Food fascinates me and a whole lot of people!! No wonder then that the University of Mumbai had its first All India Conference on Food as Culture "Archaebroma".The United Nations recognizes three cuisines for their cultural significance: French,Mexican and Japanese.Why not Indian? We do have a really long food history.Exactly what the conference seemed to stress upon.We need to take food more seriously,have more research and more literature.The traditional of oral history is not enough.We need to document, else it will be lost forever!
The India Study Centre (Instucen) and Centre for Extra Mural Studies (University of Mumbai) organized a two day event which started off with an introduction by Ms Mugdha Karnik who is Managing Trustee of Instucen and one of the organizers along with Kurush Dalal and Raamesh G.R.She pointed out that food needs to have an academic touch and is an important tool for global unity.
The first day of the conference was on Concepts in Food Studies and Basic Foods.The second day was on Diasporic (Parsi and Bene Israeli) ,Autochthonous (Koli,Pathare Prabhu,East Indian and Kokani Muslim) and Little Known (Coorg,Bundelkhandi and Assamese) Food Traditions.
The first lecture was by Dr Shailesh Nadkarni,a pathologist,microbiologist and an MD in Ayurveda.He spoke about "Ayurveda and Food"and the importance of timing of meals to ensure digestive capacity of the body is maintained.An ideal gap of three hours should be maintained between meals.The right food should be had at the right time in the right season and from the local area.Certain foods like curds are slimy and difficult to digest so must not be consumed at night.Indians are very sensitive to the issue of Bowel Movements,so much so that there is a Bollywood movie on it (Piku) Green leafy vegetables ensure "Once Clean Bowels".On the other hand,maida (lacking in fibre) tends to stick to lumen and lead to constipation.One must always consider the frame of reference when talking of the principles,Ms Mugdha Karnik very rightly pointed out.Honey could not be added to cooking food earlier as impurities got modified.Now with technology,there aren't significant impurities in honey.
The next speaker was Dr Mohsina Mukadam,the only Phd in Food History from Mumbai University.What a wealth of information she has!! Food is a basic need,she said,and people spent time earning livelihood to ensure two square meals a day.The journey from Paddock to Plate has political,geographic and economic implications.It is a serious matter.
The first food historian Fernand Braudel firmly believed that history of food would throw light on other aspects of history.
Sources such as archaeological,archival,published journals,biographies,newspapers,periodicals,all serve to provide important data.Archival sources are difficult to find in our country.
Cookbooks such as Rasachandrika (of the Chitrapur Saraswat Community),Gruhini Mitra (of the Pathare Prabhu community) and Supashastra,all serve as valuable sources of information.Comparative study of menu cards and menu boards also show changing trends and customer preferences
Where do we go from here? Promoting research and marketing are required.Dr Mukadam suggested setting up food museums,libraries and cafes.After all individuals,communities and civilizations come together with food!
The next speaker was Dr Kurush Dalal and he spoke on Archaeobroma (The Archaeology of Food).One can reconstruct ancient food habits by explorations and excavations.Palaeobotany is the study of plant remains and Archaeozoology is the study of animal remains.The former involves wet and dry sieving.In India,only charred food survives because of our conditions.Thankfully,impressions of wheat in mud brick and wild rice impression on cow dung have also been discovered.Archaeozoology includes assessment of bones of animals and humans.The discovery of the Tollund Man and his gut which contained porridge of flaxseeds.false flax,barley and knot grass was an astounding one.Some Indian pathbreaking discoveries include the Harappan Tandoors of Kalibangan(Rajasthan) and Fish Hook from Padri (Gujarat).Bowls and other utensils as well as Rock Art all are important assets in this matter
Then came Saee Koranne Khandekar (author of Crumbs,a book on Indian breads) whose topic was "Not Against The Grain" and spoke on wheat,rice,millets and barley.She gave examples of types of grains,ancient dishes and their current regional applications.
Barley was known as Yava in the Rig Veda and was considered therapy for loss of appetite.Barley can be made into upma,khichadi or into a concoction with water.Millets are making a comeback and rightfully so.Types include Pearl millet,finger millet,Proso millet,Barnyard millet and Kodo Millet
Saee spoke about current day breads and how they lasted longer due to improvisers,stabilizers,vital wheat gluten,potassium bromate and potassium iodate.Naturally leavened breads are more gut friendly.
