Let’s say a loved one who is under the weather asks you for a simple peas pulao and chana masala, and you want to use the freshest and most nutritious ingredients, what would you do? The marketing universe of farm-fresh, artisanal, organic food might nudge you to go buy peas in their pods and then painstakingly shell them to get “fresh” peas, and then buy a packet of premium basmati rice because the one in your kitchen shelf has been sitting there for a few months. You might also buy a packet of organic chickpeas, soak then for eight hours and then pressure-cook them before adding them to your gravy, made from the tomatoes you stored carefully in your fridge to keep them fresh.
Now, if I were to tell you that literally every choice of yours in this sequence was not quite the best option from the point of view of freshness, would you be surprised? So, let’s first start by defining “fresh”. Without being pedantic, let’s stick to a simple, first-principles definition—“Freshness is a function of minimising the number of days between the harvest/slaughter of an ingredient and the time you eat it.” Straightforward, but a few nuances arise. What about things like rice, which need processing before you eat them? You can’t just pick the grain off the paddy plant and munch on it unless you are a cow. Rice must be dehusked and polished, and, in some cases, parboiled before you eat it. And that brings us to our first misconception about freshness. “Fresh” is not necessarily the best state to eat everything. Good basmati rice, for instance, needs to be aged for at least a year, sometimes up to three years, to reduce its water content, increase aroma and ensure cooking consistency. If you have ever made a disastrous pulao, there’s a good chance you probably used low-grade, not-very-aged basmati.
Now, let’s get to the peas. If you think buying whole peas from the supermarket in your large city and shelling them will yield you “fresh” peas, I have some bad news for you. That pod was likely picked from the plant weeks, if not months, ago and then transported thousands of kilometres at room temperature, its enzymes ageing and ripening it with every minute, its nutrition content reducing all the time. This is true for almost all the fruits and vegetables you buy in a city. Unless you personally pluck tomatoes off the vine in a kitchen garden, nothing you buy in a supermarket is “fresh”. The modern food supply chain harvests fruits and vegetables when they are exceedingly unripe, at very suboptimal nutrition levels, just so that they can survive the long process of transportation and warehousing before reaching a retail outlet.
On the other hand, if you buy a bag of frozen peas from a reliable brand, it was very likely harvested at peak nutrition levels and shelled and frozen very soon after, and that brings us to another important concept in freshness— temperature. Plant enzymes, bacteria and fungi tend to operate optimally at, well, Indian summer temperatures. In Indian winter temperatures, they are slower, so things stay fresher for longer, but even your regular refrigerator is not cold enough to stop all ripening and spoilage. But a temperature of under minus-80 degrees Celsius will stop all biological activity, and this is exactly what the food industry uses.
By the way, this is different from the freezer in your home fridge. If you have ever tried to freeze the fresh vegetables you bought in your freezer, you will notice that they dry out and grow large ice crystals that do a fair bit of cellular damage to your food. The reason for this is temperature. When ice is formed at minus-80 degrees Celsius in an industrial flash freezer, it forms really tiny ice crystals that don’t damage cellular tissue. When water is frozen at a higher temperature, like the minus-16 degrees Celsius in your home fridge, it forms large-sized crystals which end up damaging cells. But once food is flash frozen at minus-80 degrees Celsius, it can be maintained at a much higher temperature without any damage. So, to cut a long story short, frozen peas are fresher than regular peas shelled from a pod unless you personally harvested the pod in your backyard.
In fact, for vegetables like broccoli and carrot, studies show that flash freezing results in higher levels of nutrients like anthocyanin, vitamin C and beta carotene being retained in the vegetable in comparison to the “fresh” version you pick up in your supermarket.
And that brings me to the chickpeas. Sure, go ahead and soak the chickpeas for eight hours to make your chana masala but if your loved one made this request just before dinner, you might want to consider a can of pre-cooked chickpeas. For all the bad rap canned food gets, you should know that canned food is cooked at 120 degrees Celsius, killing all bacteria, and then vacuum packed so that it can last for decades without spoilage. So, if you do not want to disappoint your recuperating loved one, use the oldest, aged basmati, flash frozen peas and canned chickpeas.
And oh, the tomatoes for the gravy. Don’t refrigerate them, they will lose their rich flavour. Store them at room temperature till they really ripen and then store them in the fridge.
Krish Ashok is the author of Masala Lab: The Science Of Indian Cooking.