What does nostalgia taste like? Does it come on in a rush, or linger gently? In a country so utterly deep-fried in culinary folklore and history, but also avidly sampling a global catalogue of tastes, the answers can be piquant and many. One set comes from First Food, an initiative of the Delhi-based Centre of Science and Environment. Putting neglected culinary secrets back on the map, the engaging, 168-page book stirs memories of piping hot jute pakoras and other leaf preparations of a Bengal before partition, of the fermented kanji vada evoking images of Holi festivities in northern parts of India, and among other delights, of the simple yet rarely found dishes made using tender bhang leaves.
“As we find ourselves surrounded with a junk food culture, we stand to lose our local culinary traditions,” says CSE director-general Sunita Narain. First Food attempts to swim against that tide. Riding on anecdotes of travels through India’s food-rich interiors sampling local cuisine, the recipe-laden pages return to old-time pantry gems like makhana or fox nut, that lotus seed known to heal cardiovascular disease and post-delivery pain; the mahua flower, rich in minerals; or the karanda, a whole fruity reservoir of vitamins. The recipes and anecdotes come from most regions of India, and the dishes are divided neatly under subheads such as ‘Breakfast and Snacks’, ‘Meals’, ‘Chutneys and Pickles’, ‘Sweets’ and so on, detailing related ancient wisdom and folklore that would interest foodies, young and old. “The idea of putting together this book,” notes co-author and Down to Earth science editor Vibha Varshney, “is not just to bring back to the fore lost traditions but also to pass it on to the next generation.” First Food draws from the various articles published in CSE’s magazine Down to Earth over more than a decade, and written by over 40 contributors.
In one of the most intriguing sections of the book, Sharmila Sinha, who teaches at the Anil Agarwal Green College in Delhi, recounts her run-ins with bhang on her visits to Varanasi and the hills. “The use and abuse of hemp in several civilisations has been recorded from time immemorial; so have been its several therapeutic properties. I discovered some four years ago during a field trip with students to villages in the Shivaliks, the Himalayan foothills. The Van Gujjar communities there told us that smoking a joint just before delivery eases pain. The paste of fresh bhang leaves is also used to dress wounds and cure sores; its juice is applied to cure lice infestation and dandruff.”
On another page, contributor Shyamal Banerjee’s piece on jute pakoras is a call to romance: “As the finely chopped jute (Corchorus capsualris) goes tender on the iron wok and the leaves lose some of their glueyness, a wild aroma fills the kitchen, smelling of the hot humid earth of the Gangetic delta, where jute grew in abundance. A dash of mustard kasundi on the cooked leaves is likely to conjure up images of the little mound of steamy white rice with the cooked jute leaves neatly placed beside it on a big brass thaal (platter). The bright yellow chutney of crushed mustard adds just the right punch to let the flavours play on the palate for a while before they invade the senses. The fibre in the leaves ensures there is no constipation caused by all the overindulgence.”
“As the junk food culture surrounds us, we stand to lose our local culinary tradition.”
Back in his own kitchen, chef Manish Mehrotra, who often infuses his menus with dashes of karanda, chaulai, makhana at his fusion restaurant Indian Accent in Delhi, is quite smitten with the idea of nostalgia marrying modern elements of cooking. “I’m excited about what a book like First Food could do to help revive old ways of cooking. While sourcing some of the ingredients could be tricky, depending on which region you are based in, as a community we should look at reinventing traditional fare and including it in our daily lives.” His peer chef Rajiv Malhotra has already begun work on a menu for the eateries at the Habitat Centre in Delhi, which will be promoting dishes from First Food in the coming month. “I was so happy to see a recipe for Bajra kheer in the book—we had become so used to feeding bajra only to the pigeons!” he chuckles. Malhotra has stocked his pantry with bajra, sattu, drumsticks, chaulai ka saag, and awaits the arrival of karanda, gongura, fresh bamboo shoot to get down to cooking and sampling and working out the finer details of the programme.
