What did healthy south Indians eat in the early 1900s?

The other day I was chillin with the Calmeister and I realized something – my great-grandparents lived long and strong! My great-grandfather lived till he was 88 and my great-grandmother till she was 92. Both of them lived very healthy lives with absolutely no chronic illnesses like diabetes or high BP or cancer and only finally surrendering to infectious diseases during their ripe old ages.

So to understand further how they lived and what they ate, I called my  grandmother (their daughter) who is now 77 years old and lives with my parents in Chennai, India. Though she is diabetic and is suffering from some other ailments, she is doing well for the most part and can talk till the cows go home! Here is what she had to tell me about her parents’ diet.

Just so you know:

Both my great-grandparents,

  • like everyone else in my family back then and now, were vegetarians consuming only plant foods with the exception of dairy.
  • consumed absolutely no meat or eggs due to moral and religious reasons.
  • were in no way outliers and their food intake, lifestyle and good health were very representative of others who lived in their village during the early 1900s.


Back in their younger days, my great-grandparents weren’t really that well-off and hence had to make do with whatever food they could afford. As a result…

  • Food was consumed in small quantities saving gluttony for religious festivals.
  • Rice was the staple and was consumed multiple times a day everyday.
  • Lentils were consumed about once a month when ‘specialty’ dishes like dosa and idli were cooked.
  • Vegetables were consumed when available and were mostly less special and mundane (carrots, onions, tomatoes, spinach etc.)
  • Fruits were hardly consumed and if they were consumed, whatever seasonal fruits that were available were consumed.
  • Oils were hardly used. Each person consumed about a tablespoon of oil per day, if that. Sesame oil was the oil of choice.
  • Pazhaya sadham or old rice (rice cooked the previous day and soaked in water to keep), was consumed along with karupatti (palm jaggery) and/or green chili or pickled lemon, mango etc. very often.
  • 2-3 cups of fresh whole milk per person was consumed everyday.
  • When possible, ghee (clarified butter) was consumed in abundance.
  • Sweet and savory Indian snacks were made at home from scratch and consumed about 2-3 times a year during festivals.
  • Buttermilk was consumed (along with rice) when available.
  • Food items containing wheat (like poori, chapathi etc.) were non-existent.

Later in life, as they grew richer and as food became relatively cheaper, the following changes/additions were made.

  • Rice was still the staple and was consumed in every meal every day as cooked rice or old rice or dosa or idly or pongal.
  • 3 square meals were consumed. Breakfast was typically south Indian staples like dosa, idly, idiyappam etc., lunch had plenty of rice along with sambar (lentil based soup), rasam (soup), kozhambu (gravy) and some vegetables and dinner was either the same as breakfast or lunch.
  • Generous amounts of ghee was consumed. I was told that my great-grandfather would dip each piece of dosa into a cup of ghee during breakfast/dinner.
  • More vegetables were consumed but the total quantity consumed by each person per day was still much lower than what is recommended today.
  • Whole fresh milk was still consumed in abundance and they fed milk to their kids by force or foul! I was told that, when he was a kid, one of my grandmother’s brothers hated milk and would demand money from my great-grandparents every time they wanted him to drink milk! They actually gave him the money to get him to drink milk.
  • Fruits were still a rarity but almost everyone consumed a banana everyday.
  • Ghee and sesame oil were used for cooking purposes.
  • Almost all dishes had coconut added to them either as shredded coconut or coconut milk or coconut oil.
  • Dosa and idly were served with coconut chutney (main ingredients: coconut, chili, garlic, ginger and salt) and ghee or oil.
  • Cooks were hired to make sweet and savory snacks from scratch. The snacks were consumed in great abundance but still only 3-4 times a year during important festivals like diwali and new year.
  • Buttermilk was consumed in abundance during the summer.
  • Nuts were hardly ever consumed.
  • Coffee was made from coffee beans that were ground at home!

