Did you know that a couple of bananas a day can lower your blood pressure? That nineteenth century sailors used to eat potatoes to fight scurvy? That Ayurveda considers rice the perfect healing food? That George Bernard Shaw was a brinjal—loving vegetarian? That turmeric could have anti carcinogenic properties? That urad dal is an aphrodisiac?
Ratna Rajaiah takes a walk down memory lane, only to find it redolent with the aromas of her mothers and grandmothers kitchens, and lined with the spices and condiments of her youth. Pausing often, she meets old culinary friends — coconuts and chillies, mangoes and jackfruit, ragi and channa dal, ghee and jaggery, mustard seeds and curry leaves and introduces us to almost— forgotten joys, like the sight of steaming kanji or the scent of freshly cut ginger Taking detours, she shares recipes for old favourites (often with a surprising twist!) and reveals delightful slivers of trivia and fascinating nuggets of gastronomic history. Delving deep, she discovers that traditional fare is much more than comfort food (many local ingredients are health—giving and healing too) and that much of what the West is discovering about herbs and spices has been known to our ancestors for centuries. An unabashed and wonderful ode to the blessings of simple, traditional vegetarian food.
Ratna Rajaiah graduated from Lady Sri Ram College with a Bachelo?s degree in English Literature. Nevertheless, if anyone had suggested to her at the time that she would write a book one day, she would have probably scoffed at them. Indeed, the road that led to this book was a circuitous — if intriguing — one. First, a postgraduate MBA degree from TIM, Calcutta resulted in a longish stint with Rediffusion Advertising, one of India’s top advertising agencies. Later, Ratna left her career in advertising to explore the world of television and cinema. She started by working with Shekhar Kapur, and went on to direct Meri Awaz Suno, a singing talent contest produced by Yash Chopra’s television software company At the same time, she began writing a column for Mid-Day, a humorous, irreverent take on anything and everything, which, much to her delight, became very popular. More writing assignments followed for publications like The Hindu and India Today. And so a writer was born.
The Mid-Day column, which had run for five years, ended soon after Ratna relocated from Mumbai to Mysore, but another weekly column was in the offing, this time in the New indian Express. Called ‘New Age Living’, it was an attempt to revisit ancient wisdoms like Ayurveda, yoga, spirituality and traditional food and make them relevant to modern living. The success of that column led to the conception of this book.
Have you noticed how, of late, many of us have begun to battle with our food, viewing it as Enemy No. 1, the Devil Incarnate that lures us to obesity and disease? Our relationship with food is increasingly an unhappy one, We eat too much — or then, too little. To add to our woes, there is the additional pressure of not only having to be healthy but also to be thin. And almost every piece of new research or expert—speak on the subject of healthy eating — popping up with the irritating regularity of zits on a teenager’s skin — contradicts the previous one.
So coffee was bad for you, now it’s good. Chocolates were almost a mortal sin, Now they may actually help in lowering cholesterol. (but don’t bet on it because we’re still researching.) Talking of cholesterol, we hope you’re seriously cutting down on all that fat butter, ghee, cream etcetera, etcetera you get our drift. Except vegetable oils a bit of those are alright. As long as they don’t include saturated fats.
Er, hold on a minute. About those saturated fats — we’ve just found out that some of them may not be the deadly villains that we thought they were. (We hope you didn’t chuck out that bottle of coconut oil as yet.) It’s actually the trans fats that are the problem.
Trans fats? You mean like transatlantic — is that what they cook airline meals with?
Oh never mind — let’s keep this for some other time. (Perhaps some other hook?)
Meanwhile, we hope you are also counting those calories. No, no, it’s much better to calculate your BNI and then figure out your calorie quota. But remember to factor in your age, bones, sex (and we didn’t mean frequency), lifestyle, your family history, your dog’s family history.
Actually, forget counring.Just eat from a smaller plate.
Na,no. Make that smaller meals but at least six times a day
Ruhbish. just three large meals and nothing in between.
