In a world where the speed of your Internet can only be matched by the speed with which your former partner “moves on”, there are close to a million people wanting to take things slow. Slow food started as a gastronomic movement celebrating diversity and today, 24 years and 132 countries later, it stands for all things ethical, healthy and—not to mention—cool.
Slow food is the antithesis of fast food. While fast food promotes a homogenized world of one ketchup and one bread, slow food respects diversity and regional culture. Slow food recognizes that there is a reason for diversity, and a reason why a Bengali bhadrolok is addicted to his fish and rice, and a Marathi mulga enjoys puran poli and usal.
The movement took off in 1986 when a set of the famed Golden Arches made an aggressive (and unaesthetic) entry into Piazza Spagna, one of Rome’s most beautiful Renaissance squares. “Founder Carlo Petrini decided that this globalization of McDonald’s needed to be countered by a globalization of diversity,” says Vandana Shiva of Navdanya, a non-profit association, who has spearheaded the slow food movement in India.
In 2002-03, Shiva joined hands with Petrini after she chaired the Terra Madre, a world meeting of food communities, in Italy; Petrini was a member. It was from then that slow food adopted the concept of biodiversity too. “The idea has been to link producers and consumers, and to make producers more visible. We’re trying to emphasize that good food comes through good farming,” says Shiva. Shiva’s Navdanya works to promote “good food through good methods”. “Thanks to the culture of increased production through monoculture, agriculture and nutrition have separated. We are bringing nutrition back into food,” says Shiva.
Healthier than thou
“Biodiversity is rooted in cultural diversity and cultural diversity has evolved to provide the best health in a particular climate,” says Shiva. She cites the work of Gary Nabhan, the American sociologist and author of Why Some Like it Hot: Food, Genes and Cultural Diversity, who found that more than half the native American population in the south-west suffered from adult-onset diabetes. “(What) we didn’t realize until recently is that the very foods that were in traditional desert diets, and had been for centuries if not millennia, (were) protective foods that chronically reduced blood sugar levels and improved insulin sensitivity and insulin activity. When those protective foods began to vanish from the diets of native Americans in the south-west around World War II, the rate of diabetes skyrocketed. It went up 25-fold in three decades,” says Nabhan on www.garynabhan.com. Similarly, he says, people in Crete consumed twice as much fat as Americans in the form of olive oil, and yet didn’t show higher rates of heart disease than their American counterparts. If people in France or North America try to consume as much olive oil as people in Lebanon or Syria or Greece, they simply won’t be able to absorb it.
“On a smaller canvas, it makes sense for people in north India to have mustard because it grows well and in the winter, which gets harsh in the north, it is the perfect oil. In the south, the ‘protective’ food is the coconut,” says Shiva.
What you should eat
Shikha Sharma, a Delhi-based wellness consultant, says Ayurveda is also based on similar principles. “You are supposed to eat what is appropriate for your environment. People living in coastal areas, for instance, eat coconuts. The seed of the coconut is cold and heavy and this works well in the warm coastal areas because it provides the required coldness. The water is full of electrolyte and replenishes the electrolytes in your system,” she says.
Red meat, on the other hand, is supposed to be eaten mainly in cold places because it is heat-producing. “But when people in hot climates eat red meat excessively, they can get gall bladder problems,” says Dr Sharma.
Milk too needs to be had in moderation in hot areas because it is essentially cold in nature. “It is fine for the plains, but if consumed excessively in the hills, it can create phlegm. In Punjab and Haryana, people have a lot of lassi and chaach, you can’t imagine people consuming these in Norway,” she says.
She adds that for years the West criticized Indians for their eating habits and their consumption of items such as garam masala—only in recent times have they acknowledged that this is what works for our constitution. “Spices like elaichi, saunf are cooling,” says Dr Sharma.
Garam masala is had mainly in winters, especially in the Gangetic plains where winters are severe. “In the summers, the cuisine was different and used different spices. Traditionally, the same masala was not used throughout the year; we do this now and this is a mistake,” says Dr Sharma. “The concept of slow food and diversity comes very naturally to Indians,”she says.