The Reluctant Gourmet Food

Does it have a pulse?

Quick. Name ten local pulses. Floundering? Okay, let’s make this easier. Name five? Turning to Google while you sip on a turmeric latte fresh off Pinterest? Stand in a corner with your finger on your lips. Actually, don’t. We are all equally to blame for this gap in culinary memory.

In two generations, urban India has forgotten how to grow, cook and eat a wealth of indigenous foods. With the UNFAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) declaring 2016 as the International Year of Pulses, this is a good time as any to reflect on the challenge of reviving them.

But first, what exactly are pulses? These are a sub-group of legumes that produce edible seeds. The term is used for crops that are harvested for dry grains, such as lentils, beans and chickpeas.

As for the answer to my first question? Kulith (horse gram), tamarind seeds, chow-dhari (winged beans), matki (moth bean), sutari (rice bean), urad (split black gram), tuvar (pigeon peas), masoor (red lentils), kala vatana (black peas), chole (kabuli chana). If you did not recognise 50 per cent of those names, you are not alone. I confess I got help. Fortunately, celebrity nutritionist and bestselling author, Rujuta Diwekar, who recently released a book on Indian Superfoods, is just a phone call away. She has spent the last couple of months working on a list of marginalised local pulses, along with her inspiring group of “senior interns”.

Rujuta’s focus over the past few years has been on recording and interpreting oral wisdom, which she says is our collective heritage. “In about 25 years, the people who have this wisdom won’t be alive — and we will lose it all,” she says, explaining why she recently hired four senior interns, all aged above 65. They included Shaila Nimbkar (a doctor), Rekha Rohra (a school principal), Sanjay Bhinde (a farmer) and Rujuta’s mother, Rekha Diwekar (a professor of organic chemistry).

Pooling all their resources, the team started research on pulses. “Pulses are a miracle food. They’re cheap, nutritious, climate resilient and easy to store. But our farmers have been ignoring them, and switching to more profitable cash crops,” says Rujuta, adding that as a result, over the past few decades, people have forgotten how to use them.

The senior interns, in fact, needed guidance from their elders. Dr. Shaila, who is 67 years old, went to her 94-year-old mother-in-law. Sanjay, the farmer, took his questions to his village in Sangli (Maharashtra). Women there, in their 80s and 90s, told him about kulith, used for kollu rasam in the South, pithla in Maharashtra and kichadi in Himachal. “You know a food belongs to a culture when you have diverse methods of using it,” says Rujuta.

Kulith became the star of this campaign. It grows across the country, has an impressive nutrient profile and is packed with antioxidants. More importantly, it’s cheap. One serving of 25 grams, which contains 6.25 grams of protein, costs Rs. 1.50. Compare that to a Rs. 5 egg, with 6.6 grams of protein. “In the villages, they mix it with sugarcane juice and boil it for an easy, quick and nutritious snack for new mothers,” says Rujuta.

Traditionally, farmers would grow a grain, then follow it with pulses, which fixed nitrogen into the soil. Then they would grow vegetables in that enriched soil. “It meant we had a good sustainable cycle in place for generations,” says Rujuta. But these crops stopped bringing in money. So farmers abandoned them.” She adds, “There’s been a systematic brainwashing — we have been taught to look at everything native to us as suspicious or fattening, and everything we can eat out of a box as healthy.”

There’s hope though. With the Western world celebrating Indian super foods such as ghee, coconut oil and turmeric, Indians are finally appreciating their culinary inheritance. Rujuta’s not overly impressed by the shift. “Instead of listening to our grandparents, we follow American food blogs,” she says, adding dryly, “It’s like learning to love my child only after a DNA test proves it’s mine!”

If we want to eat better, we must become demanding consumers. “Start asking for food that is grown responsibly. For food that is traditional, and nutritious. The market will respond,” she says. In the meantime, go through your grandmother’s old recipe books. “Everyday, our senior interns would bring in food – kadhis and kichadis their grandmothers had taught them,” she says. Then adds delightedly, “Today’s our final day, and they gave each of us a bhajani pulse mix as a farewell gift. It has 19 types of pulses and grains, and can be rolled into a chappati.” Admit it. There is nothing in a box that can beat that.

Bake your own bread. All you need is flour, salt, yeast and oil. An added bonus: your house will smell fantastic.

Stop calling yourself a ‘foodie’. It’s become a clichéd blanket term for anyone who has a phone camera, restaurant access and an Instagram account. So, basically everyone.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2021 2:53:37 AM |

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