Food bears a different meaning for each one of us. Celebration, community, comfort, happiness, sharing, culture is some of the broader symbolization or spirit of our food. In the past several years or even since the time we grew up as adults (especially if you are a 70’s or 80’s kid) there has been a transformation in what we eat, how we eat and where we eat. While we see some noticeable and some barely noticeable changes in our food patterns, somewhere back in the areas where our food grows, probably an entire generation of food is becoming history.
Did you know that as per environmentalists there were more than 100,000 varieties of rice that existed in India once, now there are only 50. This might help you visualize it better; few years back Basmati rice was a luxury in my house back in Gujarat. During festivals or celebrations, my mother would get this special bag of Basmati rice from the nearby grocery. As a middle-class household we used to find it quite expensive and hence I call it a luxury. Being a rice loving family we would wait in anticipation to sniff the aroma the rice would fill our home with, a grain which was beautifully long and soft. These days when I cook Basmati, picked up from the grocery or local supermarket, it doesn’t even bring back a piece of those fragrant memories. The grains are still white and long but I don’t find the same texture or aroma in them anymore. Why? Well, because they are just a part of the larger scheme of standardizing whatever food we eat commercially. The story doesn’t stop there, it continues to all other crops, birds, animals; everything that’s a part of our food plate.
Cut 2 and I enter Nagar (Ahmednagar) district around 110 kms away from Pune early this month. A paddy field we saw on route was black & golden, the aroma was so irresistible that I had to get off my car and find out what was growing in there. What I found is an ancient Indian variety of rice called “Kalbhat” or the Black husk rice.
I had never seen a crop so beautiful and the aroma, yes it did remind me of the childhood Basmati fiesta back home. Up in the rain shadow regions of Nagar district, farmers have been meticulously protecting this paddy variety, which might get extinct soon. To me the story of these crops is the greatest destruction of genetic diversity that our agriculture rich country is undergoing. However, there is a positive side to this. The local non-profits and farmers under a project with the Centre for Science and Environment, have created a seed bank and are making efforts to preserve and grow around 120 Indian crop or plant varieties (no hybrids or commercial seeds).
Those who read my posts on Facebook know my obsession with finding Buckwheat and guess what I located this beautiful black, geometric grain right at this village seed bank!
My knowledge about existence of buckwheat only in the north or north-eastern region proved wrong when I found this grain in a humble village in Maharashtra. However, this seed might not stay here for long. Because the onus of preserving our food, the varieties of our soil not just depends on the farmer but on us “The Consumers” as well. The motivation to protect these crop varieties will only last among our farmers till they find a market to sell it.
Why should one care about our food diversity? Well, I know many of us won’t. Even I didn’t a couple of years back. I was happy with the food options my restaurant, my grocery store and my supermarket in Mumbai offered to me. But little did I know, that my quest to lead a healthy lifestyle didn’t lie in the Kellogg’s K cereal or the face glow juices or the diet snacks. It lied in my ROOTS. It lied in all the food that I ate growing up as a kid. It lied in all the food my mother and grandmother grew up eating. The more research I do on food products, the more I realize that my protein shake doesn’t give me as much protein as my bowl full of Rajgira & milk or a simple bowl of moong dal (mung beans) does! Does that ring a bell? It’s the simple yet forgotten truth. The food that has been a part of our culture for many, many years is meant to keep us healthy, in good shape and happy (I guess that’s why a simple plate of steaming hot dal-chawal at home is called “comfort food”).
This entire situation of losing crop diversity explained in a more dramatic way would mean that if as a consumer of food we would not care about what our farmers grow and what comes to our plate, piece by piece we will lose what has been a part of our cherished culture for generations. We will lose story and history to the commercial world of standardization.
I know that the liberty I have as part of my work to act as a hunter of these food crops is not what everyone has. That’s why I started this little experiment in Pune to see how people would react if we try to bring back this food to your plate, would you accept it? Love it? Here is a sneak-peek into what we are testing.
If you find this interesting enough and would love to help us with your opinion on the concepts we are developing, please drop me a hello at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will write back to you.
This new year stay healthy and know what you eat!
Past project update – the last post that I wrote about the birth of my startup Happy Roots was three months back in September. We were testing our market linkage of poultry products from Vidarbha to Pune then. The product was received well by chefs and our test consumers during the pilot but we realized that there was a lot of work to be done at the back-end with our farmers. The project is still running back in Vidarbha on a low scale until we get right resources and funding. Till that time, we have made the beautiful food crops of the region a part of our larger product basket.
You might want to read this article I refered to: The death of rice in India