Activity, stress & pollution:

* People were not extremely active and led moderately active lives. Now these were my grandmother’s words, but considering they had no cars to commute, no TV to watch, no desk jobs to sit at, no couches to sink into and no computers, internet and social media to constrain free movement,  I’m sure their activity levels were still much higher than that of an average person today. Add to this the fact that cooking meant real work and not just sticking something inside the oven/microwave and washing meant beating the crap out of multiple wet clothes and not just throwing a load into the washing machine, I’m pretty sure you’ll be convinced that they were indeed much more active that we are today.

* Children played like children and adults worked like adults – both requiring physical strength and endurance.

* Stress levels were low for the most part other than the occasional ‘we dont have enough food to feed our 11 children’ cry.

* Pollution was, well, much much lower than it is right now.


  • Rice was the only grain consumed and it was consumed in abundance.
  • Lentils were consumed only occasionally.
  • Sugar was enjoyed without guilt but only 2-3 times a year.
  • No other grains (wheat, corn, rye etc.) were consumed.
  • Vegetables were consumed when available.
  • Fruits were rarely consumed with the exception of bananas which were an everyday food.
  • Ghee was the cooking fat of choice following by sesame oil which was a close second.
  • Ghee, when available, was added to everything (rice, dosa, idly, chutney etc).
  • Plenty of milk (~ 3 cups/person) was consumed.
  • Meat and eggs weren’t consumed due to moral and religious reasons.
  • Activity levels were moderate but presumably much higher than right now.
  • Stress levels were low for the most part.
  • Pollution was relatively much lower than right now.

Discussion & Conclusion:

So what does this mean? A vegetarian diet is the healthiest diet? Rice is super healthy and over-consumption is perfectly fine? Vegetables aren’t as critical as we are made to believe and can be eliminated? Milk is nutritious enough to fill in all the nutritional gaps? Ghee has life extending properties? No. No. No. No. And no!

Firstly, we need to keep in mind that this is information about the dietary practices in a small village almost 100 years ago, as recollected by my 77 year old grandmother. Now I am absolutely sure  that the information is spot on because for none of my questions did she have to think even for a millisecond! She had no idea I was going to ask her about her parents’ food intake but when asked she spit out these answers like she’d been waiting for someone to ask her these questions for many many years! But still, the information we have here has the potential to be useless.

That said, let’s look at some obvious inferences.

1. Forget what they didn’t eat. Look into what they did eat for the most part – white rice, vegetables and fresh whole dairy.

2. Forget carbs, cooking oils, meat, fat etc. Look at their lifestyle – active, low stress and pollution free.

What can we conclude based on this?

Their diet might have been less than optimal with respect to nutrient density, but, the key inference here is that, their diet was completely devoid of anti-nutrients! There was no gluten or any other potentially toxic protein from other foods. There were no oxidizable vegetable oils used under high heat. Dairy products were consumed whole and weren’t processed or powdered. No artificial sweeteners or preservatives were used. Pollution was minimal and hence inhalation of toxins via vehicle and other exhaust was trivial.

How is this relevant today?

The way I look at it, long term health results from the coalition of four critical components – nutrition, activity, stress and toxins (via inhalation).

Without any effort at all, our ancestors had three of the four components very well controlled. The only component they had to control was nutrition and they realized that as long as they didn’t consume anything that was potentially dangerous to them, they didn’t have to worry much about nutrition either (other than making sure there was enough food in the house).

We, on the other hand, are royally screwed on all four fronts! We are surrounded by foods that are engineered with the sole aim of making us fat and sick, our activity levels are laughably low, our stress levels are dangerously high and we inhale toxins from the air all day everyday! And guess whats even more messed up? We have little to no control over pollution and, in some cases, stress levels. So clearly, our only opportunity to make the best out of what we have is to control nutrition and activity!

So whats the take home message here?

Say you’re at a random restaurant but you are determined to eat real food that is good for you. The menu has bread, rice, fruit, cheese, vegetables, eggs and meat. Meat and vegetables are the best options because they are real food and contain protein, fat, vitamins and minerals right? But, as is true in most restaurants, what if the vegetables are sauteed/fried in vegetable oil and quality of meat is questionable? Still think meat and vegetables are your best bet? Well, of course not! In such a case you are better off eating white rice, cheese and whole fruit and getting your protein and vegetables at a later time when good quality food is available.