Rushina Munshaw- Ghildiyal who spoke on Senti-Lentil,is responsible for setting up Indian days of food observance,including a Dal Diwas.There are 40 plus ways of cooking dal.Lobia and Rajma were considered royal dals.Peas,chickpeas,green gram and black gram were found in the Indus Valley sites.Queen Jodha was well known for her Panchmel Dal which was loved by Shah Jahan.
Dal can be a dish or an ingredient.It can be cooked by itself or with vegetables and meat.It can be made into gravies,breads,pancakes or even a meat substitute.It can be whole,split or polished.It is rich in Umami and in combination with rice,provides all the essential amino acids.
A special mention about Thikri Ki Dal which has a piece of earthen pot in the dish for added flavor.
Then followed two very fine speakers, the dignified Sid Khullar who spoke on Dietary Fats and funny man Raamesh GR who spoke on Coffee,Chai and Charcha.Dietary fats have sent us in a tizzy with changing recommendations.Sid talked of the benefits of various fats,the controversy over saturated fats and the way ahead through a health and wellness perspective.Raamesh enlightened on the smuggling of coffee beans from Yemen, and the theft of tea plants from China.Not to forget the variety of Assam tea,Darjeeling Choi,Irani mint chai,Kashmiri noon cha,Ladhaki and Sikkkim yak butter tea.
The next day,the opening speaker was Rhea Mitra Dalal,also an archaeologist and caterer like her husband Kurush and an avid blogger (www.euphorhea.com).She did her late mother-in-law (Katy Dalal) proud by explaining about the 1300 years of fusion that have resulted in modern day Parsi cuisine.She compared ingredients available in Iran and India.Iranians love their Fattoush and Parsis love their Kachumber.Iranians have their Berry Pulao and Parsis have their Mutton Pulao and Dhansak.She pointed out to favorite Parsi ingredients like nutmeg which was brought by the Portuguese and the combination of Coconut and Green Herbs that made Patra Ni Macchi what it is.Coconut milk and freshly ground coconut were found in Parsi not Iranian cuisine.Bombay Duck,Pomfret and Boi are some of the fishes popular amongst Parsis.Vegetables are sometimes eaten along with the addition (or should I say distraction) of meat and are called "Ramakra" or Toy.There are some lovely vegetarian Parsi dishes as well,like Ravaiya and Nariyal Doodh Ma Cauliflower.The presence of Goan Cooks in Parsi households led to dishes like Bafat and Vindaloo being added to their cuisine.Might I add,lunch that day was a lovely Parsi meal!
Then was the talk by Leora Pezarkar who is Bene Israeli,about her community cuisine which is a unique combination of Jewish and Konkan (Raigad) Food.Their staple foods are fish,meat,rice and curry.Coconut milk is used in their dishes (the local coastal influence).They follow Kosher laws of prohibition,preparation and consumption.They use vanaspati ghee,not cow's milk ghee.They do not mix milk and meat.Birdacha (bitter vaal) Roza,Kheericha Roza and Karanjis are important offerings.Malida is the offering made to Prophet Elijah and is made of puffed rice,poha,grated coconut,sugar and dry fruits.Narratives are important for their identity as they have no published literature.
Alka Keswani spoke about Sindhi Culinary Traditions and boy,what an extensive lecture that was! She enlisted the food of the Sindhis in undivided India and showed pictures of vessels used such as Mandiyaro with Sipri.Sindhis prefer the Palo fish which swims against the tide and this also signifies them as they have always stood up and emerged winners against adversity.
Doliji Roti was a community bread(fermented dough with fermented spices) wherein the innoculum was shared.Sindhi curries are whisked,never blended.Lotus seeds,papads and pickles form an important part of their cuisine.
Migration has caused changes in their cuisine.Weddings now have multi cuisine fare.No Degh food is served to relatives during marriage.Rituals are omitted for sake of convenience.
It wasn't all food talk.There were chai and coffee breaks with a different one served at each one.The one below is Parsi choi served with batasha.Other times there was Kashmiri Kahwa and South Indian Filter Coffee.
Anjali Koli was next.She belongs to the Koli community,the original natives of the coast.The community has gender specific roles.Men go to the sea to catch fish and women sell them in markets.Pantry essentials include Chavaal(rice),Vala Mavra (seafood),Sukha Mavra (dry fish),Kokum,Salt,Cumin,Coriander,Turmeric and Coconut.Kanji or Fish Curry is eaten day in and day out.Fish can be Tavyavarchi(stir fried),Talela (fried) or Buzlela (roasted on embers without spice).Kolis love their vegetables but only with the essence of seafood (essavan).
