Mar 7, 2014

The Forgotten Foods



Couldn't resist licking my fingers after tasting a millet-based cooked food displayed at the Adivasi Food Festival, Bissamcuttak, Odisha, Feb 25, 2014.

"Over the past 50 years, we are seeing that diets around the world are changing and they are becoming more similar -- what we call the 'globalised diet,'" Colin Khoury, a scientist from the Colombia-based Centre for Tropical Agriculture told the BBC. "This diet is composed of big, major crops like wheat, rice, potato and sugar. It also includes crops that were not important 50 years ago but have become very important now, particularly oil crops like soybean."

While wheat has long been a staple crop, it is now a key food in more than 97 per cent of countries listed in UN data. And from relative obscurity, soybean has become 'significant' in the diets in almost three-quarter of the nations. The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of USA. (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/02/26/1313490111).

The decline in the crop diversity in the globalised diet limited the ability to supplement the energy-dense part of the diet with nutrient rich foods. Amid the crops recording a decline in recent decades were millets, rye, yams, sweet potatoes and cassava, reports BBC (Crop diversity decline 'threatens food security' (http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-26382067).

Well, this report is among the several others which have highlighted the threat food security as well as nutrition security faces from the 'globalised diet'. We are all responsible directly or indirectly for this decline. If I were to ask you to count the foods that you eat I bet you will not be able to name more than a few. Wheat, rice, tomato, cucumber, apple, banana … and you begin to reel out the names you know. Not many can name even twenty. Try a little harder, and you will end up probably with another ten. If you are a little more aware, you might struggle with a few more names. That’s it.

That’s how narrow and limited our food sense has come down to. The more we are urbanized, the chances are the less we know about our foods, and the rich food culture that prevailed in our country. The disconnect with the huge diversity of food over the ages has actually alienated the modern civilization from the virtues of the vast repository of biological wealth that existed. Modern living has snapped the symbiotic relationship that existed with nature. Not many know that India is a mega-diversity region with over 51,000 plant species existing, but with hardly a handful being cultivated.

When Laxmi Pidikaka, a tribal woman from southern Odisha explained to me the importance and relevance of each of the 1,582 food species that were displayed at the recently concluded Adivasi Food Festival held at Munda village in Rayagada district, I was left not only amazed with the richness of food around us, but came back with a feeling that how uneducated I was when it came to mankind’s basic requirement of food. Of the 1,582 food species (and that included different kinds of fish, crabs and birds that are part of the daily diet of some tribals), as many as 972 were uncultivated. Yes, you heard it right. Uncultivated foods. 

A dozen tribes living in Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand and Maharashtra had gathered at the Adivasi Food Festival to celebrate their foods, which is basically an appreciation of the traditional food cultures linked to their age-old farming practices providing them nutritional security while protecting and conserving the nature’s bounty. Members from the Kondh, Koya, Didai, Santhal, Juanga, Baiga, Bhil, Pahari Korva, Paudi Bhuiyan and Birhor from more than 300 villages spread across the tribal heartland came to showcase their foods, and also spent the next day discussing how to protect the traditional farming system from the onslaught of the National Food Security Act that aimed at providing them with 5 kg of wheat, rice or millets.

“We don’t need your food security system,” Minati Tuika of Katlipadar village told me. “The more you open ration shops in our villages, the more you force us to abandon our own food security system built by our forefathers so painstakingly over the centuries. Please leave us alone.” But why was she so angry with what most policy makers and planners see as development? Don’t most educated elite think that tribals are uneducated and uncivilized, and therefore all out efforts must be made to bring them into the mainline?

“Don’t teach us what development is. We conserved and preserved our plants, our soil, our forests, and our rivers over the centuries. Now you want to take these away, and destroy them. And then you call it development.” Saying this, she hid her face. When I coaxed her to explain to me how the adivasis were living in tandem with the nature, and how the modern system was distancing them from their traditional cultures and the community control over resources, she agreed to first show me some plants that had multiple uses demonstrating the traditional skills of the community which preserved and used them without pushing them into the extinct category.

She showed me the Siali beans. Quite a big sized dry bean whose seeds are eaten after boiling or roasting, the branches are used to make ropes, and the leaves are used to make leaf plates. Kusum Koli leaves are used for fodder, fruits are eaten raw, wood is used as firewood, and oil is extracted from the seeds. The seed oil serves as a mosquito repellent and also treats certain skin diseases. Even the better know Mahua trees have multiple uses. Leaves are used for fodder, flowers are used to make jaggery, liquor and porridge. Flowers are also consumed and often sold in the market, a kind of a curry is made from the fruits besides being used as fodder, and the seed provides cooking oil after extraction. All these are unfortunately classified as uncultivated plants in agricultural parlance, and therefore do not receive any attention.

