The inauguration lunch of the Tasting India Symposium in Delhi, last December 2017, was at Roseate Farm; a venture into small-scale organic farming and the ‘heart project’ of Mrs. Radha Bhatia, Chairperson of the Bird Group that owns the family of Roseate hotels. The farm supplies the Roseate hotels in Delhi with organic produce. Tasting India is a platform and symposium founded by the Cultural Curator, Sanjoo Malhotra and Food Writer, Sourish Bhattacharyya.
Sanjoo and Sourish are on a roll, to say the least. Tasting India has the highest ambitions to create a sustainable food culture in India. It is actively connecting all types of stakeholders working within organic food production; from small-scale farming that builds local community resilience, to food distribution such as independent food brands, farmers markets, coops for local crafts and traditions, to experience promoting regional and cultural diversity, such as education, chefs working with seasonality, eco-tourism and environmental sustainability, and last but not least- NGOs working with human ecology, from gender and identity to food sharing.
A happy day for Roseate Hotel’s Chef Nishant Choubey.
The symposium’s launch meal was a tasting menu and journey into Ayurvedic thought, designed by Chef Nishant Choubey, as representative of the produce from the idyllic farm settings.
Renowned food expert Professor Pushpesh Pant explained: “The concept of the meal is from ‘farm to plate’ – in times gone by everyone in India ate like that. Whatever was grown in the kitchen garden came directly to the dinner table. But right now, it’s only the super-rich who seem to be able to eat completely organically grown, pesticide-free, fresh food, grown from a nearby farm, with all the nutrients that rich, clean soil gives.”
Everyone can still eat like this if they keep two things in mind, the professor says.
“Eat seasonally, and eat regionally. Eat what you get locally in that season, buy your produce and then explore your creativity to see what you can do with what is in season.”
The word Ayurveda is Sanskrit, meaning ‘life-knowledge’. It’s a complete system of how to maintain health and balance in life, the philosophy of health at the heart of Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism, and permeates every aspect of life, not least of all, food.
Simple yet delicious Gobhi Keema Adraki, Cauliflower and minced ginger.
Food is at the centre of life. It is pleasure and it is nutrition. It is culture and identity. In the Ayurveda tradition, food functions to build a healthy metabolism, by moderating foods that can be harmful to the mind or body. When you consider the Ayurveda way of food, you will see an overlap with cultures from all over the world. Food is life, food is medicine. A nutritious and balanced diet can limit diseases stemming from internal inflammation.
The Professor concludes: “You do not have to choose between a healthy life and a pleasurable life; it is part of a healthy, balanced life to enjoy food! Life is meant to be enjoyed, and taking pleasure in life is part of finding balance.”
Ayurveda; 1000-year-old Systems Thinking The Ayurveda approach to food is known as a ‘Sattvic’ diet or ‘yogic’ diet. It is supposed to be a conscious, holistic approach, from producing to consuming, that today we call ‘from farm to table.’ But from farm to table is nothing new- this is the way everyone used to eat and the way some rural communities still support themselves.
The diet itself has an innate awareness of the connectedness to nature and interconnectivity with community upon which we all rely. It places emphasis on nurturing the essential: using seasonal and local foods from your own kitchen garden or village farm. It’s about ethics and knowledge of where the food comes from and where the waste goes.
A Sattvic diet is, therefore, vegetarian, as there is no need to slaughter animals to maintain our health. Cows are an intrinsic part of the organic farm though; the bullocks are used for ploughing, the cows give milk, and both produce natural fertilizer from vegetable scraps. It’s the small-scale organic farming system that fed the whole of India until the 1960’s. It’s a system that could work today, if we value and support the work of our farmers, and create efficient systems and infrastructures that get their produce to market.
The pickles were amazing! To call them mere pickles feels like an injustice.
The Six Tastes of Ayurveda Most of us who have heard about Ayurveda have heard about the three doshas, or three elements called Vata, Pitta and Kapha. When the doshas are in balance, a person can reach optimal health, while imbalance of the doshas provokes disease. Or as the saying goes: ‘You are what you eat.’ What was new to me were the 6 Rasas, or 6 tastes of Ayurveda, that balance the three elements in our bodies. These are Sweet, Sour, Salty, Pungent, Bitter, and Astringent.
A dish with humble origins; Khichra, a beautifully delicate and ‘more-ish’ porridge of lentils, rice and quinoa.
A chef working with Indian cuisine not only needs to know about the flavours of food, that make food pleasurable, but also the medicinal values of those foods and their effect on the body in combination. It’s a fundamental difference between traditional and modern eating habits all over the world. In the past, the person who prepares food is the guardian of our health. Mothers, daughters, sisters, wives.
Chef Nishant Choubey adds: “Today, as we eat out in a variety of places, the responsibility for our health and nutrition has shifted to the individual. More and more, food is designed to be enticing but not nutritional. Food has to be both, or it is empty of meaning.”
You don’t have to go to the Himalayas to find yourself – but it might help!
Immersing yourself in natural surroundings brings a huge amount of physical and psychological benefits. But naturalness is much more than a superficial sense of wellbeing. It can bring us to another level of autonomy, where we are freed from all the usual external influences that shape our beliefs and behaviour. It’s about gaining insight into The Human Condition.
View from Majkhali Village. Photo by Dhirendra Bisht.
That kind personal transformation is much easier to attain with hands-on experience, says Ajay Rastogi, Philosopher and Applied Ethics practitioner, and founder of The Foundation for the Contemplation of Nature.