Sure it is important to eat nutrients. But understand that it is more important to stay away from anti-nutrients. After all, its impossible to eat everything thats good for you, but its very possible to not eat whats not good for you. Keep it smart.

If there is enough interest, I will write a post listing out some really cool ways of tweaking the traditional south Indian diet to make it work for you today. Whether your goals are general health or better performance or to lose belly fat or to gain muscle, the south Indian diet can absolutely do it for you! Let me know in the comments section if such an article will help.


54 responses to “What did healthy south Indians eat in the early 1900s?

  1. Confused Rose July 19, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    please please oh please put up that south indian food tweaking post right away!! beg you! especially, if am eating some rice and curd, i would love to know how to substitute the oil used to saute the okra or eggplants (and other stand alone curry side veggies. I dont want to overcook of course)

    • RG July 19, 2011 at 8:10 pm

      lol! will definitely post it soon.

      • Confused Rose July 20, 2011 at 8:58 am

        Thanks Raj! also, what do you think about tamarind? Is it okay to make sambar/rasam without the lentil carbs? (I’ll search if any of your oooold posts mention this.. but if not, please include that too.)

      • RG July 20, 2011 at 1:52 pm

        Tamarind is just fine. It is a fruit and hence high in carbs, but shouldnt be a big deal ‘cos the paste is diluted in water before being used in sambar/rasam.

        Sambar and rasam can be made without lentils, but they do taste different. My mom makes a version sambar without lentils but with coconut. Tastes pretty freakin awesome. But then anything she makes tastes freakin awesome!

        I’ll get into more detail in the next post.

    • Archana July 19, 2011 at 9:39 pm

      raj – pls very much awaiting ur post on tweaking south indian veg food….

  2. Adam July 19, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    Hey Raj. Longtime reader. Loved the article. I love eating meat, but do question the morality of it. I’d like to eat less (ideally none, but don’t know if I’m there yet). I’d love to know more about tweaking the SE Indian diet to fit today. Thanks dude

    • RG July 19, 2011 at 8:11 pm

      Thank you and I will post the tweaks soon but you brought up a point I’ve been working on for a while now. I mean…

      “I love eating meat, but do question the morality of it. I’d like to eat less (ideally none, but don’t know if I’m there yet).”

      I will be posting a series of articles on this topic. Stay tuned.

  3. Sheetal July 19, 2011 at 7:35 pm

    Hi Raj,
    Good article, makes you think. My grandfather lived to the age of 98 with hardly any problems, the doctors couldn’t find ANY problems with my nan after complete body check up(at 85 yrs I think), and my other grandfather lived with diabetes for 35 years without insulin…and here I’m, allready advised by doctors to control weight and diagnosed with initial stages of different conditions in early thirties. Would love to read that post on tweaking the SI diet( any other tweaks to North Indian diet would be a great help too:P).:)

    • RG July 19, 2011 at 8:12 pm

      My aunt is from Gujarat and my next mission was to talk to her about her traditional diet. It might be a while before I get to it, but I will get to it soon. So the north India diet will be addressed too.

      • Vizeet July 20, 2011 at 12:34 am

        I’ll be waiting to learn about traditional Gujarati diet. What I have understood talking to my mother is that, millet was used instead of wheat in Hindu community in those days. I know Muslims and Christians always fermented wheat. Even today Gujarati, rajasthani, punjabi, and haryanawi eat lot of desi ghee.
        I know mustard oil has been used for cooking for very long time in Bengal and diabetes is an old disease there. Gary Taubes mentions about it in “Good Calories, Bad Calories”.

      • RG July 20, 2011 at 1:48 pm

        Once I break my language barrier with my aunt, it will be done! (She speaks broken Tamil & English and my Hindi is, well, pathetic!)

  4. arv43 July 19, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    Neat post! The clarification about what your grandmother describes as moderately active was important. The only thing you forgot to mention – sleep.

