Michael Pollan’s polemical bestseller In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto recounts a compelling experiment conducted in Derby, Western Australia, in 1982. Ten overweight, diabetic, middle-aged Aborigines agreed to “see if temporarily reversing the process of Westernisation they had undergone might also reverse their health problems.”
In just a few years after these individuals had left the bush, and assumed sedentary semi-urban lifestyles including lots of processed food, they had “disordered the intricate (and still imperfectly understood) system by which the insulin hormone regulates the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats in the body.” The results: type 2 diabetes, obesity, hypertension, heart disease, and cancer.
The Aborigines headed back to their traditional homelands, far from any city or settlement. For seven weeks they hunted and fished, and their diet vastly expanded from supermarket fare to include many different kinds of plants, grubs, yams, figs and bush honey. Then their blood was tested anew, to find “striking improvements in virtually every measure of their health.”
The nutrition researcher who conducted the experiment reported that “all had lost weight (an average of 17.9 pounds) and seen their blood pressure drop. Their triglyceride levels had fallen into the normal range. The proportion of omega-3 fatty acids in their tissues had increased dramatically.” Finally, “all of the metabolic abnormalities of type II diabetes were either greatly improved (glucose tolerance, insulin response to glucose) or completely normalised (plasma lipids).”
The defiance bioeconomy
Closer home, much more recently, and on a much greater scale, another experiment in returning to traditional dietary wisdom is delivering similarly notable results in Odisha. In the state’s easternmost districts, home to tribal communities which consistently rank amongst the poorest in the world, a new kind of reverse Green Revolution has managed to drop food scarcity from 79% to 29%, and reduce infant mortality by 35%, all in a matter of months.
In 2014, 58% of families had low nutrition levels. Today it is just 18%. According to Living Farms, an NGO seeking to “help reduce the food and nutrition issues faced by these remote communities by helping them revive organic and multi-cropping practices,” these dramatic results are the direct result of paying attention to what the Adivasi communities always knew.
But the Odisha successes did not come easy. In a 2016 article in The Hindu, Anuradha Sengupta reported that the tribal communities first suffered the loss of thousands of hectares of native forests when the government blithely destroyed the existing biodiversity in favour of “cash plantations.”
Soon, the locals began to understand what was at stake. Sengupta quotes Balo Shikoka: “We decided to cut down plantation trees and replant our traditional crops – dates, mangoes, moa, jackfruit, tamarind, jaamkoli. The forest officials informed the police, who said we have to go to prison for this. We said we will go…we will go to prison for the jungle.”
“Reclaim our food”
An identically defiant spirit motivates two exuberant, beautifully illustrated food and recipe books from the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). In her introduction to First Food: Culture of Taste, the institute’s Director General Sunita Narain writes: “We need to fight back to reclaim our food and our habits. The only way to do so is to rediscover food as pleasure and be thrilled, not just by its smells and tastes but also by the knowledge it embodies…it is only when we take control of our food once again that we will have good food. It is the connection of our lives – food, nutrition, nature – that will celebrate the joy of living.”
The First Food books compile articles, essays and recipes in a most unusual package. As you would expect from the CSE, there is an underlying purposeful advocacy maintained throughout. But, much more than that, these books spill over with passion and excitement about seemingly unlikely ingredients and preparations (bhang pakoras!) and are absorbingly packed with scientific, historic, and socio-cultural detail.
It helps that they are the product of dozens of authors, with a dazzling variety of qualifications. The sum is two must-own volumes for anyone interested in Indian food and nutrition. They are full-colour and fully qualified inheritors of KT Achaya’s pioneering compendiums on subcontinental ingredients and culinary traditions.
First Food: A Taste of Indian Biodiversity was a natural offshoot of Down to Earth, CSE’s fortnightly magazine, which has doggedly covered the “politics of development, environment and health” for 25 years. It anthologises relevant articles and essays from the magazine by some thirty different writers, which are laid out with appropriate recipes and arresting visuals. There are sections for “breakfast and snacks,” “pickles”, “beverages” and “sweets.” But no recipe is without an occasionally brief but consistently informative dive into the relevance of its ingredients and cultural significance.
What to read while cooking
While it is easy to get distracted by the mouth-watering dishes laid out on each page, the real banquet is in the First Food texts. A Taste of Indian Biodiversity brims with wonderful asides, such as on the history of mahua (in the context of the rather yummy-looking mahua peetha), and jute (saag, and also crispy pakoras). There are five different recipes for amla (dal, raita, chutney, achar, murabba). We learn about the “distress food” of Rajasthan (stringy pods of the khejri tree), and the “thousand utilities” of the ajwain leaf.
No doubt as a result of the success of the first volume, the CSE’s approach to First Food: Culture of Taste is considerably more ambitious and sophisticated, very evidently the product of focussed research. The contextual descriptions overtly aim to be authoritative. There’s a glossary, and useful appendices about the plants, and about how to get the ingredients. Now the approach shifts from what’s easily recognisable as a recipe book to something more like a strategic overview, with sections on “flowers,” “seeds,” and “preservation.” There are even five essays in a section entitled “business.”
Where its worthy predecessor only dabbled, Culture of Taste delves directly into the wellsprings of indigenous food and nutritional expertise from around the subcontinent. Saag and chutney recipes for the Indian pennywort (aka thalkudi) describes both techniques and medicinal purposes among the Dongria Kondh, the Santhals and others. A recipe for stir-fried kadisoppu (a shrub in the Western Ghats forests) comes with details about its multifarious use by the forest-dwelling Soligas (it fights cold, cough, flu, stomach infections, pain, fever and inflammations). Various extracts from Jakhiya (a spice from Garhwal) turn out to treat liver ailments, bronchitis, diarrhoea, and ulcers.
An infectious enthusiasm pervades both the First Food books, and they both delve into such unusual territory with so much goodwill that it feels churlish to even look for shortcomings. Nonetheless, despite how carefully the CSE authors have navigated this politically fraught terrain, it is to be regretted that tribal and indigenous voices are absent in these pages, except as anthropological detail. This is entirely understandable in many ways, but still a cause for more than mere concern.
There are more than 100 million Adivasis spread all across India, with unrivalled understanding and expertise in utilising the subcontinent’s bewilderingly diverse biodiversity to its very best effect. After an unconscionably long time, a fraction of what India’s indigenous have always known is filtering to “the mainstream” via highly laudable efforts like the CSE’s First Food volumes. But just think of what’s still out there.