A new book on lost cuisines brings back the diversity of nature into your kitchen.

There are various kinds of maps in the world. Some are about power and control, staking out territory or resource; their preferred perch is the flattened grid of a monocultural imagination, political, cultural, or environmental. But there are other fluid maps that emerge from the terrains of human experience. These maps trace the ecology of cultures across time and space, with an open mind.

There is no denying that our food habits are becoming monocultural. But what if our taste buds were to revolt against today’s sterile palate? What universe of flavours would they trace, or retrace? What could they do to shake the notion that to be ‘refined’ — packaged and processed into a weed-like monoculture of taste — is a sign of being modern?

One response comes from Sunita Narain, head of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), and her colleague Vibha Varshney, science editor of the CSE journal Down To Earth, in their latest publication First Food: A Taste of India’s Biodiversity. “Eating processed or junk food is not a sign of being modern; celebrating food diversity is. We say, bring back the diversity of nature in your kitchen and flavours on your plate. For, if we lose the knowledge and culture of local cuisines, we stand to lose much more than their taste and smell — we will lose biodiversity in nature,” says Narain.

It is an act of excavation held together by narratives arising from travels into India’s rich hinterlands. First Food resurrects around 100 traditional recipes originating in different parts of the country and in different plant varieties. Many of these recipes recall an ecosystem of everyday flavours that has largely faded but, in themselves, they conjure up a remarkable diversity of taste gathered from wetland, forest, desert, hill, and farm. Attuned to season and region, these flavours are characterised by an inherently refined aesthetic of minimalism, and the idea that food is a way of balancing the body with the environment.

In the local universe that is retraced, the poor man’s manna, the nutritious makhana (fox nut or water lily seed) is snack, bread, curry and dessert in north and east India, not merely a ritual presence; so too the singhara (water chestnut) and chaulai (amaranth). Power-packed, drought-resistant millets and sorghum — the ‘poor man’s rice or wheat’, whose riches we are awakening to now — appear across central India, be it sorghum bhakhar (bread) combined with mineral-rich mahua flowers, or the kodo millet, which boasts five times the fibre content of rice and can be stored for 20 years without any threat from pests.

Uttarakhand’s drought-tolerant gahat dal (horse gram), considered good for kidney stones, and northeastern bamboo shoots create a Himalayan range. Neem and cooked rice soaked in water overnight is the way in Bengal, while the drumstick and the poor man’s rich gruel made of broken rice leaven the southern diet. The ubiquitous vitamin-rich amla and the juicy karanda, fruit of the dry desert, look on in multiple guises.

Summer coolers are a diverse spread: in the north, thandai, juices of bael fruit and rhododendron flower; in central India, the palash flower’s cooling flavour; towards the south, kokum’s tanginess and buttermilk with brahmi leaves.

Pakoras are an ode to nostalgia: the bhang pakora is a map of Varanasi, the mahua pakora a bittersweet memory, and the fibrous jute leaf pakora is soaked in the moist texture of the Gangetic soil of a pre-Partition home (now Bangladesh).

This project has come as a revelation, says Varshney. “I am from western Uttar Pradesh where we are not very familiar with the drumstick. Similarly, one knew of the mahua as a fermented brew, but did not know of pakoras or bhakar made with it. Jute leaves as snack also came as a surprise. As a botanist, I knew of them as plants that were economically important, but not as food.”

Interestingly, in the writings of over 40 contributors — food enthusiasts, experts and activists, among others — the recipes are framed by contextualising information about a particular food item, its nutritious, medicinal, festive and ritual importance, the biology of the plant and its environmental significance. It becomes clear that the specific recipes, ingredients, culinary methods and eating habits of each region are actually expressions of a sophisticated collective wisdom that could only have evolved out of a keen study of, and intimate connect with, a particular natural environment, in tune with cyclical time. As long as that connectedness remains in everyday life, diversity remains — in food, culture, and nature. Once destroyed, biodiversity cannot be replicated through monocultures.

For instance, most of us identify rice with polished basmati rice. But Narain points out that every region has its rice variety; some are also recognised for their medicinal qualities in addition to their nutritive value. In Kerala, local genius has made possible the salt-resistant Kuttanad variety in low-lying lands, which can be grown in seawater, as well as the medicinal Navara variety in the land-locked Palakkad district, which received its Geographical Indication Certificate in 2007. Rice is the staple of Kerala’s culture — a source of nutrition and medicine, and as a flavour of festive celebration; as a ritual offering in all rite of passage ceremonies, and as a medium for the vibrant creativity of kolams (floor patterns), among others. Bengal has a tradition of cooking different varieties in different seasons.

The ubiquitous drumstick tree is outstandingly rich in vitamins and calcium. Also, its seeds have captured the research community’s attention for their ability to purify water.

Similarly, the makhana, said to heal cardiovascular disease and post-delivery pain, grows wild in Bihar’s wetlands and ponds, created by channelising excess flood water, and is harvested by fisher people. Food experts say it can be a multi-crore enterprise. Yet, the wetlands are dying due to lack of legal protection. Since the makhana is not an important everyday taste on our tongues today, and the link with nature is broken, both diversity of taste and biodiversity stand to lose.

Take the mahua tree. As long as it was central India’s survival tree for food and drink, it was never cut, and sustained a particular ecosystem. Colonial interests in mahua’s properties placed the tree beyond people’s reach; the trend continues to this day. Now in the general perception there is no difference between teak grown for timber, or mahua. In Uttarakhand, too, indiscriminate felling of the rhododendron tree signals the loss of a singular taste.

There is a telling example of what happens when rigid notions of modernity exclude diversity as a pestilent. Post-Independence, Maharashtra’s tribal pockets with their unique, sustainable nutrition systems were nudged towards modern agricultural systems of grain and pulses to further food sufficiency. Efforts to document their earlier cuisines has made many elders realise that their mainstay food was never grain, as is popularly believed now, but wild greens. The switch has contributed to ailments like anaemia and joint pains, they believe. The larger amnesia about their knowledge systems of taste now makes farmers uproot the same vegetables that used to nourish them. Again, what is lost is diversity of taste, and biodiversity.

World over, communities perturbed by environmental and health concerns with regard to conventional agriculture, are trying to relearn the lessons of locally grown produce. There are sections of urban India too which now believe that in a globalised world the local is the new modern.

But for that, the local needs to be conceptualised afresh to chart out a life-affirming map of food diversity, and biodiversity, in our times.

First Food: A Taste of India's Biodiversity; Sunita Narain and Vibha Varshney, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, Rs.950.

Available at the CSE store (http://csestore.cse.org.in/books/anil-agarwal-readers/first-food.html) and other online stores.