And just in case you are not traumatized enough, stirred into this bubbling cauldron of toil and trouble as urban middle—class India gets more prosperous and as globalization invades your kitchens and your dining tables — are fast foods, instant foods, heat ‘n’ eat foods, ready—to—eat foods, tow minute wonder foods. Culinary modcons but nutritional paupers. And as India gets fatter and more unhealthy (it is among the world’s ten most obese countries and one of the epicentres of both heart disease and diabetes), everyone is running around in stressed—out, feverish, confused circles, trying to figure out what and how much to eat.
I stood twitching and hyperventilating at this very same crossroad a few years ago. And I remember thinking that it wasn’t always like this.
Food was a happy thing. It was a celebration. Food was a sadhana, both the cooking and eating of it. We were connected to it in a thousand ways. It was the prasadam with which ‘we propitiated our gods, it was the harvest that we gratefully and joyously received as blessings of bounty from Mother Earth. (And that is the reason why so many of our festivals, like Pongal and Sankranti, celebrate harvest time!) Food was our public relations manager with which we conveyed to our guests exactly how welcome they were. Food was our almanac, marking the seasons. It was our biographer, participating in each rite of passage from birth to death. And perhaps most important of all, especially in today’s context, food was also medicine. Or rather, medicine was food, depending on how you looked at it.
When did it all change? When did we become such guilt—ridden, unhappy eaters? And more importantly, was there a road that would take us back to that joyful, nourishing, healing avatar of food that is India’s heritage?
As I asked myself these questions, I got an opportunity to write a weekly column in the Sunday edition of the New Indian Express. And it was in the writing of these columns that I decided to find the answers because I felt that there were hundreds like me, anxiously looking for the road that would take us back to happier, healthier mealtimes.
I started by revisiting foods that were old buddies. (My first food column was about curd!) Foods that I had grown up eating, that were knitted into some of the most beautiful and indelible memories of my childhood; fabulous tapestries of tastes and aromas, many of them forgotten and rolled up in sonic dusty, dark corner of my mind. These foods instantly transported me into my mother’s kitchen and conjured up her cooking; simple, no—nonsense, no—fuss fare, rustled up in a trice and always with the freshest of ingredients, filling both belly and soul with the deepest contentment. (My mother has the deepest aversion for leftover food, so you will never find any in her refrigerator!) They were foods that had been served tip to me with the sagacity of two of the wisest women I have ever known — my mother and my maternal grandmother.
That’s all very well, but why would anyone be interested in my private collection of favourite foods? After all, I am no size—zero celebrity flaunting my fashionably tiny shanks whittled down by iceberg lettuce and feta cheese.
Ah, but there was one more reason why I revisited these foods — because I vaguely remembered that they were also very healthy.
But were they?
What I discovered was astonishing — that the nutritional and medicinal wealth that these foods contained was far beyond anything I could have ever imagined. And in the course of discovering this, I also peeped into the medicine chests of ancient civilizations all the way from Mesopotamia to Magadha. I met their great medicine men: Sushruta and Charaka, the renowned Indian sages of Ayurveda; Hippocrates of Greece and Galen of ancient Rome, whose works and theories would ultimately shape modern Western medicine; the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung considered to be the father of Chinese medicine; the Persian Avicenna, or Ibn Sina, astronomer, mathematician, philosopher, physician and founder of the Unani system of medicine, who studied not just the mortal human body but also pondered on immortality. I made acquaintance with medical texts thousands of years old, many written by these men and some — like the Egyptian Elvis and Edwin Papyrus — by authors who remain unknown. I was astounded by the vast expanse and sophistication of the knowledge that was inside.
And the question that popped up again and again in my astounded head was — how did these people know?
With nothing that even remotely resembled the laboratories and research technology that we have access to today, these men knew about the medicinal and therapeutic properties of hundreds of foods. For example, in Ayurveda, curry leaves have long been used to treat diabetes. Several thousands of years later, we now know that this is because they slow down the breakdown of carbohydrates to glucose. This in turn regulates the release of glucose into the bloodstream. Similarly ginger’s therapeutic powers were used in almost every ancient system of medicine to cure disorders ranging from dyspepsia to rheumatism. Today, we know that ginger is a powerful anti—inflammatory and a potent antioxidant.
For me, these men were some of the greatest explorers of the world because they dared to chart unknown worlds inside the human body. They delved inside the tiniest spice, the most delicate herb, looking for weapons to fight beasts and monsters that they couldn’t see but were no less fierce and dangerous than the mighty oceans.