    I recall my summer vacations at my village, not quite 100 years ago but remarkably tech-free. A shower meant about a mile walk each way to the river – did that twice a day. Add in reasonably regular activities like playing – running around, climbing a tree etc. For the adults – herding cows, farming, cooking, cleaning. And we slept when it got dark, woke up with the stupid roosters.
    I was extremely disappointed when I went there the last time, a few years back. Now everyone takes the car or the bike to go places, watch TV before/during/after dinner. Throw in stuff like grinders and washing machines – their activity levels are reduced too. Previously, all my male relatives – farmers – would look like they were out of an Indian muscle magazine. Now, they look like anyone with a desk job.

    Here’s how I interpret your article
    – dont buy crap
    – dont keep crap in the house
    – bust your ass at the gym if you are gonna lie around all day, although it would be preferable not to lie around all day

  5. suganthi July 19, 2011 at 7:59 pm

    What did they eat to go with rice? I didn’t realize Sambar was a relatively newer entry into our diet.
    Surely they ate payatham parrupu, toor dal etc.? I don’t know stories about my great grandparents, but I assumed that kalathu paruppu is a given in our households everyday.
    Just curious.
    Certainly, their activity levels were high. Modern facilities have made us lazy.
    I think the key point is that they ate proper meals at regular intervals.
    I think we have started to eat more and more just because it is easily available and that too processed junk. 😦

    • RG July 19, 2011 at 8:14 pm

      Apparently, most times it was just plain old rice with chili or pickle or karupatti. Lentils have been around for a long long time but they were never a staple and were only consumed along with rice. Also, lentils have always been more expensive than rice.

  6. Kanika July 19, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    OMG it’s like you read my mind on this post!!! I was telling a friend JUST TODAY that after seeing Midnight in Paris, I was daydreaming about slipping into the 1930s era to grow up with my grandparents and live the way they did! Have heard countless stories of fresh lassi, tumblers full of milk, the ever-present GHEE that solved all digestive issues, fresh fruit from trees in the backyard and whatnot, basically a lifestyle that makes my soul salivate 🙂 My grandparents lived in pre-partition Pakistan and came from Zamindar families, so yeah, they were pretty active during the day. They ate plenty of fresh chapattis with their meals (since wheat was predominant in Punjab) but would grind it the old-fashioned way in a chakki (hardcore manual labor). Since they lived in joint families, it was not uncommon for the women to cook 100 rotis per meal, sitting on their haunches, on old-fashioned chulhas. Well, this post this makes me want to pick up the phone right now, dial my surviving grandparents and document the nitty-gritties like you’ve done. A pleasure to read about the grandparent south-indian diet Raj!

    • Kanika July 19, 2011 at 8:12 pm

      PS – my surviving grandfather is 97, grandmom is somewhere in her 80s (date of birth uncertain), my great-grandparents lived till 95, and i have grandaunts and uncles in their 80s/90s as well…so yeah, they certainly did something right!

      • Kanika July 19, 2011 at 8:29 pm

        Another thing that jumps out when you think about older diets is that everyone ate LOCAL. No fancy stuff, just whatever grew in your backyard and around. For that reason, I’d love to see a cross comparison of diets from different parts of India (or the world!) in the early 1900s to see which ones worked better, in terms of longevity. Of course, this would be totally disregarding genes and socioeconomic status and assuming a uniform moderately active lifestyle, but still telling…oooh I’m excited just about the prospects of what we could learn :))

      • RG July 20, 2011 at 1:35 pm

        Local – Yes.

        Cross comparison wont really matter because there is no one perfect diet. Humans are extremely adaptable and thrive of off many different diets. Have you read Weston Price’s book?

    • RG July 19, 2011 at 8:16 pm

      Kanika! If you could talk to your grandparents and can get similar information that would make a very very interesting read. Especially because north India is all about wheat and it would be interesting to know how much wheat was consumed in the early days, how it was prepared, what it was paired with etc etc. If you are up for this, shoot me an email (raj.hbfser@gmail.com) and we’ll discuss some specifics. Thank you!

      • Kanika July 19, 2011 at 8:31 pm

        most definitely up for it! I think you should totally get everyone in your group to do this!!

    • anand srivastava July 20, 2011 at 3:53 am

      Are you sure it was Wheat? It was predominately Jau in our areas eastern UP. But yes it is possible it was wheat in Punjab.

