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Kimchi. Hummus. Miso. Greek yogurt. It goes without saying that some of the healthiest (and trendiest) foods come from cuisines outside of North America. In most cases, these popularized foods tend to have similar things in common: They’re packed full of vitamins, rich in fiber, low on the glycemic index, and in many cases involve a fermentation process that’s ideal for promoting gut health.
Whether you’ve overdosed on kimchi potato salad and miso pumpkin soup or are simply ready to add some new superfoods to your menu in 2021, there are a host of ultra flavorful and nutritious international foods that you might not have heard of or tried yet. When it comes to healthy eating, here are a few powerhouse international foods that you don’t want to sleep on this year.
If your taste buds thrive on complex flavors that are a mix of salty, sweet, and sour (think: salted licorice or Mexican chili-infused fruit candy like Pollito Asado lollipops), meet your new favorite snack: umeboshi—otherwise known as “salted Japanese plums” or “preserved plums.” This traditional Japanese food is made by curing ume (Japanese plums) in salt and shiso leaves for a few months, then leaving them to dry in the sun. The result is a sour and salty little pickle that provides a mouthwatering, tongue twisting jolt for the tastebuds.
Usually eaten with rice (but try turning them into a condiment as in our Corn with Umeboshi Paste recipe), these strangely addictive pink treats are loaded with citric acid which has antibacterial and alkalizing properties, helping your body absorb minerals. Ume plums are also known to contain ingredients that can help protect against stomach ulcers, the hardening of arteries and gum disease. No wonder they’re rumored to have been a popular snack amongst samurai!
Along with being colorful and flavorful, Ethiopian food is known for having plenty of health benefits—and injera is no exception. The sourdough-risen flatbread with a slightly spongy texture is traditionally made from teff flour—a highly nutritious, gluten-free grain. Injera is the Swiss army knife of superfoods. It pairs deliciously with wat (healthy, protein- and vegetable-rich stews) and you’ll see it at almost every meal as a substitute for cutlery and plates.
Why should we all be eating more injera? For starters, teff (injera’s main ingredient) is a complete protein and an excellent source of iron and calcium. Teff also has the highest fiber content of any grain, making injera both easy to digest and incredibly filling. And who doesn’t want to reduce clean-up by using an edible vessel? So, eat away! See this Injera recipe to make your own.
Looking for a substitute for quinoa, rice, or couscous? Try fonio. Native to West Africa, fonio is a versatile grain that’s high in amino acids and naturally gluten-free. Like quinoa, it makes an excellent side dish and works well added to salads, stews, grain bowls, and porridges.
Similar in consistency to couscous, fonio contains high levels of zinc, iron, magnesium, and calcium. In addition, fonio is low on the glycemic index, making it a good choice for anyone who is trying to curb their carbs and sugars.
From pumpkin pie to pumpkin spice everything, North Americans seem to have no shortage of love for the almighty orange gourd. However, we typically toss the leaves aside. Pumpkin leaves (commonly known in Nigeria as ugwu or ugu) are eaten all over Africa as part of a healthy diet. Similar to other leafy greens, pumpkin leaves are loaded with vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, folate, potassium, and B-vitamins. Steam them, saute them in olive oil with garlic and salt or add them to stir fries and stews.
If you’re already a fan of fermented superfoods like kimchi and miso, why not give nattō a try? Nattō is a traditional Japanese food made from soybeans that have been fermented. In Japan, nattō is typically served as a breakfast food and often paired with karashi mustard, soy sauce, and Japanese bunching onion. Similar to umeboshi, it’s considered by some to be an acquired taste.
However, if you can handle the slimy, stringy texture and slightly funky smell, nattō is loaded with nutrients, flavor, and protein. The food is rich in both vitamin K1 and K2 (among other vitamins and minerals), which helps with blood clotting and heart health.
Imagine a snack food that is delightfully fluffy yet still very healthy and filling. Now meet your new favorite treat: dhokla. Made with a fermented batter derived from rice and split chickpeas, these delicious cakes (that look a bit like cornbread in photos) are a popular dish in the Indian state of Gujarat. This “anytime dish” can be enjoyed as a breakfast food, side, main, or snack. Because the dish is steamed not fried, dhokla is an excellent substitute for higher calorie favorites like samosas or pakoras. And because it’s made with fermented flour, it offers unique health benefits like improved digestion and easier absorption of folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamine, biotin, and vitamin K. Try this Instant Pot dhokla recipe to make your own.
Labneh (also known as labaneh, lebnah, or labne) is a soft cheese made from salted strained yogurt that’s been drained of its whey. Commonly found in Middle Eastern cuisine, labneh can be enjoyed as a dip, spread, or rolled into balls and served with warm pita bread. It’s typically seasoned with lemon and herbs to give it the perfect blend of savory cheese flavor paired with the tart, light texture of yogurt. One of the reasons it’s considered really healthy is that it’s low in lactose but high in beneficial bacteria, calcium, protein, and vitamin A—all of which are essential for good health. Serve it alongside your usual hummus at your next gathering or try a bowl at breakfast time.
Nope, not the Jujubes that you get at the movie theater (although, wouldn’t that be great?). We’re referring to jujube fruit, also known as red or Chinese date which is native to southern Asia. Soft and chewy, jujubes are high in fiber but low in calories. Traditionally, they’re eaten as a snack or used in sweets, but they can also be added to stews, porridges, and more.
This superfood is known for its high levels of vitamins and minerals including vitamin C and A, iron and calcium. Rich in antioxidants, jujubes are also believed to improve a weak digestive system and may help boost immunity, improve brain health, and fight cancer cells.
In search of your new favorite comfort food? Look no further than majedra (also known as mujaddara, moujadara, mudardara, and megadarra), a popular Middle Eastern lentil and rice pilaf that’s cooked with a mix of savory spices (including plenty of cumin) and topped with fried onions. The combination of the hearty lentils and rice paired with crispy fried onions (and topped with a dollop of yogurt if you wish) is the perfect mix of savory, sweet, and tart. For those of us who are looking to eat more plant-based meals, majedra provides a healthy option that’s full of fiber, nutrient-rich legumes, and delicious flavors.
Ragi dosa is a traditional South Indian dish that consists of a crepe-like flatbread made with fermented finger millet flour. Raji (finger millet) is considered a super-grain for several reasons. Compared to other grains, it’s high in amino acids, calcium, iron, and vitamin D. It’s also high in fiber and low on the glycemic index, which means food containing ragi will help you feel full and stay full. Enjoy ragi dosa as you would any dosa, with a side of coconut chutney and your favorite curries or stews.