Let me begin with a confession. I belong to a family forever paranoid of catching cold, the occasional stomach ache, loss of appetite for food, indigestion and what not. So those pre-geyser days, as soon as a few drops of monsoon rain would fall on our tin roof, a tub of water would go up on log fire to have a warm foot bath, in anticipation that we kids would come home drenched and might catch a cold. On a particularly hot day (and how hot can it get in the foothills of Nagaland!), my father will take the job of feeding us lemonade as soon as we were back from school and drop our bags. In winters, sitting by the log fire for sometime was mandatory, so was rubbing your feet before going to bed with mustard oil infused with garlic.
And believe it or not, we had select days per week when my grandmother would personally supervise whether we were starting our meal with her neem bhaat (rice mashed with neem leaves to ward off chicken pox), or a spot of local greens, herbs, flowers and creepers like maani-muni (hydrocotyle rotundifolia), bhedai-lota (shunk vine), sewali phool (night flowering Jasmine flowers), bhringaraj (false Daisy) titamora (jute plant), jhilmil saak or sometimes fish caught from the family pond cooked with narasingha paat (curry leaves). On a Bihu day, we had to have a bhaaji made of 14 different herbs.
We made faces, cribbed and cried, locked ourselves in the bathroom for long to avoid these home remedies but failed miserably in our attempts. Eating these ingredients was pretty common those days though the degree to the extent my family went was any day higher by a few notches than that of my friends.
I wallow in those distant memories with a knowing grin while leafing through a book. Called 'First Food', the book has just been brought out by the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). It is an attempt to give readers 'a taste of India’s biodiversity' with recipes collated from across the country of indigenous food, spices and beverages. With contributory writings from a range of people, the book, throughout its 163 pages, accentuates the reality that food is as personal as it is not. That it is also culture and importantly, about biodiversity too. 'Every region, for instance, has its rice variety,' it points out. That the flora and fauna of a region make up its culture is convincingly showed with the recipes, highlighting the fact that most are specific to the ecosystem they grow in. A fragile framework of nature, which we are increasingly tweaking, and which is bound to give us dangerous results in the years to come.
While fascinating, and little-known recipes like makhane ka parantha, mahua bhakar, parantha stuffed with gahat dal, jute pakora, amla raita, bajra kheer neem pachidi, kachnar kadhi among other names are a huge pull to a reader to the captivating world of desi food, what attracts my attention is also the beverages it has listed. It starts with bael smoothie, something that you may still find in an urban setting like Delhi. Even a thandai at someone’s house if you are lucky. Also pepper rasam, now that ready mixes are available (don’t ask me about the quality and the amount of preservatives used in them though!). May be kanji vadas too, on a good day in Chandni Chowk, old Delhi. But a squash made of rhododendron petals? A sorbet made from kokum, a glass of sattu? A kali gajar ki kanji? Thambli made with fresh brahmi leaves? Palash sherbet?
I thirstily run my eyes through all of these recipes, at times smiling to myself at the utter simplicity of them, many times wondering where to get the ingredients from. Realising all the way that what was once exotic is commonplace now and vice versa. Say, getting hold of a kiwi fruit or iceberg lettuce has become much easier these days than laying your hands on some kokum fruits or brahmi leaves or palash flowers.
Palash, the book says, was once valued in the tribal areas of Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh as the best coolant. It quotes a resident of Gadchiroli saying people in her area regularly drink palash tea, prepared with or without milk. She remembers drinking Palash sherbet as a child. 'The practice has now been forgotten because the flowers need to be soaked for hours before the infusion is ready, and youngsters prefer bottled cold drinks,' she says. The book has the recipe. Those interested can note it down. You would need a handful of dry Palash flowers, some sugar/jaggery/rock sugar to taste, a spot of fennel seeds, cumin powder, pepper powder, a twig of mint leaves and a dash of lemon juice if you want. Soak all the ingredients with five glasses of water for four to six hours or till the flowers lose colour. Stir the liquid well, strain and serve chilled.
Another desi drink, Thambli, made of young brahmi leaves, is a unique medicinal drink from Sirsi taluk of Karnataka. 'During my grandmother’s time, thambli was prepared with a hundred different herbs. We remember just a few,' recalls a resident of village Mallenhalli.
Such jottings point to the fact that we are progressively moving away from what was once ours. To what good, bad or worse, we are yet to measure. Meanwhile, wallowing a little bit more on my childhood memory, I wonder if I would find some kids in my native area today who regularly have neem bhaat, maani-muni, bhedai-lota and sewali phool on their plates. And share notes on who had to eat more of all these grandma solutions the passing week. The only thing I can vouch for is the variety of chips on their menu.