We have been told unequivocally that the planet cannot sustain our eating habits as we indulge them today. Our food choices, we are learning, are dangerous for our planet, but worse, even more damagingly baleful for our health. What we put into our mouths is one of the most critical choices we make every day. Is it not time we take our food, our lives, and our planet seriously?
Multinational corporations, industrial farming and vote-banks drive a mega-billion-dollar industry that peddles marketing sound bytes designed to maim our minds, destroy our thinking, and turn us into puppets dancing at the whim of whatever fad, trend or diet that keeps industries afloat and stock markets on an upward rally. All this, while consumers are being tricked into buying that which in reality is poison for their bodies, their minds and souls, and the planet they inhabit.
It is a privilege for me to have had the good fortune of being associated with the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) for over a quarter-century now. At the CIA, education isn’t just textbook tutelage, but an investment in how we live and how our actions today affect the planet’s well-being tomorrow, our health outcomes, and the medical impact and imprint they leave on our next generations. It has been wonderful to speak, teach, share, and learn at the thought-leadership summits hosted by CIA’s Strategic Initiatives department. These forums bring together industry leaders, masterful chefs, culinarians, and visionary provocateurs who can rattle minds and inspire disruptive thoughts and ideas, and in doing so, sow seeds of change that, in turn, become the menus of tomorrow.
So much of what we shared over two decades ago when no one was wanting to hear about plant-forward cooking, sustainable practices or health and wellness has today become mainstream. I am joyful when I see salad offerings on burger-chain menus, and my pleasure and pride is doubled when tasty veggie burgers are offered and real cheeses are used by the big players in mass-produced pizza chains. These healthier and cleaner options have found a niche, but they are not yet mainstream enough, and their price points are still too high for their fare to trickle down into inner-city neighbourhoods where they are most needed.
Bad-calorie-dense, one-dollar-a-slice pizza across Manhattan’s many neighbourhoods — made with sugary sauces laced with preservatives, fake analogous cheeses, tasteless toppings, and way too much dough — is still the go-to slice of comfort for those who can least afford to indulge in it. They are the ones generationally disadvantaged by the horrific medical outcomes that such food unleashes on peoples, neighbourhoods, communities, cities and countries. An objective study of the average American diet is the honest tale of two nations. Within the borders of the US, in every state and city, exist the 1-10 per cent (perhaps, an optimistic stretch) who eat real, nutritive food made with fresh ingredients and some iota of sustainability attached to its manufacturing. For the rest of the 90 per cent, eating is a daily exercise in poisoning the self and moving toward hospitalisation from diseases and disorders associated with poor food choices.
What I hadn’t expected when I returned to Delhi a couple of years ago was to find small- and big-town India mirroring the conundrum that is American public health as it relates to food choices. As I was endeavouring to bring the veritable, deeply delicious, and nutritive food of Indian homes to conferences, cooking schools, and American homes, what has clearly been identified as edible poison in the US was being hailed as gourmet delights and delicacies by self-ascribed gourmands across India. These multinationals have found a hungry customer, where everyday Indian fare with deep nutritious roots has been turned into nasty grub devoid of flavours, packing poison and horrific amounts of calories.
From street-side dishes to those offered in supposed “fine-dining” restaurants, one finds cringeworthy foods that seem fancy only because they have foreign names. The public is mostly oblivious to the bad rap these ingredients and recipes get in their origin countries. With every “cheese-like-substance”-filled dish, with every mayonnaise-inspired sauce, and with every tub of fake ice cream that we consume in India, we are adding to the ever-growing number of millions in our nation suffering from diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and metabolic syndrome. While we line up for miracles to happen in hospitals and temples, multinationals without scruples and ethics are waiting happily in their own lines at banks to deposit monies they’ve made by knowingly pushing dangerous foods into nations and communities that haven’t yet caught on to the poor-health outcomes of consuming such food.
India was one of the richest geographies of the world when the British came and colonised it. Through oppressive rulings and the systemic breakdown of the Indian socio-economic fabric — and by feeding the divide between peoples of different faiths — they distracted and broke a people, stole from the vanquished’s coffers, and created famine in India to feed their own famine-struck populace back home.
But that was then, and it has been 75 years since we became independent. We are now a rapidly-growing economy. We have for our advantage long-term studies showcasing the damage that the American diet has unleashed within its own borders. Many a nation has protected itself from this American culinary carnage and created roadblocks that keep American foodways either away from their lands or paralysed through governance and its politicking.
India is the world’s largest democracy, and it has a choice to make today. A choice that can keep it from going the way of one of the world’s oldest democracies. We can wake up and smell the burgers and pizzas, fake cheese and nachos, and, in doing so save ourselves from imploding into total carnage brought on by the world’s worst epidemic of obesity and diabetes. Or we can keep adding cream and cheese, butter and meat into everything we eat and turn those ancient and mostly plant-forward recipes into poison that kills us from the inside out and that three generations from now turns our populace into something resembling the people of inner-city America. People desperate to improve their lot, unable to change health outcomes easily, and who experience a decay in health and wellness that debilitates not only healthcare but also erodes the functioning of a democracy. It is imperative that we in India quickly learn to respect our ancient heritage, our plant-based cuisines, and our know-how of marrying simple, sustainably grown and obtained ingredients with layers of flavour, turning them into gourmand delicacies that not only give delectable comfort today but that will protect our physical health, keep our minds active, and bless our children with a greener planet tomorrow.