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Can 'first food' challenge fast food?

September 11, 2013 15:51 IST

How can ‘first food’ meet the challenge posed by factory-made ‘fast foods’ which are backed by marketing money and often come with ‘traditional taste’ tags attached to them? The first step would be to preserve knowledge about first foods, says Dinesh C Sharma.

Firebrand environmentalist Sunita Narain, head of the advocacy group Centre for Science and Environment, famous for its bitter battle with processed food and cola makers, has come up with a compendium of forgotten recipes of traditional food. The book is called First Food -- a sort of counter to packaged and fast food. It is an attempt to resurrect traditional Indian food recipes and explain the underlying links with biodiversity and livelihood of farmers -- connections which we are fast forgetting.

The book launch at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi provided not just a glimpse of what’s in the book but guests were actually treated to some of the recipes. The discussion around first food and the delicacies served reminded me of ‘slow food’ -- a similar movement launched in Europe in late 1980s to counter the disappearance of local food traditions and waning interest of Europeans in the food they eat.

India perhaps is the same point today when the gen next is slowly getting cut off from traditional foods. Young children would recall more food brands than the names of vegetables or grains.

That’s why we need to talk about traditional food. Every one of us is passionate about food. Food is not just about filling up with calories which all of us need. Food has a lot to do with where we live or from where we come, our culture and the past and in fact, our very identity. It is often said that colour of the soil, language and food habits of people change every few hundred kilometers in India.

Till a few years ago, by and large, what we ate in our homes reflected food habits of place of residence or origin. Food habits, in turn, are shaped by produce -- grains, fruits, vegetables, spices, edible oils, milk -- grown or produced in a particular region.

This happy arrangement, however, has been disturbed in the past 25 years or so every since food has been commoditised or reduced to a packaged product. Our food habits, according to nutrition experts, are getting globalised due to factors like economic liberalisation, globalisation, urbanisation, rising incomes and so on. While debate continues on whether this silent transformation in our food habits is good and desirable, one thing is getting clearer -- culinary skills which were the hallmark of our food heritage are slowly disappearing.

Traditional foods are increasingly getting replaced with packaged, factory-processed, pre-cooked and ready-to-eat food products. Food diversity, which we have always taken for granted, is severely under threat.

First Food is about food which people in different regions of the country have been eating for ages. Food crops typical to a region conform to local climate, water availability and other agro-climatic factors. That’s why bajra and jowar -- less water consuming crops -- are grown and consumed in Rajasthan.

A variety of millets are grown in different parts of the country and are consumed in different ways suiting local tastes and customs. Rice has hundreds of different varieties in each region. In West Bengal, it customary to consume different type of rice in different seasons. In Kerala, rice varieties differ from district to district. Orissa has salt-tolerant rice varieties. 

If all of us start eating only branded and packaged rice -- measured just by its whiteness and length of grain -- then we are putting vast biodiversity of rice and livelihood of farmers associated with it in jeopardy. The same is true with other grains and agricultural commodities.

“If food biodiversity disappears,” Narain explained at the launch of the book, “food will become impersonal”. It will become sterile package designed for universal size and taste, she feared. The book is a collection of 100 recipes of local food crops from different parts of the country, along with information about respective plants and spices used in the preparation.

For example, how many of us know that kuttu ka atta -- which is used during Navratra fasts -- is actually flour of buckwheat grown in Leh and Kargil districts of Ladakh and that it is staple food of Ladakhis? Or that makhana -- used in some North Indian delicacies like makhane ki dal -- actually is a type of water lily? It is an aquatic crop grown in shallow water bodies in north Bihar and lower Assam regions? Both kuttu ka atta and makhana are highly nutritious and form the basis for several recipes.

Similarly ragi -- a finger millet used as a staple food in parts of Karnataka -- is full of nutrients and is amenable to many recipes. In fact, Indian food use different parts of edible plants -- leaves, roots, flowers, fruits, seeds and even stem (lotus stem, bamboo etc). 

How can then such ‘first food’ meet the challenge posed by factory-made ‘fast foods’ which are backed by marketing money and often come with ‘traditional taste’ tags attached to them? The first step would be to preserve knowledge about first foods.

The book by Narain and her colleagues is one such effort. We may need many more similar books to fully document similar recipes from different regions of the country. The next would be to bring such foods back on our dining tables. Thankfully, many Indians still love to eat ‘ghar ka khana’. The penetration of fast food is growing, by all accounts, but is still way behind other countries. That means first food can still reclaim some of the lost ground.

In order to demonstrate that ‘first food’ does not mean any compromise in taste, texture or presentation, the book launch was followed by a demonstration of some of the recipes by chef Manish Mehrotra of two up market restaurants -- Oriental Octopus of India Habitat Centre and Indian Accent. Snacks, dinner, beverages and desserts served were all from recipes in the book and included delicacies from different regions of the country.

The idea was to show that so-called traditional food is not a compromise on taste or any other parameter of good food. The India Habitat Centre plans to introduce some of the recipes from the book at its Delhi-O-Delhi restaurant soon. Navadanya, organic food group founded by Vandana Shiva, organises similar treats to celebrate biodiversity at the India International Centre every year.

One can only hope that such expositions of food diversity are held in different cities regularly so that the gen next is at least made familiar with the variety of tastes, smells and textures of food from kitchens of our grandmas.

Advocacy of ‘first food’ should not be mistaken as an exercise in lament of a bygone era or a nostalgic trip. Nor it should be construed as a move that is trying to negate fruits of economic liberalisation such as free movement of agricultural and horticultural produce or better standards of hygiene and food safety. It is merely an exercise in giving our food heritage its due place and preventing our kitchens from becoming extended counters of food malls. The message is clear: first food is tasty, nutritious and healthy. The choice is yours.

Dinesh C Sharma is a science journalist and author based in New Delhi.

Image: Book cover of First Food.

Dinesh C Sharma