Tuesday , 10 December 2019
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Forgotten food from India

Zubin D’souza

Have you ever wondered what the national vegetable of India could possibly be? Although there is no official mention, based on consumption patterns, the award could rightly be bestowed upon the pumpkin. Although this is the most widely consumed fruit, it is definitely not of Indian origin since it was supposedly first cultivated in North America. It is definitely not the tomato or chilli as these were only introduced in India post Portuguese colonisation. What is it? We don’t know and definitely as generations pass by, there are many more foods that we are likely to forget.

Ancient Indian texts mention around six thousand vegetables that could be cooked and the health benefits that they each held. Stroll through a market and you would be lucky if you came up with 60 different vegetables. Our fast paced lives ensure that we pick food that is ready to eat, loaded with preservatives or just easy to prepare and plonk food that does not add anything in terms of nutrition.

There used to be a time when almost all illnesses were fought with nectar known as shilajit. There is a strange history to shilajit, which commences around two hundred million years ago when the present day India was actually an island off the coast of Australia and was separated by the Eurasian continent by the Tethys Sea. When the Indian continent slammed into the Asian continent, it caused the Tethys seabed to rise up and form what we now know as the Himalayan mountain range. There was obviously lush foliage that grew on this extremely fertile former seabed that was now part of the landmass. As the mountains kept pushing upwards, there were several plants and biological materials that got trapped between the layers of rock and soil. These ingredients combined with the sheer pressure exerted by the weight of the mountains managed to transform into a semi soft, gooey substance that flows out from the layers of rock. This incidentally is also sometimes used as a reference point in the Indian mythological story about the churning of the ocean with the mountain that gives rise to the nectar of immortality.

Then of course each time a lifestyle disease threatens us, we rush to a doctor to have him prescribe us some drugs that would make most of the ailments go away.

We have pretty much forgotten about the Avaram flower or the ‘Cassia Auriculata’ that was always available in a South Indian kitchen. Turned into an idli or chutney, it has the power to prevent diabetes.

Then there is also the balloon vine spinach which was always fed to people to reduce joint and ear pain and the oil extracted from it was used to cure arthritis.

Pipla and pipli which are my favourite spices not for the flavour that they impart, but for their absolutely funny names also make a mention in this list. They are known as long peppercorns and resemble tiny elongated pinecones. They are used in poultices or rasams to cure colds and chronic whooping cough.

Then of course we have the bajra, jowar and millets that we do not really use every day but should incorporate in our diets. There are so many variants and each one is packed with massive amounts of nutrients, proteins and vitamins. There are barnyard millets, kodo millets, sorghum, pearl millets…the list goes on. So many possibilities and so many answers to our perennial health related issues. If only they were not as forgotten, we may have been much healthier today than we could ever wish for.

Hippocrates was right when he said: “Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food.”

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