Book Review: Culture of Taste

This is not your average recipe book. This is a compendium of knowledge that explains how nature lies at the heart of our culture, food, and nutrition. The Centre of Science and Environment and Down to Earth last year published the anthology in-house. It comprises articles, recipes and essays with vibrant images accompanying each. First Food makes for eye-catching imagery, with food styling and photography by Vibha Varshney and Vikas Chowdhury, and reads with a conversational ease. Personal food journeys and regional recipes are arranged around the different parts of the plant – seeds, stems, roots, leaves and flowers. In a way, it is an ode to the diversity and resourcefulness of our cuisine. It spotlights the ways in which traditionally, communities have been intrinsically mindful of natural seasonal availability and nutritional requirements, and how this lends itself to culture. First Food: Culture of Taste advocates for the diversity in cuisine, indigenous grains, local consumption, seasonal eating and practices that are in harmony with nature. 

First Food is a call to action to protect our food traditions of eating seasonal and local, and to actively preserve the nutrition-nature connection. In preserving, cataloguing and valuing the knowledge of our food traditions, the book pushes the reader to translate that knowledge into more mindful and meaningful eating practices. We reached out to Vibha Varshney, Associate Editor at Down to Earth, who is responsible for researching and pulling together this ambitious endeavour, to get her thoughts on preserving food culture.

How do you think people can advocate for these lesser known, seasonal, regional ingredients? Some could be difficult to find in big cities.

While some of the ingredients are indeed difficult to find, this does not hold true to all the things that we have written about. Many of these plants are easily found in public parks, empty plots of land, wholesale markets and even neighborhood kirana shops. Some of the ingredients can also be grown easily in flower pots. The point here is to be in sync with the environment and be aware of what is growing around you. For example, the semal (Bombax ceiba) tree is very common in Delhi. All you have to do is to be ready for the flowering season. You can then use the buds to cook a sumptuous and healthy dish.

What do you think the focus of the movement is in the short term vs those in the long term?

This has to be a way of life. Biodiversity rich diet is healthy as it has a variety of nutrients that are not available in conventional foods. For example, moringa is rich in iron, makhana is rich in proteins.  Many of these foods have medicinal value too and through centuries of experience, communities have found out ways to benefit from these properties daily. For example, flowers of dhawai (Woodfordia fruticosa) are good for constipation, menstrual problems and even headaches. Our mothers and grandmothers found a way to benefit from this flower by simply adding them to the daal. The flowers even impart a sour taste to the dish and make it tastier.

There is another benefit. By valuing the biodiversity on our plate, we help protect the biodiversity in the wild. For example, in Bihar makhana grows in small ponds and wetlands which are being encroached upon. But once people find that the ponds and wetlands have monetary value, people are willing to protect them.

What do you think of the trend of people moving away from ‘gluten’ containing grains? What about in the context of our culinary traditions?

For people who want to move to gluten free foods for health reasons, India’s biodiversity provides a large number of alternatives for an easy shift. Traditionally, we never depended on just one grain and wheat was just one of the many flours used to make rotis. We used millets like jowar, bajra, ragi regularly in our diet. Other than being gluten free, millets are also rich in nutrients. Overall, the idea should be to move towards a more diverse and balanced diet that includes a large number of ingredients and nutrients. This holds true even for those who are not moving towards gluten free food.

The most common foods you’ll find on the streets, at least in Maharashtra is stalls selling bread pakoras, batata vadas and other fried food cheaply. This is what is being consumed by the vast majority of people, indicating a break in the food-nature-nutrition connection, and the rise of a new food culture. How does one reverse this trend – or direct it to more natural, nutritious, cost-effective alternatives?

Traditional India street food has healthy options. At personal level, people can opt for these alternatives. For example, roasted peanuts and chana, bhel puri, ghugni, moth are free of unhealthy oils. Even the standard chaat papri we get in market is balanced – it has grain to form the papri, pulses for the bhalla, curd, potato and the chutneys. Poha is another example of a healthy snack. What we need to do is to promote traditional snacks. Diversity of snacks is important too and more the variety available in the market, better it is for health.

We as a company would love to contribute to the movement, what are your recommendations on what we can do?

As you pointed out earlier, sometime sourcing these ingredients is difficult. Your company could help make the alternative food ingredients more accessible. You should help create awareness about healthy ingredients available in India. In this way, you would be able to help marginal farmers by providing them value for things that have protected for long. These ingredients would not have survived without them.  

Vibha was a part of the Panel Discussion on ‘Food Habits: Old & New’ Conscious Food hosted in November, which included experts such as Mumbai’s Saee Koranne-Khandekar, founder of the Food Content Studio, Scrollific, and author of Crumbs! Bread Stories and Recipes for the Indian Kitchen; Nidhi Nahata, founder of JustBe Cafe and leader of the Bangalore initiatives of the NGO, SHARAN, which works towards disease reversal through a proper diet; Amit Manjrekar, founder of Green Fundas, Bangalore; and was moderated by Archana Kotian, owner of Om Made Cafe, Koramangala.

You can view the photos from the event here.

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