Home >opinion >The great macaroni scandal

So what do you cook at home? Punjabi? Kerala?" asked my friendly German co-passenger on a flight. This was just after I’d given him my standard 10-minute presentation on “Indian Culture and Diversity: What European Media Doesn’t Tell You". This lecture usually closes on an uplifting note as I explain the rich-but-complex-and-complicated diversity in my country and use my family as an example.

“Oh we usually cook a mix of everything. And a lot of Italian. Pasta especially."

“Do they eat a lot of pasta in Kerala?" he asked me.

I was just about to tell him about celebrity chef and social media star Saransh Goila’s recipe for Spaghetti Moily when I was overcome by an attack of Déjà View.

I was taken back in time to the late 1950s. Shortly after formation, Kerala had just completed its first assembly elections. Two-thirds of an electorate of some 7.5 million Keralites had gone to the polls. The communist party under E.M.S. Namboodiripad secured 34.98% of the votes cast and, more importantly, 47.6% of the seats.

It was instantly plunged into a major crisis: an alarming shortage of food.

Much like the rest of India, Kerala too was going through waves of food insecurity at this period. During the second world war there had already been one period of plunging rice supply. At the time, attempts were made to convince locals to eat wheat instead of rice. At least one of the princely states established a department for the promotion of wheat. Vans went around handing out samples and suggesting recipes.

Wheat never really took off, but another state-suggested rice-substitute did better: tapioca. The starchy tuber, till then only popular amongst poor farmers, received something of a public relations makeover in the 1940s. Then, as soon as the EMS government came to power in 1957, it was plunged into another rice crisis. At the time, Kerala produced a little less than half the rice it needed to feed its people. With supplies falling and prices soaring, the new government scrambled to make amends.

This would eventually lead to the Andhra Rice Scandal, Kerala state’s first major corruption imbroglio.

But more pertinently to this column, it led to a peculiar suggestion by the EMS government. Why not, it told Malayalis, eat macaroni?

Wait. It is not what you think.

This is how the 23 August 1959 issue of the government of India’s Yojana magazine described pasta in India: “Only the upper class people of our larger cities are likely to have tasted macaroni, the popular Italian food. It is made from wheat flour and looks like bits of onion leaves, reedy, hollow, but white in colour."

This paragraph appears in a piece titled: “Ta-Pi-O-Ca Ma-Ca-Ro-Ni: Eight Syllables That Have Proved Popular In Kerala".

Readers, I am not making this up. For a few years, from around 1958 to 1964, food scientists in India were obsessed with tapioca macaroni. Originally called synthetic rice, it was developed by the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) in Mysore as a remedy for the problems of rice shortage, especially in the southern states.

Again from Yojana: “The Institute has recognised the need to reduce the pressure on rice. One of the ways of doing it is by making use of tapioca… The Institute has begun making macaroni by mixing 60 parts of tapioca flour with 25 parts of wheat flour and 15 parts of groundnut flour (for protein)."

Instead of making traditional pasta shapes from this mixture, the CFTRI pressed it into the shape of little rice grains. The hope was that rice-eaters would simply swap their rice for this nutritious, enriched synthetic rice.

Then it dawned on everyone that nobody wanted to eat something so obviously branded synthetic. So, I presume, after numerous brainstorming sessions at the CFTRI, they came up with the new name: tapioca macaroni.

Researchers studied it deeply for its nutritional implications. You can still find at least one widely quoted journal paper on the Internet: “The effect of replacement of rice in a poor vegetarian diet by tapioca macaroni on the general health and nutritional status of children."

The scientific verdict was encouraging. “It is being used in considerable quantities by the common people," writes Yojana. “Kerala is now getting nearly 600 bags of macaroni from the Institute every month." The article then says the Kerala government was setting up a tapioca macaroni plant with a daily capacity of 20 tonnes.

What happened then? Why aren’t we seeing 15kg bags of tapioca macaroni in Malayali grocery stores all over Ajman and Wembley and Washington, DC, and Pyongyang?

Because most people hated it. More than hating it, they ridiculed their communist government for telling them to go eat macaroni. It became a running joke. Later, this government would fall in dubious circumstances, and then the Green Revolution brought with it hardy varieties of rice.

Tapioca macaroni was never seen or heard from again. And much joy and delight was had by all everywhere in Kerala.

Every week, Déjà View scours historical research and archives to make sense of current news and affairs.

Comment at views@livemint.com. To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/dejaview

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