FIRST FOOD: CULTURE OF TASTE Noted environmental activist and writer Sunita Narain releases CSE’s book on food at Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016
“We are in imminent danger of losing nature as well as the knowledge that links it to our food and nutrition. This book is about the rediscovery of the knowledge that is not all lost, and the urgent imperative to fight back to reclaim our food and our habits”: Sunita Narain
First Food: Culture of Taste delves into the knowledge of the natural environment that shaped India’s cuisine. Expounds on how food diversity is linked to diversity in the biological world, and how this is linked to food and nutrition.
The book has been published by New Delhi-based research and advocacy body Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). The Kochi event is CSE’s first such public initiative in Kerala.
Book’s writers say India’s traditional culinary knowledge is disappearing because we are losing the holders of that knowledge—our grandmothers and mothers who managed our food and brought to it cuisines that were local and nutritious.
India has the opportunity to be different in its food journey. The country does not have to first eat badly and then rediscover healthy and medicinal food that is not filled with toxins.
Kochi, March 15, 2017: Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) released its latest publication First Food: Culture of Taste, here today at at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016. The book was released by CSE director general Sunita Narain. Later in the evening, Narain moderated a panel discussion on the book. The panellists included John Kurien of the Azim Premji University, Bengaluru; M K Prasad of the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad; chef Ramu Butler of the Ramada, Kochi; Usha S, executive director of Thanal; and V Balakrishnan of the Community Agrobiodiversity Centre, MSSRF, Wayanad.
Speaking about the book, Narain said: “This book is not about gardening. It is not even about food. This 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.”
The Kochi release is the first such programme organised by CSE in Kerala.
The food-nutrition-nature-culture connection
The book is an attempt at reviving India’s traditional culture of eating home-cooked food with seasonal ingredients. The book is divided into separate sections dealing with the various groups of ingredients that make our food -- seeds, stems, roots, leaves and flowers.
Through recipes from across India, the book explores the country’s indigenous knowledge of food that, apart from satisfying the palate, is also centred on a culture of nutrition and nourishment.
The book is the second in a series, the first being First Food: A Taste of India’s Biodiversity, released in 2013, which explored the linkage between food and diversity in the biological world through a compilation of recipes from across India.
“We need to know how food diversity is linked to diversity in the biological world,” said Narain. “If biodiversity disappears we will lose the food wealth on our plates. Food will become impersonal. It will become a sterile package designed for universal size and taste. This is what is happening today as we eat packaged food from plastic boxes. Conservation of this biodiversity, indeed its celebration, requires us to cultivate it on our plates. Otherwise, not only will our food become sterile, but we will also lose nature and the knowledge that links it to food and nutrition.”
Losing the narrative?
The book is important in the current milieu of industrial and junk food that has led to a proliferation of foods with high fat, salt or sugar. Such foods are increasingly becoming an intrinsic part of our consumption patterns. This disturbing trend, as has been attested by several experts and nutritionists, is a major contributor to lifestyle-related diseases, including cardiac problems and juvenile diabetes.
To add to this, our traditional culinary knowledge is fast disappearing because we are losing the holders of that knowledge-our grandmothers and mothers who managed our food and brought to it cuisines that were local and nutritious. It is also getting lost because we do not value their knowledge. "Our food is getting "multinationalised", industrialised and "chemicalised". It is the same anywhere and everywhere. Strangely, this McDonaldisation of food has been peddled as a sign of modernity and prosperity. It has become aspirational," says Narain.
The entire blame however, doesn’t lie on the shoulders of the industry alone. Somewhere along the way, India’s science of food culture has been lost because of our own indifference, whether due to lifestyle changes or conscious choice, say the writers of First Food.
Reclaiming India's culinary legacy
India has the opportunity to be different in its food journey. The country does not have to first eat badly and then rediscover healthy and medicinal food that is not filled with toxins. India has a living tradition of healthy food still eaten in our homes. “We have never understood that the Indian diet has the hallmarks of the healthy Mediterranean diet. It too is based on eating seasonal, eating local produce and traditional preparations,” said Narain.
“Now 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. This is First Food. We need to look for the seeds, stems, leaves and flowers that would make up our daily food,’ added Narain emphatically.
This might not be easy as the natural habitats of these plants are now covered with concrete. The most biodiverse regions of the country are under threat from industry. CSE researchers say we need to create a demand for the biodiversity-rich foods that have served generations before us, and we need to protect the environment where these plants grow. There is an urgent imperative to change the narrative by creating a demand for the biodiversity-rich foods that have served generations before us, and to protect the environment where these plants grow.
This book is about the rediscovery of knowledge that is not all lost. Many of the plants that make these recipes are still found in our own backyards, or can be grown and harvested for food. Yet many of the plants are difficult to source, many difficult to grow locally. “This is a challenge,” says Narain, “It is only when this biodiversity is lived that it will live. First Food is certainly about treasuring this knowledge and creating new knowledge, which brings culinary art to our plates. The aim is to create cuisines that sustain nutrition, nature and livelihoods. 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.”
For more details or for review copies, contact Souparno Banerjee, Media Resource Centre, CSE; firstname.lastname@example.org; 09910864339
As part of its commitment to the Paris climate change agreement, India has pledged to reduce its emissions intensity by 35 per cent by 2030 under its INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Contribution). One sector that has had a big impact on climate as well as public health and air quality is urban transport. In India, especially over the past decade, rapid and rampant motorisation has enhanced the risks of air pollution.