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Name: First Food: Culture of Taste
Edited by Sunita Narain and Vibha Varshney
Publisher: Centre for Science and Environment
Price: Rs 950
The other day, at the neighbourhood shop, the greens attached to the last of the winter moolis caught my eye. As I moved towards the cash counter, armed with a few of the freshest pieces, dreaming of mooli saag steamed with split yellow pea dal, I saw the vendor ripping off the greens and throwing them aside, without a single word of protest from the customer. It was a moment of reflection for me. I realised people had forgotten to eat their greens. Even those that came free with the vegetable.
It’s heartening to note, then, that there are others aware of their roots. The genesis of India’s cuisine lies in its roots, shoots and leaves, at once healthy, nutritional and medicinal. As an ardent advocate of indigenous, natural foods, I was delighted when the Centre for Science and Environment(CSE)’s second book in the First Food series – The Culture of Taste – landed on my plate for review. On the same lines as First Food: A Taste of India’s Biodiversity, this one explores our country’s rich bounty of biodiverse foods that today run the risk of being lost forever under the onslaught of packaged and “chemicalised” food. Says Sunita Narain of the CSE: “We are the products of created food habits, [and have] moved from nutritious food to convenience food.”
The book begins with our indigenous greens, a huge variety spread out across India in seasonal abundance, each used or cooked in a way unique to each region, and treated differently in each family. This was what your grandmother cooked in her kitchen and what your mother insisted you ate. Many of these are what is termed “forage or uncultivated foods”. They didn’t need to be cultivated, proliferating on their own in lush, natural, biodiverse habitats. Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, talks about pre-historic and historical foraging societies, whose secret for survival and protection from malnutrition, starvation or disease came from their varied diet. They were not dependent on any single kind of fixed foods as we are today — rice, roti, one or two dals, potatoes, two or three familiar vegetables, meat or fish. For the forager, food was not only varied, it was seasonal, nature’s way of provided the necessary nutrition as well as a shield for the body. So, in the Indian context, the forager may have eaten fruits, berries and wild mushrooms for breakfast; waterbody greens and fish for lunch; and wild roasted yam and spit-roasted rabbit for dinner. The menus changed with the seasons.
Cut to what our grandmothers, and, given my antiquity, my mother, fed us through the seasons — raw, fresh turmeric and baby neem leaves to strengthen immunity, fresh, seasonal greens rich in minerals and vitamins that prevent and cure anything from allergies to arthritic ailments, cleanse the body of toxins or excessive sugar; various vegetables with lots of ginger, whole spices and seeds to guard against stomach ailments; and foods that cooled the body in summer and warmed it in winter.
The Culture of Taste takes us on a fascinating culinary journey with leaves, flowers, seeds and, last but not the least, fruits and vegetables. Did you know that you could eat peepal leaves? The tender pink leaves that appear for a very brief time towards the end of March are a delicacy among tribal communities and consumed raw or cooked. Known for their curative and laxative properties, they treat fever, heart disease and dysentery, as well as mumps and boils. Chewing young peepal leaves strengthens the teeth as well. The book springs many such surprises.
Through centuries, literature and music have waxed lyrical about the beauty and romance of the parijat or harsinghar flower. Not many have told us though that its leaves are beneficial for the liver, the flowers come with diuretic properties and a paste of the seeds is used to treat boils.
Drawing on such indigenous wisdom and knowledge, the book explains in detail the habitat, seasonality and properties of each such plant, how communities across the country use them, providing easy-to-execute recipes at the end of each chapter. Edited by Narain and conceptualised by Vibha Varshney, the book features writing by well-known nutritionists, scientists and natural foods practitioners such as food historian Pushpesh Pant, nutritionist and food consultant Sangeeta Khanna, journalist and natural foods advocate Aparna Pallavi, farmer and writer Shri Padre, scientist Chandra Prakash Kala, among others. It doesn’t end here. There’s more useful data that touches upon preservation and packaging, points of sale and a detailed glossary.
It is a laudable effort in connecting the dots between food, nutrition and nature, but there are a few oversights. A compilation that throws such critical light on the country’s vanishing greens, should have had a cover to match, immediately drawing one’s attention. If it’s food, it must look delicious, for we eat with our eyes first. Instead, a grey academic exterior hides the brilliance within. Secondly, while many of the pieces touch upon the different names of the plants in different regions, a glossary with plant names in common languages would have gone a long way in making people look for them. So how do I ask my vegetable vendor if he can get me garadu in Haryana? Or narale in Bengal? I tried but was met with blank stares.
Lastly, as in the first book of the series, eastern and north-eastern India, known from ancient times as the “green bowl” of the country, have not been represented well. Ayurvedic texts from the 6th century BC have detailed the plethora of greens, vegetables and fruits found in the region — a mindboggling variety of more than 500, most of which can still be found and are consumed. Neither does it discuss greens like the fiddlehead fern and those belonging to the “bitters” category in Ayurveda or the diminishing use of fruits like the chalta or elephant apple, or plants like the roselle. Having said that, I look forward to the third book in the series. For these are books everyone should buy and read.