How to sustain sustainable eating?

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Varan bhaat tup nimbu meethkut plus dried bombil and karela bhaajia

I’ve grown quite fond of the Maharashtrian comfort food combination of varan bhaat tup these days. Dal bhaat ghee in Bangla. The dal used in VBT is usually tur (pigeon pea) and the rice, ambe mohar. In Bengal, it would be moong or mushuri dal, the rice Gobindo Bhog. I had basmati today as my stock of Gobindo Bhog is over. I used Gowardhan Ghee, which is a local favourite, and not the Bengali Biswa Bangla gawa ghee which I usually consume with Bengali meals. With that I had a karela bhaaji made by our cook #kayteecooks. Helps in blood sugar control. And, for the first time in my life, sun dried ready to eat, masala salted Bombay duck.

In terms of texture, it was stiff and chewy. Like jerk meat. It added flavour to the dal, which is very basic in terms of its spicing, and rice. It had a characteristic fishy smell. Not enough to put off someone like me who is familiar with fish and eats it. And is fine with fish sauce in Thailand. The Bangali salted shutki maachh might be smellier I guess. Something my forefathers, given that they came from the east of Bengal, consumed. It was not had at home while I was growing up, as we lived abroad and then in Calcutta. I do not recall seeing shutki maachh in local markets in the 80s and 90. I am told that shutki has made its presence felt in recent times in Kolkata. 

I have had dried fish in the form of the Parsi Tarapori patio pickle. I am not a fan as it belongs to the genre of sweet pickles which I am not really keen on. There’s no prominent fishy smell in the patio as far as I remember and the texture is that of damp wood! Salted fish is an acquired taste to put it mildly.

The Kolis of Mumbai have for long sun dried and preserved fish during summer. It is consumed during monsoon when the Kolis do not fish. This period goes on till naral purnima which falls in October. It coincides with the fishing ban enforced by the government during the monsoon. It is believed that this Koli tradition was driven by a desire for sustainability. This is the period during which fish spawns. Fishing during this period would disturb the spawning process and deplete the supply of fish and hence the Kolis abstained from fishing.  The seas are too rough during this period, making them unsafe to venture into. This is also a period when many fish eating Maharashtrians abstain from having fish. A tradition possibly driven by the same thought process.

Things have changed over the years. With migration, there are many in Mumbai who belong to communities who do not abstain from consuming fish during this season. Us Bengalis for example, though most of us prefer fresh water fish over fish from the sea. 

In such times, it is as if the rest of India comes together to feed Mumbai fish. This fish is caught and shipped from the south… Tamil Nadu, Andhra … or Gujarat. ‘Jamnagar se,’ said Poonam when I asked her where the surmai I recently bought from her belonged to. The consumption of dried fish is possibly higher outside of Mumbai today than in the city. It is consumed by the Agris for example, who live in Dombivili and beyond. Or by those in the Konkan belt.

Baby Loaf examines jowar roti

I bought the salted fish from Kokan Bazar which is located in Dadar’s Shiv Sena Bhavan. My other purchases from Kokan Bazar include millet flours such as ragi (finger millet) and jowar (sorghum). I began consuming these and bajra (pearl) millet a few years back when I learnt about their nutritional values in the Tasting India conference through the talk of the then Karnataka agriculture minister, Dr Byre Krishna Gowda, who was championing the cause of millets. Millets helps counter diabetes, he said. 

I’ve been pre-diabetic for a while and covid pushed me into the diabetic range. I managed to bring me sugar levels down with Dr Manisha Talim’s medication and Dr Ria Ankola’s diet. A key factor in the diet was the use of complex carbs like millets, over refined flour, and emmer wheat (khapli, which I buy from Kokan Bazar). 

It took me a while to develop a taste for these grains as they taste different from the refined flours or rices that we are used to (I consume a fair bit of unpolished red rice as well now). I am now quite at home with rotis made with jowar or bajra, thali peeth (made with a mix of grains and I buy the flour from KB) or dosa made with ragi. K likes them too. 

