Tuesday, February 26, 2013

To See the World in a Grain of Rice



In more than a decade of travel in India and outside I have observed the dynamics of food behaviour of people keenly. As a military wife and diplomatic spouse I have had my fair share of “entertaining” and being wined and dined. Thus, I have seen the “five-star” culture practised by individuals, institutions and industries such as hospitality and tourism, from close quarters. I have seen unconsumed food on the table being dumped into trash cans in top-end resorts in the middle of nowhere. On the flip side, I have seen gut-wrenching deprivation where getting one meal a day is a God-send for many. I have come to realize that the traditional Indian precept of eating and cooking is, by far, the best model there is for savouring and saving food.

Conspicuous consumption is obscene in itself, but wasting food is downright criminal.

A legendary anecdote in the Indian epic Mahabharat is of “Draupadi’s Kitchen”. When Draupadi (wife of Pandavas) and her husbands were in exile, Lord Krishna (their ally and well-wisher) came visiting. He was hungry and asked for some food. Living in dire straits, having been banished to the forests, Draupadi had nothing to offer. Torn between poverty and hospitality, shame-facedly, she showed him an empty plate. Lord Krishna saw a leftover grain of rice and said that would suffice for him. 

The moral of the story is that: “every grain counts.”  As children we were fed on a diet of such lofty stories which have endured. Lessons such as, “every morsel is precious” or “every grain is someone’s rightful share”, are ingrained into our psyche. There are shlokas (sayings) in our scriptures which equate Food with God.

When we made faces while eating vegetables or food we disliked our Mum would say, “If you spurn food, food will spurn you­­.” There was no question of leaving food on the plate; we had to take only that we were sure to consume. So, even today, whether we are at a restaurant or a party, we instinctively serve ourselves modestly. Not for us the misplaced notion that it is fashionable to leave food on the plate, that it is a sign of prosperity. “Waste not, want not” was the order of the day. 

Meals cooked at home were in measured quantities. But there was never any dearth of food with enough and more to go around and to entertain friends and family. Surplus food, if any, was passed on to the domestic helper and her children. Titbits of residual roti (Indian bread) or rice went into the bird feeder, happily lapped up by sparrows and mynas.

A lot of thinking went into the way food was cooked without compromising on taste.  In my Mum’s kitchen, stems of spinach and cauliflower and leaves of beetroot and radish were equally cherished as the “real” thing. The stems added to the crunchiness quotient and texture of the curries and stir-fries while enhancing nutrition. Often, creative and innovative recipes were concocted from unconsumed food. For instance, leftover lentils were mixed with multi-grain flour to make delicious savoury pancakes to be relished with pickles and chutneys. It could pass of as a gourmet accompaniment for high tea!

What we learn early in life stays with us forever. Like me, many Indian mothers (even fathers) pass on these traditions to their children as natural legacy. Tragically, in recent times, even in India, people have turned away from these cultural influences, but the time has come to reclaim the tender doctrines that have been etched in our DNA.

-        By Padmaja Parulkar

NOTE: This is my entry for the UNEP World Environment Day 2013 Green Blogging Competition. The theme is Think. Eat. Save. Reduce your Foodprint.

27 comments:

  1. Excellent piece, Padmaja. Some traditions are worth preserving, and respect for what one has is certainly one of them.

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  2. Stems of Spinach and cauliflower, leaves of radish, skin of bottle gourd and potatoes and so many other goodies nature has to offer should never be thrown away. In fact many a tasty dish can be cooked form these ingredients alone

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  3. Little drops of water and tiny grains of sand make the mighty ocean and the great land ...beautifully written Padmaja ! Definitely motivates one to hang on, pass on our traditions.

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  4. Very well written, straight from the heart. Reminds me of how I was brought up.

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  5. Truly meaningful and impressive.

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  6. Great ideas, great thoughts, proud to be an Indian, proud not to waste food anywhere!

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  7. Rings a bell. "Barkat si jamjo" or eat with barkat (blessing) is often told to children, reminding them of the value of the meal before them.

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  8. care for environment and ecological conservation has been a core of Indian cultural DNA, much before these ideas became global buzzword. Kudos for this thought provoking piece.

    Abhay

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  9. Enjoyed reading this piece, India is changing so rapidly, we need to be careful we do not lose these important values.

