Healthy International Eats | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Healthy International Eats

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Mezza Chef Maya Nahouli says Lebanese cuisine centers on three basic ingredients: garlic, lemon juice and olive oil—as in this fattoush salad.

Mississippi food is a textural marvel—butter, syrup and cream-laden dishes lending the food the same slow, oozing quality as the drawls of the people who prepare it. In a state where "home-cooked" is virtually synonymous with "deep fried," and the oft-canonized "soul food" constitutes a medical nightmare for body and, paradoxically, mind, it seems the tenets of healthy eating are lost in fried up translation. So where can health-conscious folk go to find good-for-you alternatives?

The answer may lie in international cuisine, says Trey Herron, a wellness coach at Skinny's Nutrition Studio (7048 Old Canton Road, Ridgeland 601-707-5448). Skinny's offers smoothies along with wellness profiles, nutrition classes and coaching, and works with nutrition centers in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia. Herron recently returned from a trip to Southeast Asia.

"Spicy food tends to speed up the metabolism," he says. "Also a lot of (ethnic food) tends to use more color—more fruits and vegetables."

Two relatively new restaurants—Babalu Tacos and Tapas (622 Duling Ave., 601-366-5757) and Mezza (1896 Main St., Madison, 601-853-0876) are breaking through the grease-encased surface of southern cuisine with international offerings.

Babalu is a Spanish-style tapas restaurant that offers comfortable outdoor seating and projects "I Love Lucy" episodes on the interior wall. The antiquated TV inspiration ("Babalu" was husband Ricky Ricardo's theme song on the show) belies a distinctly modern approach to healthy eating.

With menu items made from fresh produce from local farmers, sous chef Stephen Kruger says that about 90 percent of the menu is low-fat and healthy. It is also rife with ingredients that fulfill Herron's criteria of "color": Sun-dried tomatoes, corn, and fresh peppers are staples.

Sous chef Eric Peters points out the tuna and fish tacos as distinctly healthy.

"Even the calamari is fried with vegetable oil at a temperature that's not going to absorb all the fatty oil," Peters says.

Of course, no Spanish meal (or any meal, arguably) is complete without a slurred rendition of "La Bamba," and Babalu boasts an extensive alcohol selection.

"Have a drink and then a glass of water," Herron says for healthy drinking. Also, avoid the sugar-saturated sangria.

Mezza, which claims to be the only strictly Lebanese restaurant in the Jackson area, is pioneered by Chef Maya Nahouli and serves healthy, authentic international food. The nutritious value of Lebanese cuisine, according to Nahouli, is based in three basic ingredients: "garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil—all fresh."

Try the batata, potatoes with a lemon juice zest, as an alternative to French fries. Sample the fattoush salad, a shredded cabbage mixture flavored with lemon juice and topped with toasted pita chips, and avoid fatty salad dressings. Herron recommends avoiding "whites" (flour, sugar and milk, for example), so opt for wheat pita bread with dishes.

It is not just the content but also the size of meals that can make food healthy or not. Both Peters and Nahouli attest that the Spanish and Lebanese traditions of small plates encourage sharing, thus fostering a sense of community about the meal. "Mezza" means "appetizer" in Lebanese.

"It's all about the appetizers in Lebanon," Nahouli says. Fortunately, small portions augment the nutritious value of the meal. "Smaller portions leave you full but not stuffed, so you're not having to unbutton your pants," Peters says.

But what about international cuisines not served in small portions à la the Babalu and Mezza examples?

"Consider (your meal) two meals," Herron says. "Get a to-go box, and take half off the plate and put it in there."

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