by Nazuk Ahluwalia
"Nature itself is the best physician"– Hippocrates
First Food - 'Culture of Taste' is an insightful sojourn into the backyards of India’s remote corners where nature is the nurturer of appetite and well-being. The recipes contributed by myriad authors, this book is a diverse assemblage of distinct cultural culinary traditions that combine local produce – its seeds, stems, roots, flowers and leaves for wholesome nourishment.
The book brings to light the essential food-nutrition-nature-culture connection by focusing on the regional kitchens of India, where the culture of healthy seasonal food and medicinal knowledge is still alive. It is unique owing to current milieu of “Americanized” and “multinationalised” food and also a refreshing break from the usual lavish, glamorous recipe books emulating the west.
An emotional connection runs throughout the book with each author providing a delightful memory of the ingredient, almost a foreword for each delectable recipe. Each ingredient is given a special title which acts as a window to the vast medicinal and health benefits associated with it. The recipes truly are a testament to the melting pot of cultures and traditions which India is famous for; Mudakkataran of Tamil Nadu, Sarata of Maharasthra, Sophlang of Mehgalaya, Goolar of Bengal are a few of the exotic local foods which have a number of creative uses.
Of the many tales, one that bewitched me was the Chak Hao Kheer – a healthy alternative to the white rice variety. The Kheer is prepared with Black rice that is renowned for anti-cancer properties and high antioxidant content. It is rich in fibre and has a naturally sweet and nutty taste.
To dish it up – the rice needs to be soaked for about six hours after which it is to be drained and transferred to a saucepan with milk. Once it boils, constant stirring for about thirty minutes is required on low flame. Sugar can be added according to taste and after it dissolves, the dish can be served both hot or cold.
For those seeking change from the humble dal, dhawai flowers can be added to enhance both taste and nutrition. The flower is known to keep common health problems such as constipation, indigestion and menstrual disorders at bay. Another delicacy that can be quickly whipped up is halwa using Shakarkand- a naturally sweet, low-glycemic content tuber which provides a healthy dessert option to diabetics.
For the tea aficionado, Khoberval- distinct to Madhya Pradesh is a root used to prepare mild tasting tea with an earthy flavour. It is known to treat skin problems, arthritis and kidney ailment. All one needs to do is add the crushed root while preparing tea and voila, a healthier alternative emerges!
The book also gives a useful peek into the natural preservation techniques employed by different people of different regions for different foods. One such method is of fermenting gundruk by the Nepali community in west Bengal that provides a tangy variety during the murky monsoon season. The leaves of gundruk are allowed to wilt for a day or two which are then pounded with a little water, excess of which is squeezed. The leaves are then packed away in tight-lidded jars for a few days to ferment.
A jhol can be prepared by soaking the gundruk leaves for an hour after which they are to be finely chopped along with tomato and onion. In a saucepan, thinly sliced garlic, ginger and red chilli need to be stir fried along with mustard seeds. The onion is to be added and stirred well, add salt to taste along with some turmeric - cook it for a while. After this, the tomatoes are to be added and cooked till they dissolve and the colour changes. The gundruk is to be mixed and cooked till soft. Add water and bring it to a boil, let it simmer for a few minutes. It should be served hot as an accompaniment to a regular meal.
Creativity is limitless and many of the plants that make these recipes can still be found in our backyards or can be grown and harvested. First Food is certainly about treasuring local knowledge and creating new knowledge out of it. The book is lucid, with recipes explained in a simple manner. It is both for the average reader as well the botany enthusiast or appropriately, for anyone with a love for food and its core essence. Authored by renowned environmentalist-journalist Sunita Narain and Vibha Varshney, First Food brings out the beauty, value and diversity of healthy cuisine.
FIRST FOOD: CULTURE OF TASTE
Published by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE);
Pages: 217; Price: Rs. 950.