      • Kanika July 20, 2011 at 6:17 am

        Anand, will have to check on this…I did sign up for finding out from the grandparents, but completely overlooked the fact that it’s going to be a tough exercise doing this over the phone from the US since they’re a bit hard of hearing 🙂 Let’s see..

  7. Mahesh July 19, 2011 at 8:50 pm

    Excellent post Raj! Lot of people have forgotten and need to be told again about what their grandparents and great grand parents ate. My grandparents lived well past 80 and died due to old age. I remember very well what my grandmother ate and it was pretty much similar to what you have mentioned here in this post. I remember she telling me that in their village they had to carry water to their home from almost 3 miles away and were very active throughout the day. Even in chennai during the early and late nineties, when there was severe water scarcity she lifted water containers (from metro water, if you remember :)) in her late seventies. She ate white rice (pazhayathu), veggies, ghee, coconut but junk was predominantly nonexistent. Sweets and oily food was consumed only during festival time but moderately. Sometimes they skipped breakfast, sometimes dinner. No BP, diabetes or any of the diseases of the civilized world. Most importantly she slept like a baby during the night. Every time I eat something, I always try to ask myself if it is something that she would eat and agree upon :). Great job on the post

    • RG July 20, 2011 at 1:37 pm

      Thank you so much for sharing this! You have the info spot on. I’ll be researching and writing a lot more about this. Keep sharing the good stuff!

    • Ahmed June 6, 2012 at 9:31 pm

      I’ve noticed you’ve tried a numebr of different diets Have you thought of using the to help balance your diet? It’s a common sense approach, and helps with the visual representation of what portion size you should be aiming for.Also there as site called fat secret’ which is a brilliant source of recipes, community, diet tips, etc.

  8. lavanya July 19, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    Good post Raj.. I am wondering how its impossible to avoid certain days of curd rice craving that I get.. So, a a follow up post will help.. I eat all my poriyals in south indian way, but cooked in ghee.. No broccoli or asparagus here as u know 🙂
    So my sample diet is something like this – lunch: stem of banana plant, diced into small pieces and soaked in fresh curd, and some dates and nuts; evening: some nuts or nothing; dinner: 2 green peppers, onions, sauted in ghee, home made salsa and added to it, when ready I add eggs and all them to set or make a bhurji and eat the whole thing.
    Some days I have tender coconut for breakfast. When my grand mother is home she makes vada curry which makes me crave like Pavlo’s dog.. So I have 1 or max 2 dosa with little vada curry which is sinful dhal and spices mixture..
    I ate home made gulab jamun, grand ma special- on my dad’s birthday.. I don’t crave for those exotic pizzas or cheese pasta.. My problem is resisting pulihorai, vatha kozhambu etc something which parents eat day in and day out – not to forget silly rasam.. But I try and avoid it every day.. As many times as possible in a weak. I chose to eat chicken and veg when I dine out! But I am not sure what they use and I cannot customise it as there is no option until I go to subway!
    So your post will be a life saver for many of us like!!!!

    • RG July 20, 2011 at 1:41 pm

      Your diet looks fine to me Lavanya, but if you are having uncontrollable cravings, there is something missing. This could be a deficiency or just plain lack of calories. We’ll need to add/remove some food stuff to figure this out. Send me an email and we’ll continue this conversation there.

      And just so you know – there is no food that is sinful… just like there is no food that is a panacea! So next time your grandmother makes that vada curry, eat a bunch of it and remind yourself that you are a free feeding human living in an era of food abundance and you have the option of eating the vada curry any day any time. This will prevent you from craving it and/or considering it sinful.

  9. Lavanya July 19, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    Apologies for the typo errors…

  10. anjuraja July 19, 2011 at 11:57 pm

    Hi Raj, nice post. and it gave me a sense of nostalgia n brought back memories n conversations i had with my paatti [no more] and have with my parents..
    comparing my maternal and paternal grandparents, there is a stark difference in how they lived and the diseases they had.
    maternal side – from mayavaram – small village – had a couple of cows and buffalos – milk, curd, ghee from them, grew their vegetables n fruits in the kollai [backyard] and no modern amenities what so ever. – my great grand mom died when she was 90+ age unknown as usual no records.
    my mom tells me that when they were in the village – kambu/raagi koozhu were staples – that too it will be boiled the previous night and fermented and had with buttermilk before they went to school or play in the fields…another staple was slow roasted sweet potatoes – her grandma used to throw few home grown sweetpotatoes in the kumutti [chula] and the simmering embers will roast th potatoes in a few hours.. they will gobble one down after playing kabadi or ko-ko.. another thing I remember is the monthly once detox with velakkennai [castor oil] followed by veppampoo rasam sadam with ghee..
    thaatha, paatti moved to chennai a few years ago and life has not been the same for them..they are like fish out of water.

