Just before the rWorld Food India 2017 event, there were the mandatory snickers, outraged reactions and sneers – at the announcement of #khichdi being the dish in focus. There was even more derisive chatter of the Twitterati at the news that Chef Sanjeev Kapoor and his team were planning to make 800 kg of khichdi to create a world record. That it eventually turned out to be a 918 kg dish is besides the point.
Oh, why couldn’t we have waited for some western country or multinational to have quietly taken khichdi and sold it back to us? Of course suitably labelled with a catchy description – ‘a nutritious dish made with a mixture of super cereals and lentils flavoured with aromatic South Asian herbs and spiced with a dash of lemon juice,’ or some such drivel. How cool would it have been then to just pick up the attractive packet from a snooty supermarket to heat up in the microwave oven, eh? That is what we are increasingly doing these days. Don’t take my word. Read this story.
And remember, it should be South Asian spices – not Indian, never Indian! We DON”T exist, see?
It is this western and foreign fixation that is fast threatening to doom our local produce and which had made me write a post a couple of years ago. I think it is the perfect time to share it again.
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 westernized (or pretending to be westernized)? So enamored are we 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 like Rujuta Diwekar 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 chaklis in olive oil to lure her grandchildren, who 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 have these videsi stuff taken over! When sweet corn first came to India, we were sold cute little tubs of the boiled kernels 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 , red chilly powder and a dash of lemon juice, when my palate demanded a spicy Indian version. Today I have to search high and low for it without avail, and I bet that at 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, with the result that they don’t have a fraction of the flavour that they once had.
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 only foreign fruits, 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? They are fattening, didn’t you know? Tsk tsk! Ah, there it is! But I want paneer, not tofu paneer! Sigh!
You get the drift, don’t you?
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 if they were to try it? 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 (they have even renamed them chutneys to give a desi flavour), 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 try out our cuisine, of which there are thousands of dishes 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 and am a dinosaur, right? 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 in butter will kill me!’). And while I am at it, I should replace the dalia in my khichdi with quinoa or cous-cous, maybe? That would surely make me a ‘cool cook’ who is health conscious to boot! Who knows I might even get invited to host some cookery show!
On a more sober note, I might actually end up using just those in the not too distant future as I won’t be able to find the original ingredients anyway!
Read about the fate of quinoa in its native Bolivia. Once the staple of the people there, it has become inaccessible today to them due to the craze for it in the rest of the world.
India could easily become the food capital of the world given its immeasurably vast and varied cuisine that spans the nutritional spectrum and caters to every climate and palate. The World Food India 2017 is an effort in the right direction and hopefully it should bring Indian food into international focus and force it to look beyond ‘curry’, ‘vindaloo’, ‘kebabs’ or chicken tikka masala.