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Finger on the pulse

Fading Away:Pulses are cheap, nutritious, climate resilient and easy to store. But overthe past few decades, people have forgotten how to use them.— File Photo: Thulasi Kakkat  

Quick. Name 10 local pulses. Floundering? Okay, let’s make this easier.

Name five? Are you 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 the span of two generations, urban India has forgotten how to grow, cook and eat a wealth of indigenous foods. With the UNFAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) declaring 2016 as the International Year of Pulses, this is as good a 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), chhole (kabuli chana).

If you did not recognise 50 per cent of those names, you are not alone.

I confess I got help: fortunately, the celebrity nutritionist and bestselling author, Rujuta Diwekar, who recently released a book on Indian super foods, 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”.

Diwekar’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, 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: mother, Rekha Diwekar (a professor of organic chemistry), Shaila Nimbkar (a doctor), Rekha Rohra (a school principal), and Sanjay Bhinde (a farmer).

‘Miracle food’

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 Diwekar, 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. Nimbkar, who is 67, went to her 94-year-old mother-in-law. Bhinde 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 khichadi in Himachal.

“You know a food belongs to a culture when you have diverse methods of using it,” says Diwekar.

Kulith became the star of this pulse 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 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 Diwekar.

Traditionally, farmers would grow a grain, then follow it with pulses, which fixed nitrogen content into the soil. Then they would grow vegetables in that enriched soil. “It meant we had a good sustainable cycle in place for generations. But these crops stopped bringing in money. So farmers abandoned them. 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.

Diwekar’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.”

In the meantime, go through your grandmother’s old recipe books. “Every day, our senior interns would bring in food, kadhis and khichadis their grandmothers had taught them.”

Then she 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 chapati.”

Admit it. There is nothing in a box that can beat that.

Urban India has forgotten how to grow, cook and

eat a wealth of indigenous foods

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 5:30:23 AM |

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