One of my favorite local restaurants is an Indian street food place on Packard, between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, called K-Hut Chaats. Following is my interview with Dr. Swaroop Bhojani, the visionary healthy food evangelist behind the small, family-run operation… If you’ve never been, I’d encourage you to stop in, say hello, and try a few things. Swaroop, who, when he’s not cooking, is a cancer researcher at U-M, is extremely passionate about the food, and its power to heal, and his enthusiasm is infectious. I don’t know that it really comes across in the interview, but, having spoken with Swaroop on a few occasions, my impression is that he didn’t open the restaurant because he thought that it would make him rich. He spent his money opening it, I think, because he felt as though he had to at least try, in his own way, to change the status quo, create positive change, and influence the local dialogue on health and diet. And I respect the hell out of that.
MARK: Some time ago, as I understand it, you became interested in the health consequences associated with typical American and Indian diets. And, being a researcher by training, you began to employ the scientific method, looking for way to solve the problem…
SWAROOP: I have been cooking for nearly 21 years. About three years ago, though, I started monitoring, very closely, what goes into my cooking (such as oils, processed sugar, and processed grains), and what my family eats (what percent of our diet consists of fresh greens, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, etc). This all began when I was diagnosed with type II diabetes. It was around this time that I started reading more on food and nutrition, and, the more I read, the more it made logical sense to me that food is directly linked to many health conditions. I am a convert now to the chiastic adage created by the father of western medicine, Hippocrates, who said, “let food be thy medicine and thy medicine your food”.
What struck me more than anything else were the trends in obesity, especially in kids. It’s scary that kids in this generation may be more sick than their parents, suffering from type II diabetes, and cardiovascular problems, which could be easily averted by the application of simple rules in eating (whole grains or seeds, some greens, vegetables and fruits, and less meat). What amazes me is that, while the data is all around us, most of us are very “reactive” — until we are malaised by an action that we’ve taken, we do not think about its effect/outcome. That is one reason why prevention has not taken off well, either in people’s thinking, or with regard to government funding.
Childhood obesity, in the US, is on a dramatic rise. Over the past two or three decades, there has been a 300% increase in adolescents who suffer from obesity, which is a major risk factor for a number of conditions, such as high cholesterol, hypertension, orthopedic problems, depression, and type II diabetes. Look at the numbers: one-in-three kids in the United States is overweight or obese, and one-in-five children have at least one of the conditions listed above. Once again, ours may be the first generation where kids will have lesser life expectancy than their parents. We need to think about this very seriously.
Also, look at obesity in adults. 64% of our population is overweight/obese, and lifestyle diseases (such as cardiovascular problems and diabetes) are a major “killer”. These diseases kill nearly half a million people every year – more people than tobacco – and millions suffer (33.5% percent American have high blood pressure, and 25.8 million people are diabetic). And, the most intriguing part of this is that these sufferings and deaths are “easily” preventable with simple solutions.
MARK: What made you think that you might be able to address the problem? I mean, seeing the problem is one thing, but something made you think, “I might be able to fix this,” right? What made you think that you might be able to solve this riddle that people have been struggling with for so long… how to get people to change their behavior and eat good, nutritious food that won’t kill them?
SWAROOP: My own experience. I am type II diabetic who was obese, and is still borderline overweight. I have controlled my diabetes by changing to a whole grain and natural food diet. I don’t believe that I can “fix” the problem, though. Each person has to find his or her own solution to fix it. What I can do is to provide a platform where people can have an access to whole grain-based, and nutrionally-dense food. The second thing that I can do, based on my own experience, is to train and educate. On this front, I will be delivering lectures to kids and their parents at Ann Arbor Public Schools beginning next year. The understanding that humans are biological machines that need “good fuel”, just like any other manmade machine, is lacking. In my thinking, this is partly due to the fact that biological machines do not instantly fail when improper “fuel/lubricants” are ingested. Since there are no immediate adverse reactions to high-calorie, low-nutrition diets, these actions are perpetuated.
MARK: Tell us about the grain cake that you’ve invented. What makes it special?