    paternal side – city bred – paati’s father migrated to chennai to start a sweets shop and thaatha’s father started a savouries shop. but one good thing is all these goodies were made in ghee and as far as my paatti’s stories go, they ate it quite frequently.. and their life was with lesser physical hardship – thaatha a teacher.. but paatti had to do all the household chores but not as much as some one in the village..thaatha developed high BP and had a stroke at the age of 60 and paatti got her round of BP, diabetes n finally stroke at 70. am not sure how big a role the lifestyle played, but comparing the two sides, the difference is stark

    Pardon my long comment..

    • RG July 20, 2011 at 1:45 pm

      Wow! Thank you much for sharing this Anju. Very very interesting read and yes, the difference is stark!

      I’m sure lifestyle played a big role but nutrition would’ve played an equally important role. Not to forget, sleep and stress and infectious disease prevalence etc etc.

  11. Nikhila July 20, 2011 at 12:30 am

    Very relevant post !! I am also wondering whether the cooking methods also contribute to overall well-being. Before pressure cookers and ever-silver vessels came into existence, food was prepared in brass/iron/clay vessels and rice/dal/vegetables was boiled slowly in water till they got cooked. Also, in orthodox South Indian households, in the name of madi-aacharam, people would never eat food prepared outside (maybe to ensure quality) and were very particular about fasting on Ekadashi etc, eating only certain things in the chaturmaasa vratams etc…How do all these facts fit in the big picture? Can you please touch upon all these in your post of twaeking south indian food?

    • RG July 20, 2011 at 1:47 pm

      Cooking methods do play a part but not as big as you’d think as long as food choices are mostly anti-nutrient free. If 60% of one’s diet is, say, lentils, then yes – food prep plays a very big role. But if one eats mostly rice, pesticide free vegetables and fruit and grassfed dairy, then food prep doesnt matter as much as long as food isnt consumed burnt/fried. I am working on a post on food prep and will discuss all this there.

  12. Vizeet July 20, 2011 at 1:58 am

    Very nice and very well written post. Reaching out to our grand parents for advice is a gr8 thing everyone of us should be doing.

  13. Lavanya July 20, 2011 at 3:38 am

    Take that, all you “You are asking us to ditch the diet / lifestyle followed my our ancestors for generations?” criers!

    Since returning, I have found eating clean relatively fuss free. Only fuss comes when I cannot resist temptations. For eg, there are two veg side-dishes made at home daily, with rasam, sambhar / kootu / keerai featuring prominently. so upping the veg, eating just a small katori of rice is easy. supplement with scrambled eggs or some such if not sufficient. The dishes are cooked in coconut oil (homemade – can u imagine?). Round off meal with a katori of fresh curd made that day.

    Only problem comes in the availability of Grand Sweets fare on a weekly basis. Wherein comes my downfall.

    • RG July 20, 2011 at 1:49 pm

      This makes me happy… really happy!
      And weekly Grand Sweets fare can actually be helpful if done right! Wait till I get there. Its gonna be fun in da sun!

  14. Souj July 20, 2011 at 8:38 am

    My father in law who is 73 years old recalled his childhood days with me. I wanted to go back and live in those days 🙂

  15. Souj July 20, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    Nice post. My father in law (73 yrs old) recalled his child hood days with me. As he was talking I wanted to go back and live in those times 🙂 Anyway, To add some more information from that conversation:

    1. Not many chemicals around. Composting ( its called Nayyi matti in telugu) was very common even into 80’s in villages. Used as manure for farming.
    2. Lot of trade was carried with rice. Very little need for money. People were in general content with their life and shared.
    3. cattle was fed grass for the main part and some grain. I think this remained the same except they started inducing all sorts of hormones/antibiotics to the cattle.
    4. They consumed other grains also. Not sure of their English names.