Anjali who has done environmental science says that seeing plastic these days trapped with the catch of the day is heartbreaking.
Then was Soumitra Velkar,a Pathare Prabhu,whose community is well known for their work in education,women empowerment and their joie de vivre.There is a distinctive community masala called the Parbhi Sambhar (samabhar meaning in equal proportions) which has channa dal,wholewheat and 20 other spices.Their food is simple,quick to make and predominantly nonvegetarian.Prawn Poha and Prawn Patwad (Colocasia leaves with prawns) will surely make your mouth water! They have baked dishes like Pie thanks to the British influence.They have a native sourdough (Parbhi Pao) which they eat with AamRas! The Prawns Khadkhadle is a signature dish which one does not stir with a spoon but shakes from side to side resulting in the clanking which led to its name.
Shravan Mondays,Parbhis are vegetarian.Diwali time, they have Shingdyas and Chutneycha Saranga (Green Chutney Pomfret).On Shravan Pithori they prepare food crafted from besan which is a visual delight.On Sankranti,there is food crafted from til and jaggery.
Andre Baptista spoke about his East Indian Community who were so named as they were British subjects and were converted Catholics of Mumbai.Their welcome drink? Toddy!!Their wedding drink? Kheemad which is wine high on sugar.Their wedding feasts have Roast Suckling Pig,Wedding Pulao and Wedding Pickle.Bottle Masala is their signature masala so named as it is stored in dark bottles to prevent inactivation by heat and light.Lonvas,Foogath,Orias with Vindaloo are some of their popular dishes.Mobai is their East Indian restaurant where you can try their unique fare.
Dr Mohsina Mukadam then spoke about Kokani Muslim cuisine.Having heard her before and seen her show us Maharashtrian Pasta for the first time some years ago at the Maharashtrian Mejwani at the APB Cook Studio,I knew we were in for a treat again.Though Muslim as they follow Islam,their cuisine is like their Hindu brethren.Predominantly fishetarians,they eat meat or chicken on Fridays.Rice,coconut,fish is their staple.Their special masala has chillies,coriander,mustard,black pepper and cumin.Potato is a must in their Biryanis.Now people are switching to Dhan Sikori (dhan=rice,sikori= terra-cotta pot with mutton) for weddings.They love Kadve Vaal and Samudra Methi.They make Sandhans but these are different from those of other communities.They are made of coconut milk and sugar and are heart shaped for the son in law's first visit on Eid.There used to be a Kokani Muslim restaurant in Bhendi Bazaar called Lassaney's but it shut down.Now there are plans to start one in Thane.
Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal is married to Shekhar who is from Garhwal.Garhwali people are loving and generous people.They grow their own vegetables and cook in mustard oil or ghee.Their meals change as per season.Summer means gourds,lighter dals and jholis.Predominantly vegetarians,they have a wide variety of dal: rajma,black soybean,arhar,gehat,navrangi and masoor.Their spices are unique :Jakhya (wild mustard) and Jamboo (citrussy,of Nepalese origin).
They make Barnyard Millet (Jangori) Porridge.Cereals include Mandwe Ki Roti,Aksa (rice flour pancakes) and Steamed Ulwas.
Megha Deokule's mother is Kodava (from Coorg).Kodavas were warrior people who lived in jungle areas.In fact as Megha spoke,you were transported to the serene, lush green forests of Coorg.
Kodavas kept to themselves,earlier.They love meat.Their offering to God (they worship their ancestors) is chicken and brandy.They use spices from the Malabar Coast.Foraging was important earlier....searching for mushrooms and wild ferns,crabs,medicinal plants,colocasia leaves and bamboo shoots.
Kachumpuli is their souring agent.Pandi Curry,their signature dish was originally made with wild boar.Rice powder,bird's eye chilli and bitter orange are important Kodava ingredients.
Ruchi Shrivastava spoke about Bundelkhand which is economically backward.Mahua,Kaitha and Forest Berries are an important part of their cuisine.
Last but not the least was Gitika Saikia who spoke about Urban and Tribal Assamese cuisine.Yes,she cooks both.Assam has Bengal,Bihari and Oriya influences as well as from Myanmar,Vietnam and Thailand.The crux of their cuisine is simple food,simpler ingredients,seasonal and slow cooked food
This is just a glimpse of what India has to offer.We need more work on the same.We need to reflect on our ancient traditions that kept us healthier in earlier times.Neither should we blindly follow old traditions nor should we jump into new fangled ideas.To step into a healthier future,we need to look back on bygone days and reconsider past principles,with the right frame of reference!