Debjeet Sarangi of Living Farms, which organized the Adivasi Food festival, says it is aimed at deepening the communitarian ethos of the adivasi society and the shared knowledge systems. The event will highlight their sustainable way of growing food and its relationship with their ecology – land, plants, animals and forests. When I asked him whether this exercise didn’t aim at romanticizing the foregone, his response was curt: “That’s where we fault. These people are in complete harmony with their nature. Instead of brushing them as uncivilized, we have to learn from them. Whether we like it or not, the future of the humanity is hidden in these tribal cultures.”

I decided to take a walk to see the range of cooked foods displayed. At the entrance to the event itself participants were served a nutritious welcome drink. Made from ragi millet with a sprinkling of rice grains, the drink was certainly very tasty. Called Mandia jau in the local language, it is actually a ragi gruel. Says Salome Yesudas: “I don’t know why people need to drink colas and other kinds of sodas when you have such healthy drinks available.” Considering that the sale of colas has been on a decline, it will be vertainly helpful if someone was to promote Mandia jau. The next time you visit my house, be prepared to taste this exotic drink.

I was at first a little apprehensive at tasting the cooked food displayed. More so, considering that I am a diabetic. But when Salome Yesudas, a nutritionist from Chennai, explained to me how most of these food dishes were based on different kinds of millets which are the preferred food for people suffering from lifestyle diseases, I couldn’t control dipping my fingers. Pancakes made from finger millet, foxtail millet, with a little jaggery; cakes from ragi and sesame, and then there were cooked dishes using sorghum, pearl millet, kodo millet, barnyard millet, red rice and with sprinklings of uncultivated fruits and seeds. Living Farms is now documenting the food recipes and has prepared a nutrition chart detailing the nutrition composition of uncultivated plants. They have also printed posters in English and Oriya on the vast varieties of foods available for a balanced diet, as well as for the summer and winter seasons.

Although the Adivasi Food Festival at Munda was not the first traditional festivals of food that I had visited but what makes me feel encouraged is the efforts being made by some civil society groups to bring back the lost traditions, including the culinary habits. It also clearly demonstrates that what India needs is not a centralized food security system but a multi-layered decentralized food security system based on the traditional practices in that particular region. Instead of providing the tribal populations with a monthly entitlement of 5 kg of wheat/rice/millets, the focus should be on strengthening the existing food system.

This is only possible if we are able to inculcate a feeling of pride in our traditional systems. The richness of our food culture, which is so intricately linked to the preservation of natural resources, is where it can all begin. I don’t know why our agricultural universities don’t talk about it; I don’t know why our food magazines and food shows never focus on the traditional foods; and I am certainly not surprised why our Planning Commission has no idea as to what the tribal cultures imbibe. #   

An abridged version of this article appeared in Tehelka, Mar 7, 2014. Issue 11 Vol 11
The Culture of Eating Right
http://www.tehelka.com/the-culture-of-eating-right/

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr.Sharma
First off I would like to thank you so much for this blog and the invaluable articles you post here. The Adivasi Food Festival reminds me of a Speech made by Dr.Nammazhlvar, where he said When Dr.Albert Howard setup the first Agri Research Institute in India, he soon learnt that more can be learnt from Indian Farmers than from Academia. The vast indegenious knowledge is something every Indian should preserve and this is what has kept us as one Nation even though we are such a Diverse country.
Would love to come and meet you and speak in person.
Thanks once again.
Prasad Rajagopal

Shubhangi Sinha said...

Absolutely an eye opener ! I am an agriculture graduate and working in Crop Protection industry all the work concerns only 10-12 major crops across India. Rice/Wheat/Maize being the most important ones .. Even fruits and vegetables that are cultivated predominantly are limited. We need to explore our rich food culture and adopt them, also since majority of population is suffering from Lifestyle diseases. Good write up !

Harihar Rautaray said...

After Cornflex..........TV chennel are showing.........Oats ??? People are misled in name of Healthy foods ....

saroj kumar pradhan said...

A very educative and inspiring article! The govt should be more active in promoting and bringing awareness among the masses about our rich variety of traditional crops and vegetables and teh open retail outlets in towns and cities!

Anonymous said...

"If the Aborigine drafted an IQ test, all of Western civilization would presumably flunk it." , said late Stanley Garn, a famous U.S. anthropologist. Our own Macaulayans seem to be not far behind w.r.t Adivasis who must be even more startled than the Aborigine at our shift from the great knowledge & wisdom of sustainable practices to which we are proud inheritors. Except for stray ones here and there, there are no worthwhile endeavours to resurrect it for a better future.Our consumerist youth must become willing partners in this.

lycheers said...

it is very inspiring! Society needs more awareness to make effort together on the issue, from primary agriculture industry (farmers), to delivery and storing industry, to government (measuring local ecology and set up policies to increase the diversity, or give subsidies to small-scale farmers who insist traditional farming), to our people (learn how to pick up food among a variety of choices). Step by step, it is not easy to change the situation in developed nations.