    Lastly, I was talking to a friend who is attending a 4yr Ayurveda degree in Berkeley. It turns out ayurveda (3000 year old) recommends white rice for the similar reasons. However, back in the day, processing the rice was manual and hence removed only very thin layer of the husk from the brown rice leaving behind pinkish color rice.

  16. Mamatha July 20, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    Excellent post Raj and awesome commentsFrAnat my grandparents ate would be considered WAPFish today. I thought I’ll address one aspect of nutrition that hasn’t been covered in the comments: animal foods. Meat/poultry/fish was a regular part of their diet and back then, everything was pastured or wild (game birds) and fish was from local lakes. Muscle meat was always eaten with organ meats. My grandmother’s generation knew knew how to cook every part of the animal.

    Veggies were grown in the backyard and neighbors exchanged whatever they grew. All the kitchen scrap was composted.

    I remember my grandmother telling us how back in her day, they would pour ghee over rice directly from the jar. She never approved our low-fat ways 🙂

    • RG July 21, 2011 at 11:38 am

      I dont think anyone approved of low fat – from our ancestors to McDonalds!

      It’ll be interesting to learn more about a traditional south Indian non vegetarian diet Mamatha. I’d like to make a blog post out of it.

  17. A July 21, 2011 at 11:01 am

    You said that “Lentils were consumed about once a month when ‘specialty’ dishes like dosa and idli were cooked.”
    But a later sentence says, ” Breakfast was typically south Indian staples like dosa, idly, idiyappam etc., ”
    Doesn’t that end up meaning dosas and idlis (and therefore lentils) are consumed more than once a month?

    • RG July 21, 2011 at 12:03 pm

      Two different time periods. The first case was during their earlier days when they werent too well-off and the second case was later in life when they could afford better foods and variety.

  18. Gayathri July 21, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    Excellent Post and makes me think why didn’t we just continue to eat like our grandparents.
    My grandfather is 87, healthy and very independent even today (touchwood). Leads a very disciplined life.His routine has been the same since his younger days, still wakes up at 4 am everyday(why why ??) , does his yoga 4-5 am, 5-6 am meditation.6-7 am brushing his teeth, bath, watering plants etc. 7 breakfast. He HAS to eat breakfast at 7 am everyday.11.45-12.00 Lunch and dinner at 7 PM, goes to bed at 9PM. This is his schedule, wherever he his and under any circumstances.
    He eats Hindu non vegetarian diet. Not seen him eat anything in excess but will eat anything prepared. He has never had any health issues till today except cant hear as well as before.My parents seem to have more complications then him.Infact he helps my mom in lifting heavy objects around the house :-).Makes me think consistency, discipline must be the key here.
    Will talk to him about his food habits growing up, I am sure it was simple, they didn’t have a lot of money.FYI he prefers to walk everywhere, distances we don’t even think is walkable. Gosh where do we have that kind of time, isn’t that our (my) excuse for everything ?

  19. bee July 22, 2011 at 11:32 am

    no snacking. that’s key too. thanks for a very informative, excellent post. it would effectively shut up those who say: “our grandparents ate a crap tonne of sugar and lived up to 90”.

    • RG July 22, 2011 at 1:53 pm

      Absolutely. Snacking is probably the dumbest thing that exists today. People cant go from lunch to dinner without food? Seriously? 6 hours without food is a big deal? Sad!

  20. Kannan July 23, 2011 at 2:37 am


    What is the significance of consuming Old rice? How can we imbibe that in our diet?

    • RG July 23, 2011 at 1:16 pm

      You know Kannan, thats actually a great question. I doubt if old rice is any nutritionally superior to normal rice but I’m pretty sure its lesser in anti-nutrients and was mostly done as a means to prevent the rice from going bad (lack of refrigerators etc.). I’ll look into it in more detail.

  21. Pingback: Making the south Indian diet super healthy! « Harder. Better. Faster. Stronger.

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