I journeyed back in time to visit the fabulous pharaohs of Egypt, the magnificent empires of the Mayas, the Aztecs and the Incas. (I even sipped a cup of hot chocolate with Montezuma — laced with chillies!) I was privileged to peek into sumptuous feasts in the glittering courts of the great royal dynasties of China and India and be privy to what the gods favoured — all the way from ancient Greece to the magnificent temples of South India. I went inside caves where humans lived and painted tens of thousands of years before they could speak or write, and to an era when time was measured in yugas and the great wisdom of the I-ides was handed to us. And to a time even before that when we humans must have been just a dream, an idea, a notion, afloat on plankton in some primordial sea.
It was an incredible journey. (And somewhere during that journey, the newspaper column grew up and became a book.)
But often, it was also a difficult one. All these foods are ancient nutritionists and healers, many of them native to India, growing in our land for centuries. Yet sadly enough, information was only available about the foods that had been lately ‘discovered’ and adopted’ by the West, and had become the darlings of its high—profile New Ages gurus. And most of this information came from ‘Western studies. There is little initiative in India to research local foods and the studies that have been done languish in obscure, inaccessible places.
So, for example, there was no dearth of research available on turmeric, currently a superstar among anti-carcinogenic foods in the west. But, there was almost nothing on ghee, considered by Ayurveda to be of great therapeutic and nutritional importance, promoting everything from intelligence to sexual vitality Data was equally hard to come by about urad dal (hlacl gram). Or jaggery. Or local greens.
But that made me even more determined to write about these foods. Even though 1 knew that if 1 were to write about even half of them, I’d need at least another lifetime and the contents would probably fit into two Encyclopaedia Britannicas just about. So I chose a select few that would serve as a tantalizing appetizer to India’s agricultural biodiversity. (After all, we are home to at least twenty thousand species of rice and over five hundred species of mango) That, I decided, would he my show window for foods eaten for thousands of years all over India in millions of delicious repasts and bursting with health and nutrition, but many of them now either forgotten or misunderstood, maligned and relegated to that purgatory called ‘unhealthy food’. Foods that made me a humble and proud witness to my country’s true wealth.
They also made me remember who I am, because the food of our ancestors is as much a part of our identity as our genes. They made me understand that it’s not just an apple a day that keeps the doctor away lts also a handful of sprouted mung or roasted channa or peanuts. A howl of rice kanji. A curry of methi and alu. A katori of curd. A simple del, seasoned with a devil—chilli or two, a smidgen of mustard and a few pinches of turmeric. Washed down with a glass of cool, creamy buttermilk spiked with a few fragrant slivers of ginger and a handful of curry leaves. Signed off with a banana or a few portions of mango or jackfruit.
All of which grow in great abundance in our country, many of them in our backyards. Yet, malnutrition and nutrition—related diseases are rife and ‘we see the most painful evidence of it in our children. We may well be a nation where one in every two Indians has a mobile phone hut we will also have to realize that true development is when nutrition and good health is available to all 0f us.
I also wrote for one other reason — to reconnect with the joy of eating. As children, all of us have at some time or another been admonished not to talk while eating and to chew our food well before swallowing it. There is a very good reason for those rules — chewing each mouthful forty—two times not only improves your digestion, but you also get to experience the little symphony 0f all five senses that plays so joyously with every mouthful.
So, my point is this. Nutrition, like food, should be a celebration. As our cells are nourished and replenished and rejuvenated, as the nasty invaders bearing disease and distress are summarily dismissed, our noses should exult in the embrace of a hundred aromas, our taste buds should laugh joyously at being tickled by all six tastes. (Yes, six because Ayurveda says so!) Our tongues and fingers should be seduced by the soft and the crunchy the cool and the hot and our eyes should feast on colours stolen from the sun and the rainbow. And at the end of every meal gentle happy litter burp should escape our lips, just loud enough for the gods to hear our paean of gratitude.
I’d like to leave you with the Kannada phrase with which we traditionally exhort our guests each time we sit them down for a celebratory feast.
The literal meaning is Please eat slowly but it means so much more. It’s invitation to cruise on the river that gently and ever so slowly takes you upstream to the land of happy healthy meals.
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