Could such initiatives presage a larger movement for homegrown food practices? Not until they find a way into our economic growth model, believes Devinder Sharma, agriculture and food policy analyst, and a First Food contributor. “There is a kind of assault on traditional food habits currently,” he observes. “While the government of America is trying to drive away processed junk food chains that are leading to obesity, in India we are welcoming them with open arms. Till traditional and local ingredients are swept into a viable industry, it cannot become a movement. Cooking shows have done their bit to popularise traditional dishes but then that’s a very niche market.” Sinha, meanwhile, raises the vital question of our quickly changing sociology, so intrinsically related to what we eat. “There are dichotomies in how we approach indigenous practices,” she says. “Take bhang, for example. It’s banned despite its benefits in age-old practices like adding it to the feed of cattle to increase lactation, but bhang is permitted to be used to make hemp fibre that becomes your Levi’s jeans!”
Food also means an ecological niche. Sinha says, “When we wonder why there isn’t all that much makhana in the market, we need to wonder what happened to all our lakes, which is where it grows,” she says. “There have to be policies and incentives to encourage the production of ingredients that contribute to biodiversity,” adds Sharma. Indeed, one of the issues a serious food enthusiast may have with the book is that a chunk of the ingredients may be difficult to source, depending on where you live. Says Narain, who plans to take the initiative across the country through food promotions and stirring debates on how biodiversity shows on our plates: “There needs to be a mechanism by which we can source these ingredients locally. You can’t protect anything in the wild till you make it a part of your lifestyle. Urban Indians do appreciate good food—we just need to value what we eat and make links between now and what we ate in the past, and make it a part of our diet, our tables, our kitchens.” The future then lies in a return to the repasts of the past.
Jute Pakora Recipe
- Jute leaves
- 100 gm gram flour
- 1 teaspoon poppy seeds
- Salt to taste
- Oil for frying
Method: Make a batter with gram flour. Add poppy seeds and salt, also chopped green chillies, onion and coriander leaves. Dip single leaves of jute in the batter
Neem Pachadi Recipe
- 1 tablespoon dried neem flowers
- 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
- 1 red chilli
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- Tamarind juice to taste
- Jaggery to taste
Method: Heat oil in a wok. Put mustard seeds, red chilli and neem flowers. Add thick tamarind juice and powdered jaggery. Cook for two minutes.
Bhang Pakora Recipe
- A fistful of tender bhang leaves
- A few sprigs coriander leaves
- Chickpea flour to bind
- 1 or 2 green chillies or as per taste
- Salt to taste
- Oil for deep-frying
Method: Chop and crush bhang leaves and mix them with coriander leaves. Sprinkle chickpea flour over them and add a little water to bind the greens. Add salt and green chillies. Mix well. Make small flat and round dumplings. Deep-fry.
Note: Bhang is an intoxicant and care should be taken before consuming it
Bajra Kheer Recipe
- 2 cups whole bajra
- 6 cups milk
- 4 cups water
- Sugar to taste
- Cardamom and almonds to garnish
Method: Soak bajra overnight. Coarse-grind it and remove the husk. Boil or pressure cook, till half cooked. Add milk; cook till the paste thickens and the bajra is soft. Add sugar. Garnish with cardamom and almonds. Serve hot or cold.
Makhana Parantha Recipe
- 1 cup Makhana (roasted and powdered)
- 1 potato (boiled)
- Green chilli to taste
- Salt to taste
Method: Mash potato and knead with makhana powder. Mix salt and chopped chillies. Make balls from the dough. Roll them out, cook on griddle till sufficiently brown.
Navara Stew Recipe
- 100 gm Navara rice
- 2 onions
- Half tea-spoon turmeric
Method: Boil rice with onions and turmeric. Do not add salt.
Kali Gajar Ki Kanji Recipe
- 1 kg purple carrots
- 40 gm rai powder
- 10 gm chilli powder
- Salt to taste
Method: Peel carrots, chop into small pieces and put in a glazed earthen jar. Add around 7 litres of lukewarm water, salt, rai powder and red chilli powder. Stir the water well, and then leave jar in the sun for five-six days. The water will slowly ferment and acquire tangy taste. Chill the kanji before serving.
All recipes taken from First Food
Photos Courtesy: First Food