Look outside the window, do you see a peepal tree? Go out and pluck some leaves and make a bhaji. If you are at the vegetable market, buy phalsa (Grewia Asiatica), the purple fruit, for making juice. A new book, First Food: Culture Of Taste, aims to bring nature, culture and health into the kitchen, and remind us that superfoods don’t have to be Western imports.
A compilation of articles, essays and recipes, the book is an in-house publication by Delhi-based advocacy group Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). Its first book on food, First Food: A Taste Of India’s Biodiversity, was a compilation of over 100 recipes from India’s diverse but fading culinary memory.
Don’t, however, mistake Culture Of Taste for a cookbook, or a book on gardening. “It (the book) is about knowledge—the knowledge of nature that is the essence of food that delights our palates and nourishes our bodies. This is the critical food-nutrition-nature-culture connection…. Many of the plants that make these recipes (those mentioned in the book) are still found in our backyards. Or can be grown or harvested for food. It is only when this biodiversity is lived that it will live,” writes Sunita Narain, director general of CSE, in the foreword.
The book is divided into six parts: Leaves, Flowers, Fruits and vegetables, Seeds, Preservation, and Business (this section talks about how to promote indigenous produce).
Each seed, stem, root, leaf, vegetable and flower is accompanied by scientific and sociocultural detail. Take goolar, for instance. Sangeeta Khanna, one of the book’s contributors, writes: “In school, I came to know that small figs were actually flowers which I mistook for fruits. People in India consider the fig tree sacred and it is often planted around houses and temples. Thanks to the dispersal of seeds by animals, fig grows in the wild all over India.”
Talking about its health benefits, she says: “It has cooling, purifying, healing and anti-inflammatory properties, according to Ayurveda. Science, too, validates this. A review published in the International Journal Of Pharmaceutical Sciences Review And Research in 2010 shows that the fruit can help reduce cholesterol. The soluble and insoluble fibre in the fruit is prebiotic in nature, which helps maintain a healthy gut.”
Eating seeds like popped bajra (pearl millet) and jowar (sorghum) is now popular among the health conscious. The book offers ways to incorporate seeds by adding them in chutneys. “Chutney is an easy way to consume seeds regularly in small quantities. Another way is to add a spoonful or two of the roasted seed powder to curries,” the book says. Try the recipe for chutney made with jawas (flaxseed), which is scientifically proven to be rich in omega-3 fatty acids, fibre, antioxidants, B vitamins and minerals such as calcium, iron and zinc.
There are also recipes for healthy desserts made with unique ingredients. Kalakand, for instance, made with parijaat (Nyctanthes arbor-tristis) flowers comes with details about its various uses by people in Manipur, Assam, Bengal and central India. Considered a liver tonic, parijaat is known to have anti-diabetic and immune-protective properties.
The highlight of the book is that it provides information on where and how to get the ingredients.
So, First Food: Culture Of Taste reminds us that our thalis offer all the main components: carbohydrates, fats, protein and fibre. And that we don’t have to look beyond local produce or the kitchen garden to find superfoods.