum health would be restored.  Long before doctors and medicine were commonly used, wise tribal elders would seek out healing herbs and plants for their community and food would be applied prescriptively to bring about healing.  Slowly through the years, man has moved away from the healing power of nature and towards prescribing packaged synthetic drugs and artificial remedies to deal with illness. Although taking pharmaceutical drugs for ailments may be useful, they often come with short and long term side effects and contribute to the toxic build-up in our bodies.  While drugs are important in life-threatening situations, if long term conditions can be managed with diet and lifestyle changes then using food as medicine must be considered as an initial way of tackling the issue and preventing future health problems.
COVID-19 pandemic has certainly put the whole world in a worrying situation, where everyone is afraid of self-isolation and is quarantined. This infectious disease is especially dangerous for the elderly as they are more prone to getting affecting by it. And the reason behind is that they do not have very strong immunity. And they are more likely to have other serious s lifestyle diseases like diabetes, blood pressure, lung disease, or even heart disease that can lower the body’s immunity. Foods also need to provide macro and micronutrients that aid in boosting immunity. As the elderly are more prone to coronavirus, a diet rich in certain vitamins, minerals and nutraceuticals can create a wall of immunity.
Traditional foods, wild fruits, and fermented fruits and vegetables contain a diverse group of prebiotic compounds that attract and stimulate the growth of probiotics. It is often used for probiotic purposes by introducing beneficial bacteria into the digestive system and helps in balancing of bacteria of the digestive system; for better absorption of the nutrients in the foods by maintaining the proper balance of gut bacteria and enough digestive enzymes. Without being a promise of efficacy against COVID-19, incorporating them into the diet may help to low down gut inflammation and to enhance mucosal immunity, to possibly better face the infection by contributing to diminishing the severity or the duration of infection episodes.
Every tribal community of Northeast India have their own food habits based on the location specific diversities on crops and forest resources, culture, ecological edges and seasonal variability. A number of fermented foods and beverages that are abundantly consumed by the local tribes in and around the entire north-eastern region of India possess a number of health benefits as well as nutritional and nutraceutical potential. They provide increased nutrition such as proteins, vitamins, added minerals and phytochemicals, phytosterols, and dietary fibres to the consumer. With an abundance of fishes in these states, especially in hilly rivers and streams, preservation came naturally to the local populace, to ensure availability in dry seasons. As people seek out natural immunity boosters, a local preparation of fermented dry fish -Shidolhas seen its sales shoot up considerably amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Tripura.The widespread traditional belief is that fermented fish is beneficial for common cold and flu or malaria. The microbes and enzymes released during fermentation were found to contribute to good gut bacterial growth, leading to better digestive health. Also, there is an abundance of amino acids, minerals and fatty acids in Shidol. The product is very rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, protein and minerals, which directly or indirectly boost immunity. Omega 3 fatty acids are available in high concentration in traditionally prepared dry fishes. This might be used for boosting immunity to better combat diseases like this Covid-19.
Ngari-fermented fish of Manipur forms an intrinsic part of the diet of the people in Manipur. It is mainly used for preparing different traditional curries. Endowed with its precious food value and medicinal qualities this fermented product is getting more popularised day by day. Most strains of LAB isolated from Ngari had a high degree of hydrophobicity, indicating their ‘probiotic’ characters. These foods are considered as immunity booster. Kinema, a fermented product of the north-eastern region, showed increased level of total content of amino acids, riboflavin, and niacin, which possess cholesterol-lowering effects.  Kinema/Hwaijaris rich in linoleic acid and contains all essential amino acids. Kinema has antioxidant activities. Hentak is a traditional fermented fish paste prepared in the state of Manipur. It is sometimes given to women in the final stages of their pregnancy (confinement) or patients recovering from sickness or injury. Singju is an assorted raw plant parts finely chopped indigenous salad rich in nutrients. It is eaten as side dish or as afternoon snacks and seldom not eaten at night. It is rich in nutrients like vitamins C, A, K, E, minerals, phytochemical and enhances the immune system. Similarly, Chyang, a fermented finger millet, is given to the women post-delivery to increase their internal strength. Sinki, a radish tap-root fermented product, is used by the local tribes as a cure against diarrhoea and stomach disorders. Gundruk improves the milk efficiency in new mothers. Gundruk soup is eaten as a good appetizer and possesses a higher quantity of ascorbic acid, lactic acid, and carotene with anticancer properties. The fermented bamboo shoots, which are rich in phenolic compounds and tannin, possess antioxidant, anticancer, and anti-ageing properties.
Fermentation as a technique is common in Northeast India’s culinary milieu. Each fermented food has a unique group of the microbiome. Without being a promise of efficacy against COVID-19, incorporating them into the diet may help to lower down gut inflammation and enhance mucosal immunity. Thus, foods act as medicine to heal and protect your body and give the immune system a break from dealing with toxins, preservatives, additives and chemicals that are included in many of today’s processed foods.
The writer is Jr Food Scientist, AICRP (Soybean), Central Agricultural University, Imphal
For further details, please contact Public Relations and Media Management Cell, CAU Imphal, by email at [email protected]