Khapli aata roti in tonight’s dinner

A big credit for this goes to our cooks, #noorbanucooksand now #kayteecooks (who cooks breakfast and lunch) too. They both trace their origins to Solapur and are adept at making rotis/ bhakris/ dosas (#kayteecooks in the case of dosas), which we are not. I now consume millets at least once a day. Today I had multigrain dosas using the MTR mix, which includes millets, for breakfast and will have khapli aata roti for dinner.

Millets have been a part of our diet for centuries and hence called ‘ancient grains’ these days in an attempt to make them sound sexy. What I learnt from Dr Gowda’s talks is that millets are not only good for the body, but are good for the planet too. They require minimal to no maintenance to grow, in terms of water, pesticides and fertilisers. Especially when compared with wheat or rice cultivation.

As refined flour and refined rice (basmati) unfortunately became aspirational, millets were dubbed as horse feed or, worse still (from an ego point of view) ‘poor man’s food’ and disappeared from the urban palate and diet. for years.

This explains why millets are not as easily available with our local grocers. You had to go to more ‘traditional’ areas such as Dadar (which is Maharashtrian dominated) to buy millets. Vandre is more quinoa obsessed.

That is where I appreciate the work of folks such as Nayan Khadapkar and Devika Kotibhaskar Khadapkar, the mother and daughter in law duo behind Kokan Bazar. Rr Bio Basics run by Sridevi Kutty. Their efforts have made produce such as millet and other grains and legumes, which are fast disappearing from our markets,  more accessible to an urban audience. We order from both as their produce is good, sustainably farmed, and they use sustainable business practices too. Kokan Bazar, for example, was started by Nayan initially empower the women of the Konkan belt. Bio Basics encourages organic farmers by finding a larger market for them.

Being a two member family. Our consumption levels are not high. It is possibly easier for us to try such products.

Yes and No. I do feel that there is a mindset issue and it is not just a question of relative affluence. You have to be convinced about its worth to take the effort to switch to sustainably grown produce. It was only after the pandemic hit us that I became more conscious of what I put into my body and of what was happening to the planet. 

I came across people who are doing stellar work in this field. Trying their produce further convinced me to make the shift and see out such companies.. Some enterprises which come to mind are The Bengal Store through which I have tried some amazing rice varieties, mustard oil, dal and pepper grown in Bengal, Graamya foods and its mustard oil, and Bugyaal and Bugyal, two enterprises selling produce from the Himalayas. 

Take small steps. It is not necessary or practical to make a blanket change in day one. Open your mind first and the rest will follow, is what I have realised.  

Kathal Kolkata roll using Eat With Better unripe tender jackfruit

Talking of sustainability, I came across a very interesting enterprise called Eat With Better. A lovely coincidence given that the hashtag for my experiments with eating healthier, is #eatbetter!  Eat With Better focuses on bringing plucked and clean unripe jackfruits to us. Their reasoning is that unripe jackfruit has many health benefits, forms a part of kitchens across different parts of the country. That they can be grown with no tending, requiring no extra irrigation or fertiliser, and yet goes to waste as people find it tedious to pluck and clean them. Niharika and Karan, co-founders of the company, source their jackfruits from Kokan. I am no stranger to the taste of both unripe and ripe jakckfruit. My didu used to cook with the former and feed it to me when I was a kid. I tried their products recently and found them to be quite interesting.

It takes a village to live sustainably. You need people willing to indulge in sustainable farming. People willing to help them market and distribute their products. And it needs people like you and me to try their produce, talk about them if we take to them; and make them a part of our life. 

I am game. Are you?


Podcast Interviews with the founders:

Sridevi Kutty of Bio basics

Devika Kotibhaskar Khadapkar of Kokan Bazar

Keertida Phadke of Eat With Better

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