Food and tradition


Food and rituals are an intrinsic part of India. But with many complicated rituals making way for simpler ones, and in some cases dying out, are the foods associated with them also getting lost? Rinku Bhattacharya hopes not and says that there seems to be an interesting revival of at least some traditions and food practices.

Food and tradition are intertwined, and as the world changes, we often change our beliefs and ideology around food. The Indian culinary legacy spans several thousands of years, and with this heritage is a culinary culture that is replete with traditions, some which are time tested and others that do not stand the test of time. It is worth observing that it’s evolution, and it’s willingness to adapt to new influences and changes, that shape and enrich Indian cuisine. The Indian culinary heritage has evolved over the myriad diversity of different traditions, religious and cultural influences that have shaped the country. Some of the changes are subtle and cultural, others tend to be changes that occur due to the environment, the needs of the times and the changing universe.

Declining rituals, forgotten foods
There are often two key factors that cause traditional food and memories to erode, the first of these being time, and the second being the elimination of rituals.

Several traditional dishes such as elaborate desserts and complex main courses have ceased being everyday items; even rice puddings like my grandmother made, stirring and nursing the stove for over five hours have been replaced by their paler cousins which suffice, but lack the true deep and rich taste that is procured by hours of slow cooking, allowing the milk to thicken and reach a soft state of uniform consistency. This is probably true of homemade breakfasts consisting of rich kachoris (puffed stuffed bread filled with lentils or other treats that are elaborate) which we have either packed off far into the recesses of living, or dispensed with them completely to make room for things that work and fit into the reality of the times. Today’s lifestyle is significantly busier when compared to a world a few decades ago. This leaves us less room for time and complexity in the kitchen, household help in our kitchen is increasingly being replaced with mechanical tools and gadgets, all of which require an adaptation of traditional cooking as we knew it.

Rituals are activities that are an indelible part of our culture and these are often accompanied by specific foods. As time passes, we tend to discard certain rituals and foods that accompany these rituals also get lost in the wayside. I can think of traditional weddings that often used to be fortnight long affairs that brought with them assorted foods, simple to large. Following the birth of children, women often went to their parents’ house and spent their first months secluded, enjoying various dishes that were nourishing and allowed them to spend time undisturbed with their newborn child. With the advent of the nuclear family, or even families separated by distance, some of these food traditions have been lost and rendered impractical.
For instance, traditional post pregnancy foods were designed to nourish and heal the body as well as increase the milk supply for lactating mothers. Several of these recipes actually vary based on the region of India we are exploring. In Northern India, a barfi or fudge made with gond or edible gum is very common and was supposed to heal the body and offer the mother energy. Ghee or clarified butter was added in generous doses to foods as it assisted with strength, and aided muscle repair. Fenugreek or methi, is again another much touted home remedy and often served to new mothers as a pudding, as was tapioca.

In turn, select legumes and lentils such as split peas or channa dal were avoided as they might be gas inducing and could interfere with the quality of milk provided to the newborn. Modern day medicine sometimes replaces these home remedies in the form of pills. This is certainly the case with fenugreek and turmeric.

Change however, is never a unidirectional tool. We live and learn and often bring back the wisdom of the old days, sometimes in newer forms that work with the current realities of our living. Two trends that I feel have been very popular and traditional in the past few years are a return to Ayurveda remedies and spices, as well as a new regard for vegetarianism, both of which are time tested traditional remedies that are rooted in the kitchens of India.

Tradition in a new avatar
It is not uncommon in today’s day and age to find an obsession with turmeric, the golden spice that is often sought as a remedy to almost all things from curing coughs and colds, aches and pains to even more complicated diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, bringing me back to the days of my grandmother when she prescribed turmeric as a beautification agent by adding it to my glass of milk every morning. Turmeric used in Indian cooking as an anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial agent, brought with it several health benefits. In today’s modern world people have even simplified the process by having turmeric tablets. Alongside the turmeric, we have fenugreek tablets which are high in iron and said to be beneficial for nursing mothers and trailing behind are everyday spices such as cumin, coriander and cinnamon. Incorporating Ayurvedic traditions, trying to link the food science with mind and body healing is back and trendy again.

Spices like turmeric, coriander and cumin, which have medicinal properties, are used widely in traditional Indian cooking

Spices like turmeric, coriander and cumin, which have medicinal properties, are used widely in traditional Indian cooking

We find people moving towards traditional cures for diseases, often exploring possibilities for cancer healing foods. Diabetics are finding ways to incorporate naturally bitter foods such as the bitter gourd into their diet as it actually has an impact in terms of reducing high sugar. People turn to light liver healing foods such as radish leaves and gourds to cure ailments such as jaundice. These ailments often require an extended care regime and people have realised that natural food therapy is often gentler on the system than overdosing with copious amounts of medicine. There is in general an increased openness to try something natural, as years of tradition have proven that these actually do not have negative effects, even if they might not have all the purported benefits one might expect.

Weaning off heavy meat based diets and leaning more towards vegetarianism is also making a comeback. People are espousing a stronger preference towards exploring healthier vegetarian fare, sometimes for ethical reasons, and at other times for general health reasons. Plant based fare is lighter and offers us natural minerals and proteins. Vegetables are certainly a gift of nature and tend to be kinder on the environment.

Tradition and food therefore make great companions and bedfellows and they exist and feed off each other. Like all great friendships, they evolve sometimes separately and sometimes come together in perfect harmony and stand the test of time.


Rinku Bhattacharya

The writer is an award winning author of two cookbooks, Spices and Seasons, Simple Sustainable Indian Flavors and The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles. Rinku writes the blog, Spice Chronicles and lives in New York with her husband and two children. She can be found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.