Mira Manek: the authority on healthy, low-fat Indian food & fitness

Mira Manek portrait Gujarati food writer Indian healthy cookbook Saffron Soul

There’s no danger of the super-slinky Mira Manek ever growing as round as a laddoo. As the author of new healthy Indian cookbook Saffron Soul, this woman is on a mission to make over the typical British impression of Desi fare as rich, indulgent, and downright bad for the diet.

From morning smoothie to nighttime nibble, Mira’s super-nutritious recipes mean you can eat Indian food with impunity all the live long day. And what’s more, it’s all about pleasure, not piety. Informed by her Gujarati heritage, Mira’s vegetarian cooking is based around jolly good stuff like lentils, vegetables, grains and spices – and each of her dishes brims with body benefits.

Three generations have informed the recipes in Saffron Soul, with Mira oft drawing inspiration from the kitchens of her mother and grandmother. But this is a chef who’s unafraid to tamper with tradition when it leads to a delicious new dish – thus, you’ll find her book’s pages littered with the likes of Saffron & Lime Chia Pots and Indian Summer Salad.

Mira’s healthy approach doesn’t stop with what she puts in her body: it’s also about what she does with her body. A keen yoga devotee, she packs practise into her daily life and also brings fitness into many of her supperclubs, pop-ups, and wellness events.

In short, Mira’s the (glowing) face of modern Indian fitness – and she’s not shy about sharing her healthy living secrets…

Mira Manek Gujarati food writer Indian healthy cookbook Saffron Soul thali

Your pantry must be packed with the most super foods India has to offer – what are your top 5?

Everything needs spices, and they all offer a plethora of health benefits – so I’d say turmeric, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, and my favourite garlic-ginger-chilli paste. The latter recipe appears in Saffron Soul together with a few different make-ahead pastes, all of which make your daily cooking much easier.

What tips and tricks can home cooks employ to lighten up classic Indian dishes?

Curries with thick gravies are often rich in cream and butter, so make a flavourful ‘dry’ dish instead by stir-frying vegetables and pulses with cumin seeds and mustard seeds. If you like it a little juicier, add in some fresh chopped tomatoes, ginger, and garlic. Follow up with a little ground coriander, cumin, and turmeric. For that creaminess without the fat and calories, add a few tablespoons of yoghurt rather than cream, or some blended soaked cashew nuts.

Your work means a hectic lifestyle – how do you stay healthy on the go?

If I’m out for the whole day, I often carry a pot of something: maybe yoghurt, papaya, berries, flax seeds, spirulina and nuts; or a salad of quinoa, avocado and anything else I have in the fridge. I also try to have a green smoothie, usually made with protein powder, a dash of cinnamon, coconut water, spinach and kale. And of course, it’s easy to pick up a good soup, salad or snack – it’s just all about picking the right thing!

I also try to do intermittent fasting (for 16 or more hours at a stretch) around three times a week, which means not eating until lunchtime.

Mira Manek Gujarati food writer Indian healthy cookbook Saffron Soul fruit halwa

Many of your pop-ups combine food and fitness. What’s your own exercise regime?

I go for different Vinyasa yoga classes a few times a week, and try to mix it up with a weights class and perhaps some spinning. Yoga is something I continue whenever I travel – it’s always easy to find a good studio!

What inspired Saffron Soul, and what do you want to achieve with the book?

I wanted to change the perception of Indian food as rich, heavy and unhealthy; and also as difficult to make at home! And I wanted to demonstrate the versatility of spices beyond curries and daals – they’re amazing in Indian-inspired dishes like my Chilli Kick Grain Bowl or Mung Bean Rostis.

It’s all about the ingredients, how you make the dishes, and retaining all the flavour through using spices and ditching the extra cream, butter and oil.

People also typically restrict their view of ‘Indian food’ to the likes of chicken tikka, paneer, a few curries and naan – but this is simply one regional cuisine. My family food comes from Gujarat, where the variety of vegetarian dishes is incredible.

What are your favourite recipes in the book?

The Chilli Kick Grain Bowl is my go-to recipe – it’s simple, easy and so delicious. The spiced yoghurt dressing adds so much flavour. I also love the Beetroot Curry in the Thali section, made with grated coconut and some coconut milk – I like using it as a filling for pudlas (chickpea flour pancakes). And for dessert, I can’t resist my Mango Shrikhand Yogurt Cheesecake with its crunchy date and nut base.

Mira Manek Saffron Soul cookbook healthy Indian Gujarati Jacqui Small

Indian sweets are addictive but also full of fat and sugar. Can you indulge without bulge?

Yes! That’s where my Coco Fudge comes in. I sell these yummy bites at Raw Press in London, and they aren’t actually ‘fudge’ at all. They’re my own version of mithai, made from a mix of chickpea flour, dates and coconut oil.

Another dessert I absolutely love is shrikhand; thick, creamy yoghurt that’s flavoured with saffron, cardamom and nuts – usually sweetened with a ton of sugar. In Saffron Soul, my recipe uses honey instead. Healthy recipe makeovers are all about just swapping, editing and experimenting.

Which of Saffron Soul’s recipes mean most to you?

The simple Kidney Bean Curry is most reminiscent of my childhood – my mum made it all the time as it was my favourite. And then there’s my grandmother’s signature curry which she still makes: large green chillies filled with a spice mixture that’s naturally sweetened with jaggery, cooked in a sweet gravy with tomato masala and jaggery. Both are such authentic, homely Gujarati recipes!

  • ‘Saffron Soul’ by Mira Manek is published by Jacqui Small on 24 April, RRP £20. For more information, click here
  • To read my guide to traditional Indian sweets, click here
  • To read more healthy Indian food tips, click here
  • To read about Indian regional cuisines, click here
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