Tuesday, December 11, 2018
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Posted at: Dec 2, 2018, 1:55 AM; last updated: Dec 2, 2018, 1:55 AM (IST)

India’s turn to go slow

Moving over fast and fancy food, India is slowly but steadily going back to the indigenous food culture that nourished our ancestors

Lovedeep Sidhu

In 1986, a man named Carlo Petrini saw the opening of a McDonald’s outlet near the Spanish Steps in Rome as a threat to local food, resulting in a mass protest and birth of the Slow Food movement a few years later. Every year, December 10 is observed as Terra Madre (Mother Earth) Day. It is Slow Food’s annual day to promote the diversity of food traditions too.

Although the phenomenon of fast food, takeaway meals, and ready-to-eat junk appeared much later in India, it was quick to engulf nutrition, mindful eating, and home-cooked fare, replacing it with a steady rise in blood sugar and blood pressure levels, obesity, and a host of other lifestyle diseases. After more than two decades of surviving with grease-lined palates, Indian millennials are waking up to the horrors of wolfing down burgers. With impetus from nutritionists, doctors, chefs, and global campaigns such as Slow Food, we’re realising the wisdom in eating the way our forefathers did.

Slow Food represents everything that fast food isn’t — clean, local, good. It supports the consumption of food grown locally, traded in fairly by producers and consumers, and cooked using traditional methods. As it attempts to influence lifestyles, it’s not just an idea borne out of a protest against industrialisation of food. Slow Food calls for the resumption of traditional techniques that will ensure that nutritious food and the culture associated with regional dishes sustain for generations to come.

After touching upon mindsets across as many as 160 countries, its foray in India has been more recent, when Meghalaya became a part of it in 2015 and hosted the first Indigenous Terra Madre. The state is home to almost 250 tribes practising their culinary heritage and the food here remains extremely localised, seasonal, and fresh. In August, Slow Food Nagaland Community was launched alongside the Slow Food Youth Network Nagaland (SFYNN), under the guidance of long-time Slow Food activist and member of the Slow Food Chefs’ Alliance, Joel Basumatari.

Home to more than 36 different tribes and languages, Nagaland has a rich food culture. However, the state’s history of conflict has taken a heavy toll on its youth. As the Slow Food movement aims to connect plates, people, politics and culture, there is hope that the SFYNN will encourage community members to become self-reliant and flourish with the development of small-scale production of indigenous ingredients, spices and foods. Michele Rumiz, representative of Slow Food’s India chapter, says, “A new generation of Indians is more and more keen to make changes in the food system, and the future of Slow Food in India is theirs.”

Chef Manjit Gill, founder-president, Indian Federation of Culinary Associations, is another long-time proponent of Slow Food. In the food business for more than 40 years now, Gill believes that ‘recipe is the last thing to learn in cooking. One has to learn about the people, their culture, their local flora and fauna, and more’. In the words of Gill: “Our food is based on the principle of wellness and sustainability. Every region has a different flavour and local food is very important. The concept of seasonal food is important as it is based on centuries of experience of what food is required in what season”. This explains why a dish made of produce grown using traditional methods rarely needs those extra lashings of cream and fat.

In fact, for Petrini, food wastage and climate change are also concerns that he intends to address through the movement. “The UN says we have 12 years to prevent climate change. A recently published research on food production and CO2 emissions discovered that one small-scale artisanal and eco-friendly apple producer emits 81 per cent less CO2 as compared with an industrial producer,” Michele points out.

Across the country, as weather patterns turn unpredictable, farmers are finding their traditional crops to be more resistant to the vagaries of nature than the cash crops. Even though sustainable farming practices can be expensive, some young farmers are showing keen interest in organic farming, thereby helping restaurants source their requirements. “The greater the demand for organic, local produce, the more profitable it would be for the farmer,” says Chandigarh-based chef, Sanjiv Verma.

As the movement gains momentum, it is clear that the onus of spreading awareness about eco-chic dining has come to fall on the shoulders of chefs. By creating gourmet dishes that will appeal to the taste buds of a larger audience, they have inspired restaurant goers to relish baingan ka bharta or lauki ki sabzi instead of twitching their noses. Michele agrees. “If the chefs commit their skills and inspiration to local gastronomy, local economies and sustainable development, they can really make a difference. This is why we recently set up a Chefs’ Alliance with great chefs such as Manjit Gill and Rajdeep Kapoor. This alliance is not a club for upscale restaurant chefs, it is a network open to all chefs, including those operating in remote areas and in the countryside.”

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