IWhen I was in my 20s and first encountered nutrition, the oil-free mania had just begun. People wanted oil-free rotis and no fried food. My most vivid memory is of my grandma one evening leaving the dining table in a huff wanting to make her own roti. She poured ghee into flour, rolled it in her palms, flattened the ball with the rolling pin, placed it on the fire, turned it over, removed it from the fire, added a touch of ghee on her palm and crushed the hot roti with her hand. She brought it to the table and never will I forget the relish with which she ate that roti. If we had taken our cue from her, we would never have strayed from traditional healthy eating patterns, only to discover decades later that grandma knew best. Instead of naturopathy and new fads telling us what to avoid, we should be advised switching from refined oil to cold pressed oils, just as prescribed in Ayurveda. And whilst on the subject, these oils should be a variety of traditional oils, sesame, safflower, groundnut, mustard and coconut.
Ayurveda very much defines India’s food heritage. Our Vedas are documentation of what our sages formulated via experiential insights. In a sense, that documentation is a guideline for us. However, ayurveda is seen as an alternative system of healing, rather than a guideline for healthy living, which it is importantly. Not that its healing component is to be disregarded. It is in fact THE system of medicine, over 5,000 years old.
Allopathy is fairly young, but its organised ways and instant cures, albeit their side effects, have made it the first line of defense for a majority of people. If ayurveda principles are adhered to, being the forerunner in philosophy of the good life, wellness will follow undoubtedly. This is our heritage.
The common thread
The common thread between different Indian food traditions is wholesomeness.
With industrialisation, refined foods (that last longer because of the missing life force) replaced most natural whole foods. Preservatives were used for longer shelf life. Chemicals came into being to disrupt the otherwise vedic and organic agriculture that existed. Material benefits made refining of salt and jaggery too.
There is a resurgence towards whole and organic, but far from mainstream. However, since it is our heritage, it is an eventuality that we will all move towards. If not through wisdom then, sadly, because of ill health. There will be no choice. There is no choice.
Personally it troubles me a great deal to see a poor man spend his hard earned money on food that is hardly going to nourish him, is full of chemicals, may not contribute to his well-being, and is unhygienic. One wonders how the world functions if basic needs of citizens are not met. How can anyone be expected to do any bit of labour work or thinking work or creative work or be socially conscious, without their cells having the right nutrition for it?
Also being a country that has been captured and pushed around a lot, we lost our Gurukul system, we were made to follow a system alien to us. Yes, advantages and disadvantages. One of the senses that took a beating was our civic sense, we are a nation where cleanliness was Godliness, people kept spotless homes, took two baths a day at least. And now we have a country where no one thinks twice about throwing stuff out of cars, buses, trains, boats, onto pavements, anywhere at all, but in the dustbin! The growing population does not make any of our culture building any easier.
In any case, until we learn to use less plastic and be less consumeristic, garbage will keep getting collected and will burden our land fills, will fill our streets and spread disease. We as a nation have to go back to our roots, our traditions, our heritage, if we are to become whole, healthy and happy again. The West is emulating us, our yoga, our ayurveda, yet we treat everything white as glorious, be it skin, sugar, salt or flour!
The slow food movement
Slow Food, an organisation begun in Italy to counteract the fast food movement, is doing much to preserve traditional foods and styles of cooking. It goes without saying that traditions often need rural living to be maintained, including hand churning, hand pounding and stone grinding. City life in its very nature excludes the close association with food on a field. Food is viewed as a packaged commodity.
Somewhere down the line, the disconnect of food for health transpired. People don’t seem to realise that it is the food that you consume that becomes you. How and when did this even happen? Food is meant to be eaten for immediate energy, long term energy i.e., for the day and night, for building, for repair and healing, and lastly for longevity. One would imagine that all Indian and world food traditions would aim at this.
Unfortunately, presentation and taste have taken precedence over nutrition. Not that these are not important. But nutrition has taken a back seat.
Gourmet food has become an end in itself in a city with little else to do besides wine and dine. We are lucky, however, in India even restaurant food can boast of whole grain. Hygiene, however, is suspect. But brown rice, millets, seeds, are a thing of the past. The moving away from the joint family network, I believe has been responsible for the loss of some of our food heritage. Old, wise grandmothers with their experience have not been able to pass it on to the ones who do not have the inclination to receive. A real shame because wisdom once gone is not recoverable.
Document food traditions
For the young; revere your ma and your ma-in-law, inspite of their cranks, or you will regret it once they are no more. My son always refers to google to check my advice. Yes, google has all the answers, but I am older than google I remind him. He is quiet for a while. Whatever nutritious recipe you can find, hold onto it, document it, pass it on, importantly be in your kitchen, produce your own food from scratch or barter with those producing those bases, let the young taste this goodness. They will better it by finding organic ingredients for these traditions.
Being “only a housewife” is passé. Be a proud mother and wife. You are building a home that will safeguard our heritage. Learn whatever you can from any wise person who is willing to share. Food is a very basic heritage that holds and keeps families together. There is some documentation of good old recipes, but you have to filter through lots of rubbish. Document yours and teach your young. Make food into a learning experience that all can participate in and enjoy. And be healthier for it!
We may be a developing nation but in terms of our food heritage, even though grandma’s touch may be lost, we are probably richer than any other. The diversity of our country gives rise to an unbelievable variety of herbs, spices, cereals, pulses, fruits, vegetables, flowers, leaves, roots, shoots, and other edibles for food and medicine. It would take more than a lifetime to know these.
And yet, instead of choosing from this variety of what we have at our disposal, we consume the limited foods that are put in front of us. Time has become valuable and so fast foods and fast living are taking over with no attention to human health and happiness. Depression is rampant, refined foods are low on Vitamin Bs the nutritive contributing cause. So what will people do, take vitamin supplements in synthetic form instead of changing their lifestyle, looking at ayurvedic supplementation, getting more sunlight and easing up their life, bringing love into play.
Thanks to ayurveda, our food heritage has been preserved, but it needs a lot of work to be combined with changing tastes, with modern nutrition, so long as that nutrition is also stemming from an organic and wholesome understanding of the subject. The Japanese healing system of Macrobiotic drew also from Ayurveda, some of its balance concepts, and combined them to formulate this powerful system. George Ohsawa, the founder of this philosophy, lived in India to study ayurveda. We need to wake up to the fact that we are indeed blessed to have the opportunity to reclaim our food heritage via ayurveda and via the generations that are still around to pass on this wisdom.
This is the main reason I am in the organic field, to keep the wisdom of the farmers alive, so their next in line is interested in keeping it in process. Or else as a civilisation, our agriculture wisdom will be lost and we will be slaves to corporates that are hell bent on making us lose every open pollinated seed we have, so we can every season buy only genetically modified seeds, ruining our soil, our health and our freedom.