I had the good fortune to meet Ajay at the recent Tasting India Symposium in New Delhi, an event that brought together some of India’s brightest minds within food and sustainability. Like many of his contemporaries there, Ajay had left a successful career to go back to his home region and drive change from within. For Ajay that meant working together with the rural villagers of his homeland at the foothills of the Himalayas, in Uttarakhand.
Ajay welcomes everyone, regardless of race, caste, age, religion, gender, orientation, or education.
The foundation aims to research and develop new models for Resilience through cultural exchange, by connecting villagers with people from the cities and other countries in residential homestays and programs such as yoga and meditation retreats. The Contemplation of Nature is threefold; immersion in nature, mindful meditation, and a hands-on experience of the rural ‘resilient’ life.
Resilience moves far beyond current definitions of sustainability. On a 2-week homestay, you get to take part in everything that rural village life offers. Don’t worry – there is no enforced programme here. You are free to just rest and explore if that’s what you need, but guests usually end up getting quite involved with village life; learning about everything from organic seed banking, to preparing grain harvests, to tending to the village cows, cooking the local Kumaoni cuisine, or celebrating one of the many festivals that happen throughout India.
The Yoga Hall was listed as one of the top ten yoga venues of the world by The Guardian newspaper.
The Vrikshalaya centre is the headquarters and heart of the Foundation. It also offers longer-term residencies for artists and designers who are interested in exploring the principles of resilience as part of their work. Vrikshalaya means ‘Home of the Trees’ in Sanskrit – so outdoor activities such as rock-climbing, water rafting, camping and hiking are all part of nature immersion. The area is stunning, and the centre has been listed as one of ten top yoga venues in the world by the Guardian newspaper.
The aim of the foundation is to get people to experience three basic principles of Resilience that sustain all life; Dignity of Physical Work, Interdependence and Interconnectivity.
Women transplanting of rice accompanied by a Hudikia Ball musician. Photo by Dhirendra Bisht.
The Dignity of Physical Work
There is a long tradition in India of travelling to the Himalayas and rural areas to practice yoga and meditation as a spiritual practice, but not physical work.
Ajay explains: “In India, we have such an inequitable society. The caste system is still deeply ingrained in society and especially in rural life.”
Specific tasks, such as tailoring, traditional music, cleaning and different crafts, are often associated with specific castes. It’s considered servant’s work. And work is very gendered. Traditionally, women prepare the food, work in the fields and take care of the house. A recent survey revealed that women spend more time in the fields farming than men and bullocks combined!
Homestay Mums preparing food.
“We never even imagined the value of cultural exchange with western visitors. Younger westerners, in particular, would challenge outdated ways of thinking about caste and gender,” explained Ajay. “They wanted to know why the village girls were fetching water and taking care of the cows after school, instead of playing cricket with boys.”
Also, the homestay families are from different castes. This was purposefully provocative on Ajay’s part. The foundation hosts communal events for the visitors and their host families, challenging these deeply ingrained practices. Traditionally, lower castes do not eat together with higher castes. They do not attend the same meetings. Lower castes are even given separate plates and cutlery if they go to the house of a higher caste.
For the visitors, the learning curve is clear. Artisanal types of work and growing our own food re-connects our minds and hands. Doing something mindful with our hands together with others is natural and enjoyable.
This especially affected some of the younger visitors from the States, Ajay explained. “Their tears welled up as they realised they hardly ever spent time with their family. Here in the villages, shared activities, whether its farming or preparing millet, or making textiles, is a way to spend quality time with our friends, family and neighbours. It’s fun to create something of value together.”
Traditional farming is organic.
The repetitive actions of simple tasks also have a positive effect on the mind and body. When your mind can reach a level of sustained calmness, your body starts to do miraculous things. It’s called the ‘deep relaxation response’ in psychology. The stress hormone cortisol isn’t frantically released as our bodies aren’t in a fight or flee mode, aggravated by extremes in emotion. Combine this innate calmness with physical movement and you have a recipe for better mental and physical health.
Interdependence Interdependence is about people, reciprocity and solidarity. We are all used to financial transactions; I buy something and I pay for it, I own it. But it’s far smarter and more beneficial for the individual to systemically build a society around shared spaces and shared resources. In the village, not everyone has to take care of their cows every-day. They can share the duties, and reduce the daily work from once a day to once every 30 days.
Celebrating Diwali. Photo by Pete Zhivkov.
Traditionally, when someone dies in India they are cremated on an open funeral pyre. So when someone dies everyone visits the house in mourning to pay their respects and donate some wood. The job of collecting wood for the funeral pyre is taken care of by the community. Community takes care of necessities. It used to be the same with cooking for a wedding. Surplus food and goods are also distributed throughout the community to those in need. Interdependence exists as a fact, so working with it is just common sense.
A host family house in the village.
Interconnectivity The third and final principle of the foundation is Interconnectivity. This is about striving for a harmonious coexistence with nature, as we rely on our environment for all the resources that keep us alive. Ajay’s hope is that people will take the realisation of interconnectivity back with them and apply it to their own lives.
Celebrating Spring. Photo by Jogendra Bisht.
As a modern, connected culture, we need to cultivate an attitude of care and understand where the things that sustain us come from and go to. Our resources are not limitless. Food, water and energy doesn’t just appear, just as clothes and products do not just appear.
Our culture of waste has inherent challenges. All our actions have an impact and an intrinsic cost that someone somewhere must pay. If we keep that connection in mind the impact on our everyday choices can be profound.
The proof of concept is in the eyes of all the people involved; the host families and the visitors. When the guests leave, says Ajay: “Every farewell is always tearful, always connected.”
Words by Tanya Kim Grassley. Published in The Forumist, March 2018.