Over the past 50 years, we are seeing that diets around the world are changing and they are becoming more similar — what we call the ‘globalised diet. This diet is composed of big, major crops like wheat, rice, potato and sugar. It also includes crops that were not important 50 years ago but have become very important now, particularly oil crops like soybean.
The decline in the crop diversity in the globalised diet limited the ability to supplement the energy-dense part of the diet with nutrient rich foods. This is a real threat to our local food security as well as nutrition security faces from the ‘globalised diet’. We are all responsible directly or indirectly for this decline. If I were to ask you to count the foods that you eat I bet you will not be able to name more than a few. Wheat, rice, tomato, cucumber, apple, banana … and you begin to reel out the names you know. Not many can name even twenty. Try a little harder, and you will end up probably with another ten. If you are a little more aware, you might struggle with a few more names. That’s it!
Tribals in MP, Jharkhand and Odisha enjoy the importance and relevance of each of the 1,582 food species on an average on a cyclical basis. Of the 1,582 food species (and that included different kinds of fish, crabs and birds that are part of the daily diet of some tribals), as many as 972 were uncultivated. Yes, you heard it right. Uncultivated foods.
We don’t need your food security system, these tribals say. “The more you open ration shops in our villages, the more you force us to abandon our own food security system built by our forefathers so painstakingly over the centuries. Please leave us alone.” But why are they so disinterested in, what most policy makers and planners see as development? Don’t most educated elite think that tribals are uneducated and uncivilized, and therefore all out efforts must be made to bring them into the mainline?
When coaxed to explain to how the adivasis were living in tandem with the nature, and how the modern system was distancing them from their traditional cultures and the community control over resources, they talk about some plants that had multiple uses demonstrating the traditional skills of the community which preserved and used them without pushing them into the extinct category.
The Siali beans were the first one. Quite a big sized dry bean whose seeds are eaten after boiling or roasting, the branches are used to make ropes, and the leaves are used to make leaf plates. Kusum Koli leaves are used for fodder, fruits are eaten raw, wood is used as firewood, and oil is extracted from the seeds. The seed oil serves as a mosquito repellent and also treats certain skin diseases. Even the better know Mahua trees have multiple uses. Leaves are used for fodder, flowers are used to make jaggery, liquor and porridge. Flowers are also consumed and often sold in the market, a kind of a curry is made from the fruits besides being used as fodder, and the seed provides cooking oil after extraction. All these are unfortunately classified as uncultivated plants in agricultural parlance, and therefore do not receive any attention.
Even the cooked foods are an eye-opener. They make a traditional drink from ragi millet with a sprinkling of rice grains called Mandia jau which is actually a ragi gruel. Bursting with freshness and flavour, it is high on my daily beverage list. Considering that the sale of colas has been on a decline, it will be certainly helpful if someone was to promote Mandia jau. The next time you visit my house, be prepared to taste this exotic drink.
Odisha has Pancakes made from finger millet, foxtail millet, with a little jaggery; cakes from ragi and sesame, and then there are cooked dishes using sorghum, pearl millet, kodo millet, barnyard millet, red rice and with sprinklings of uncultivated fruits and seeds from Chattisgarh and MP. These ,if eaten regularly, can prevent and control many lifestyle diseases at a go.
While people in urban India today eat wheat, rice, maize or bajra, and about six types of vegetables, traditional Indian recipes mention over 6,000 varieties of vegetable.
A festival held in Gujarat recently laid out a spread of some of these forgotten foods in an effort to reintroduce and popularise the huge diversity of grain and vegetables still being used by rural and tribal people.
Held in the city of Ahmedabad, Gujarat, , the Sattvik (Pure) Traditional Food Festival was organized by the non-governmental organisation Sristi (Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions). The 15-year-old NGO actively documents and propagates the traditional knowledge of farmers employing sustainable agriculture.
One of the highlights of the two-day festival was a contest where urban participants had to come up with recipes using lesser-known herbs and minor grains like ragi, banti, bavto, nachini, kodra, bajra and jowar.
We need to inculcate a feeling of pride in our traditional systems. The richness of our food culture, which is so intricately linked to the preservation of natural resources, is where it can all begin. I don’t know why our agricultural universities don’t talk about it; I don’t know why our food magazines and food shows never focus on the traditional foods; and I am certainly not surprised why our Planning Commission has no idea as to what the tribal cultures imbibe.