I am a potato freak. I can have it 365 days a year, two times a day. My father once quipped that I must have been a product of potato famine in Ireland in my last lifetime. He would admonish me for having a mono-diet dominated by potato.
I still remember when I was a kid during 1970s, summer months of May and June use to be the toughest for me. In the absence of large scale cold chains in India potato would turn sweet and tasteless and then completely vanish from the vegetable market when their season was over. It would only make an appearance in Mid July and that would bring cheer back in my life.
Being born in a strict vegetarian family my father would insist that at least I develop taste for all the vegetables. In time I heeded to his advice and acquired taste for all the vegetables, milk products, fruits etc. Life became that much more enjoyable and easy as it opened the door for more socialising.
Food is the surest way to strike a conversation and win a stranger’s heart. It is inextricably linked to people’s sense of identity and if you like their food it’s like establishing a gut connection with them.
The quest to extend the scope of my palette became an interesting journey. The more I expanded my taste buds, the more accepted I was in newer circles. It was an intoxicating and liberating feeling. It was easy too. You didn’t have to make efforts, just eat. Garnering social status while indulging in sensory pleasures was another departure from my father’s old school thought of enhancing status by putting in long hours of hard work.
By the time I was 25, my palette menagerie had grown considerably to accommodate almost every food that was vegetarian. In snacks I had the choice of roasted lai or chura (fluffy rice product or flat rice product), gram, peanuts, wheat dough biscuits, gram dough biscuits, bitter gourd chips, brinjal chips, potato chips (made by my mother) etc. For drinks there were many traditional cold drinks and of course there was tea.
However, by the time I was 30 it was becoming difficult to keep pace with the change. Social acceptability that I had acquired over the years was in danger of slipping from my hands as new eating habits were spreading in my generation. Thanks to increasing exposure to the western lifestyle and new found economic independence people were trying a completely new diet as statement of being uber cool.
This diet was driven by meat, beer, alcohol, aerated drinks, cheeze, cake, chocolates and canned foods and snacks. Office canteen changed. Tea from vending machines was horribly sweet and tasted bland. Till date I suspect it was a ploy by marketers of vending machine and coffee makers to change people’s habit from tea to coffee. But coffee too tasted plastic. I could never develop taste for beer and never brought myself round the corner to eat meat. My Bramhanical upbringing was a bit too ingrained than I had thought.
The result was nothing short of social death. For those first generation meat eaters and beer drinkers, who made for an overwhelming majority, junk food was the ultimate announcement of their social arrival.
My confidence in my eclectic taste buds to keep me in good stead was ill founded. My father’s advice to expand my taste horizon had blown in my face. It seemed archaic and irrelevant. Irony was my inability to fit into the narrow taste band and not the ability to expand taste buds had led to my fall from the social map.
Ten long years in gourmet wilderness later, I, almost miraculously, started encountering those who had opted for a bold new path, a decade ago, carved from cheese, refined flour and dollops of sugar. Most of them were fighting the battle of the bulge and a look at them told you instantly that they were on the losing side. Many were suffering from diabetes, hyper tension, heart ailments and other exotic sounding but debilitating health problems.
One day an old acquaintance dropped by and was surprised when I offered him “murukku” (a crispy snack prepared from rice flour). He regretted the fact that no one in his family was interested in this kind of snacks anymore.
Everyone in his family, according to him, was hooked to branded chips, colas and canned fruit juices. For these kids chips meant potatoes and nothing else. All the apparent indicators, as framed by the United Nations Human Development Index, suggested that their life style was upper middle class but for a small glitch. They were suffering from terrible case of malnutrition due not to lack of food but abundant access to junk food. Even the man himself was addicted to these products.
This set me on course to undertake a private and by no means a conclusive survey. But the results were indicative of the malady which was growing in alarming proportion. The love for packed junk food was not only playing havoc with personal health and family’s finances, it was also quietly destroying the business of small snack owners. Market share for indigenous drinks like bel juice, rose juice, thandai (a cold milk product), khus juice, panna was shrinking, while aerated drinks were dominating even the remotest markets.
The story of snacks was similar. Potato and cheese chips were dominating and had booted out all other local varieties. The neighbourhood snacks shops were shut or some entrepreneur businessmen were mass producing these snacks which had a uniform taste but were, either, too salty, too sour or too spicy and invariably all of them were over cooked.
Already feeling depressed at the idea of industrial scale production of simple snacks, I was struck by the wastage this left behind during my subsequent research. I found out that companies need a certain specification of potato. They buy it in bulk from the farmers, choose the best and throw the rest as waste. Perfect potatoes that could have fulfilled the needs of thousands if not millions go waste just because they are aesthetically not appealing.
The situation isn’t better among the meat eaters. Sudden spurt in meat eating has forced the meat producers to prepare and produce chicken (the choice of an over whelming majority of first time meat eaters) on a large scale. These are called broiler chicken and are tasteless. The corn they are fed is not their natural diet which makes them unhealthy but big with lot more meat than nature endows them with. Though they produce a lot of meat but it’s not healthy meat. It helps in reducing the cost of per kg of chicken and results in easy availability, hence over consumption.
Famous US food writer Mark Bittman during his TED talk said that on an average an American eats half a pound of meat everyday which should be his weekly diet. Many behavioural scientists tell us that the meat neatly minced and packed in an unassuming plastic cover, divorces the producer of meat from the consumer. Devoid of any association with the violence of killing an animal, many even moderate eaters of meat as well as vegetarians are tempted to try it once.
This large scale production of canned, packed and preserved food not only creates an unnatural demand among the customers but also creates long term addiction to their products which are patently unhealthy.
Meanwhile production of broiler chicken, beef, tomato, potatoes etc are leading to large scale destruction of soil due to huge pesticide and insecticides. According to Bittman, more than half of the pain killers in US are not consumed by humans but by the live stock industry. It is also diverting land from staple crops like grains for corn production to feed growing livestock. Broiler chickens are now the largest single bird species in the world.
This unhealthy over production is finally landing in our stomach. Another side effect of this corporatised food production is loss of diversity on our plate and what is deleted from the plate sooner or later gets deleted from our palette too.
A question arises what use is financial prosperity if it brings a long list of health woes? Will it be termed evolution that you lose diversity and willingly embrace poverty of choice? Is it a bright idea to stuff yourself with addictive food products?
Researches around the world and especially from the superpower of packed food and over eating, the US, are echoing a resounding no. Health, financial and physical, of my own small group of friends, who resisted and finally bucked the junk food trend, suggest that my father’s advice on diversity in our plate is still relevant. It is an ally in achieving sustainable and healthy individual living.
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