The other day at the supermarket I was searching high and low for shahjeera. How naïve could I have been! Had I instead looked for cayenne pepper, marjoram, thyme and their ilk, I would have hit pay dirt. The attendants couldn’t find it or had even heard about it, so the supervisor and then the manager were summoned one after the other. The last gave me some helpful advice. ‘Ma’am, no one asks for those desi spices anymore. Why don’t you try out some new dishes with these? They are the hot items.’ If looks could have withered, there would have been one withered store manager in front of me that day.
When did it happen? How did we our store shelves change their character? And how did our palates become this westernised? So enamoured we are of these videsi stuff that we have begun swearing by foods that once were a one-off thing whether eaten out or cooked at home. No, I am not against global cuisine or even experimenting with new foods and spices, but I object to the relegation of local foods and spices to obscurity.
And I object even more to the ads and programmes that advocate the use of foreign ingredients including the exorbitantly priced olive oil as the best bets for taste and health. Sensible dieticians and nutritionists say that any fat is bad, if used in excess of the body needs. Period. They also advise us to stick to traditional oils and fats including ghee in moderation instead of consuming something that is alien to our genes in the name of health. But who is listening? Ads making implied claims that it is fine to eat stuff fried in olive oil are as misleading as the whitening cream ads. But their aim is served with even the neighbourhood grandma having begun frying her chalkis in olive oil to lure her grandchildren, while they hanker after nachos and fries.
What is more alarming is the vanishing of local vegetables and fruits with a whole generation growing up without having heard of a lot of them, leave alone tasting them. Even a small town like Nanded boasts of a shop selling ‘Important’ (imported??) fruits! Go on, take a look.
How smoothly do these videsi stuff take over! When it first came to India, we were sold cute little tubs of boiled sweet corn spiced with Italian herbs and cheese. I loved it. But then I also had the option of going for a hot roasted bhutta by the roadside, generously spiced with kala namak and a dash of lemon juice. Today I have to search high and low for it and I bet that least metro kids don’t know that another variety exists/existed.
And the capsicums! I used to love this vegetable when they appeared only during the chill months. They cost the earth by comparison to other winter veggies. Today they are as cheap , even cheaper than other vegetables. Do you know why? Because the pizzerias need them and so have made farmers take up to raising them in place of other vegetables.
At the weekly vegetable market broccoli and lettuce rule, while the humble ganwar (cluster beans), padwal and their cousins languish in the baskets of old men and women from nearby villages sitting in a corner, waiting for the likes of me to come and give them some business.
‘Chinese kharbuj’ is available all through the year while our very own desi variety is hardly seen even during summer. Washington apples have long since replaced Kinnaur and Kashmiri apples as the preferred variety as have other fruits. Are our fruits exported or have we started growing foreign fruits here., I wonder?
One fruit I really looked forward to during the dreary monsoon months in Delhi was the sweet and juicy soft pear (babbugosha) and the Indian pear (nashpati/nak/berikkai), which is crunchier. Today I get only imported pears that don’t taste half as good. Chikoos are another casualty. Whatever happened to the juicy and sugary sweet Golwadi chikoo, which are not even available in the local markets? Desi fruits and vegetables are becoming scarce and driving up the prices.
Look at some other changes:
- Oats and cornflakes with their fancy variations have pride of place while their plebian counterparts dalia and poha vie for attention in supermarket shelves.
- Imported pasta, noodles and Chinese ‘chutneys’ fly off the shelves in double quick time. Already an entire generation swears by the ‘nutritional value’ of Maggi with its various avatars of atta, multi-grain and even oats!
- Every kind of cheese can be found with imported ones holding pride of place,but where is paneer? Ah, there it is! But I want paneer, not tofu paneer!
You get the drift, don’t you?
It is the subtle way in which our tastes and perceptions of groceries and vegetables and fruits have been influenced by the multinationals and cookery show hosts. The latter even peddle olive oil as the only healthy cooking medium and oats as the super food!
Cornflakes (two bowls a day) is supposed to give one an hourglass figure in two weeks. How sick can the advertisers be and how stupid can the consumers be? Don’t say that people are not taken in. For every two who can see through the ads, there are twenty who are falling hook, line and sinker for them. Why else do we find bigger cartons and fancier flavours of cornflakes and other breakfast cereals? You can read about how ‘healthy’ these cereals are, here.
That is not all. Pizzas and burgers have replaced samosa and kachori; vada pav is a novel dish to be tried especially since foreign tour guides recommend it! Finding Chinese spices and sauces (even chutneys!), Italian herbs, Moroccon cereals and Thai curry pastes is easier than finding our own spices and herbs. At this rate, we will soon be importing subzi masala, sambar powder and the like from abroad or made by Kelloggs or other multinationals and even swear by them. Haven’t we done it with other things like Ayurveda and yoga? Conversations like ‘Have you tried Sara Lee’s puran poli mix? It is awesome!’ or ‘You should try Campbell’s sambar powder. The flavour is authentic!’ (sic) would become commonplace in the not too distant future, mark my words.
Fusion cooking is fine, but for god’s sake, let us at least master one of them before fusing them into some awful mash. It looks fantastic with the lighting and the special effects on screen, but could easily turn out to be ‘Interesting!’ at the best and ‘Yuck!’ at the worst when tried at home.
I know, I know. I am not changing with the times. Maybe I should make my dal makhni with thyme and cayenne pepper instead of jeera and chilly powder and top it with parmesan cheese (‘It is healthy’) instead of butter (‘Oh no! the calories will kill me!’). And while I am at it, I should replace the dalia in my khichdi with quinoa or cous-cous, maybe? That should surely make me a ‘cool cook’ who is health conscious to boot!
Perhaps too, I might actually end up using just those in the not too distant future as I won’t find the original ingredients!
My friend A-kay has given this link to illustrate the fate of quinoa in its native Bolivia. Apparently, the once staple of the people there, it has become inaccesible to them due to the craze for it in the rest of the world. India is fast catching up: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/20/world/americas/20bolivia.html
On an aside, the Modi government has been talking of generating employment and developing indigenous industries. How about setting up cottage industries and promoting local breakfast cereals to begin with? Process them if you must, to cater to the busy urban populace, innovate and make them appealing with attractive packaging. And while we are at it, how about declaring our local vegetables and fruits as endangered and set up farms to produce/protect them? Better still, give incentives to farmers to grow them with a buy-back guarantee? Is someone listening?