SWAROOP: I remember, while growing up, I was told to eat from different food groups in order to get better nutrition. At Hut-K, I made a flat bread we call Back2Roots, with 15 different kind of whole grains (all in grain form, except for the wheat and the African millet flour). It is unique in a number of ways. It provides all of the essential amino acids that we need in our diet, and it is high in fiber/complex carbohydrates. It is also rich in minerals and vitamins coming from the different grains. Plus, it has good natural fats, that from blended almonds, walnuts, peanuts and coconuts. And, we use natural ingredients, such as greens, herbs, spices and vegetables, to make it a very delectable culinary experience.
MARK: Would it be safe to say that the storefront on Packard was a test? What I mean by that is, you’d created these products in your home, you’d tried them out on your family, you’d seen positive health improvements in your own life, and now you wanted to see if you could convince others to go on this journey with you, right? Well, what have you learned? Has the test been a success?
SWAROOP: Yes, it is my laboratory for creating food, and my “guinea pigs” have been my kids, wife and friends.
There two advantages to these kinds of food. When there are grains, carbohydrates are in complex form, and the their digestion is slow. So, there is no “insulin shock” with this kind of food, and, also, there is no “post food lethargy”. This is the perfect food for lunch at work, as one tends to remain as active after eating it, as in “pre-lunch state”. So, there is no loss of productivity due to food.
The reaction from customers has been mixed — many customers are very excited about the food when I talk to them about the healthy ingredients (how I have swapped sugars for fresh and dried fruits, substituted baking for frying when possible, and how I stealthily add raw fresh greens), while there are some who don’t care… My getting off medication as a result of eating this food and exercising is motivational for many, and may, I imagine, influence a change in their eating habits. Further, through my food, I can make a dent in thinking process of those who do not hear my lectures, which are coming soon…
MARK: Indian street food, at least locally, seems to be taking off as a segment of the restaurant market. Nehee’s in Canton is always packed, and now they’ve expanded into two other spin-out ventures. The food is delicious, but it’s not exactly healthy. Your products, while delicious, are a bit more complicated… I don’t know how else to say it… The flavors are complex. They don’t offer immediate gratification in the same way. Is that fair to say? Assuming you agree, how do you convince people to put in the work? How do you go about educating their palates?
SWAROOP: This is a difficult question for me. Neehee’s is nice to place to go and eat, and I do want to compare their food with mine.
I do not agree that there is no gratification in my food. The taste has been my priority and is also the first step in our food development process. I have done my homework on this and if you look at our chaats, they are probably the best you can find. In the core chaat category, you will NOT find a better panipuri, dahi sev puri or papdi chaat. This is my challenge to you. And with our food, bonus is nutrition; high nutrition per calorie.
MARK: I didn’t say that there was no gratification. I enjoy your food very much. It’s delicious. I was just saying that some other street food, that is deep fried, full of fat, and heavily processed, may have more of an immediate appeal to someone accustomed to fast food. I was curious as to how you’d win those people over.
SWAROOP: It is difficult to educate customer’s palate in the restaurant industry, partly because one eats at the restaurant once in a while. Most of the times, either you like it or not. Thus my topmost priority was taste. Once I got that right, I started to play around addition of greens, vegetables, fruits and dry fruits.
MARK: Given what you’ve learned so far, what’s next? Might we expect a cook book? Will you be packaging your bread, and selling it through other stores? Could there be another restaurant launched in India?
SWAROOP: Yes there is a book cooking in my mind. I have drafted chapters and categories. This is my free time fun. My current priority is to develop an education and training platform for kids wherein I can make a dent in the “state of health of our future generation”.
Regarding packaging, a number of investors have approached me, but I am still testing. I am currently trying this with my friends and family living close by (hand delivered) and far away (by shipping). The “Back II Roots” roti is an ideal “working breakfast” food. The ancient grain roti is made from 15 whole grains and is full of complex carbohydrates. Thus it is digested slowly which aids body to keep on going for many hours without a “refill”. Probably, by the end of this year, if everything go right for us, there will be “Hut-K Nutrilicious” frozen food.
There were two initial queries coming from India for starting Hut-K there but nothing in immediate future.
In addition to the location at 3200 Packard, Hut-K also has a presence at Mark’s Carts in Ann Arbor.