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  10. A lot of cultures waste food. Its a shame. Good you are shedding light on this topic. You should include the recipe of leftover lentil pancakes. Sounds delish!

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  11. There is a lot of emotion that goes in cooking and eating, even in sharing food. Giving a tiny bit with honesty and genuine care is a divine act in itself. This is enshrined in the story of Sudama and Krishna. Sudama carries a handful of puffed rice for his friend Krishna and returns home to be surprised, his old hut is gone and replaced with a palace. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sudama

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  12. Thought-provoking, Padmaja! Few like to think beyound their plates, especially if the plates are full. Your write-up urges them to. The Indian touch is nostalgic and, so true. And, as you rightly say, it's time we recovered the good from our traditional beliefs.

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  13. A must read article.

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  14. Excellent article...i wish my students would read it. As a teacher, i am supposed to be doing a "lunch duty" every day! Children hate me because i don't let them waste any food. I am surprised to see that several grown-ups also don't realize how much their appetite is!

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  15. I agree! It is painful to see that it has become a fashion to leave food on the plates...Not a morsel to be wasted...nice line!

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  16. I loved your title - a play on William Blake's poetry:
    To see the world in a grain of sand,
    And to see heaven in a wild flower,
    Hold infinity in the palm of your hands,
    And eternity in an hour.

    I completely agree with the sentiment you have expressed so nicely: Waste not, want not.

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  17. Must be included in syllabi for school students. At an impressionable age it may inculcate some sanity in the gennext.

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  18. In many places (in India)there are hotels and convention centres that distribute left over food to the poor and needy thru NGOs. Maybe this should be publicised more and put up as posters where the food is being served so that people don't pile their plates and only take as much as they can enjoy.

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  19. This brings to mind the truth that there is spirituality in frugality. There is enough for everyone's need but not for greed. If only we all could practice this and pass this on to children as a lasting basis of our culture.

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  20. Lt Col Shreesh Kumar (Retd) 68/BFebruary 28, 2013 at 3:39 PM

    A very well written piece by Padmaja on a very contemporary subject. While the consumption ridden west could definitely learn a lot from these simple concepts, the emerging class of have-alls at home in India need to be reminded about these. Besides, inspite of surplus foodgrain production, India tops malnourishment figures...why??? Pathetic governance causes foodgrains to rot and waste away while the deprived go to sleep hungry! Lopsided economic balance...or is it balanced economic nonsense?

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  21. hope lots of ppl read this, padmaja, we take so many things for granted... let's take a first step and stop wastage of water and food immediately.
    Sheela Jaywant

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  22. Well written, and a topic close to my heart as well. mindful consumption of food and everything else, will increase food resources and reduce the garbage problem. all your food tips are familiar to our family as well and my grannies-in an age before water shortage,would ensure water used to clean the rice, dals and veggies went to their indoor plants (nutritious as well); used matchsticks were stuck into used ball-pen refills and utilized to light the gas stove and candles rather than strike a new match; responsible consuming behaviour was valued more back then.. now people seem to think their garbage bags overflowing is a sign of wealth.. seriously income tax should check people's garbage output for the raid, not the doctored IT returns :)

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  23. Well said Paddy! If I may add that behind the ‘frugal cook’s gourmet’ is a delicate science nurtured over the centuries. Also cannot agree with you more that in the case of today’s generation the mom’s famous “finish all that is on your plate” look, conflicts with their notion of “freedom of choice”.

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  24. A very thoughtful and well written article, the one that, hopefully, make us revisit our cultural practices. My thoughts also go back to a practice that is followed even now in our villages and that is to set aside the first pancake for our cow as a way of a farmers salute to her; for she is the provider of able bullocks to till our land and nutrition to our children by way of milk and ghee. The leftovers are also mixed into her daily gruel so that she partakes all that is cooked in our household. We city bred can at least ensure that no food goes waste and share our surplus among the less privileged. May each rain drop make an ocean!

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  25. A very well article and made us re-appreciate the wisdom of our elders. Let us not make waste. Parul

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  26. A time-less master piece. It was relevant then, is relevant now and will be relevant tomorrow. I think, the article should be imparted as a first lesson in the corporate training workshops and parent orientation programs of every school.

    Shakarad

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