By Tinky Ningombam
Winters remind me of good food back home. As the lazy mornings quietly crawl in, we lay out our mats to sun bathe and set out our itemized array of food for the next half of the day starting with our breakfast, brunches to luncheons.
I remember a couple of years back, whenever I come back for my annual vacation back home, I used to carry back tons of food, North Indian sweets, cooking sauces, even fresh imported grapes. These past few years, I have discovered supermarkets, grocery stores with a wild variety of processed and packaged foods, mostly Chinese and Thai that most of our older generations didn’t know the use of.
The influx of foreign foods on the one hand and on the other hand, we are also faced with endangered food varieties. In the new age, man has managed to selectively grow crops as per dietary demands and plants which serve as food are mostly the ones which survive. The same goes for livestock, men has bred livestock which gives high yield and serves to combat a hungry rising population. Raising livestock or farming for food is selective as per climate and ecological circumstances.
And in this process, year after year, we stop producing a certain kind of food/ local produce because it is not profitable enough or is more perishable than others. At this rate, I believe what is happening to most parts of Delhi is what is going to happen to our state in a couple of years. Besides the utter lack of fresh produce, the freezer preserved vegetables are only restricted to potatoes, tomatoes, onions, carrots and cabbages. And since it is too expensive for people to eat imported veges or livestock, they stick to the same food throughout the year.
I can sense a precursor of sorts happening in Manipur as well. When Cucumber season came, everyone was selling Cucumbers and nothing else; you only see lines and lines of farmers selling bags of cucumbers. And when the season came for beans, it was the same sorry figure. Farmers increasingly shift to mono-cropping because it is less expensive for them and has high yield. They stick to genetically enhanced seeds/breeds and hence get good profits as well. But who decides what they grow? They make a pre-mediated guess I think or from how the sales figure was the season before.Without proper processing facilities, most of these perishable food items go to waste and are not available when they are out of season. The same problem goes for packaging them, how do we save them for a better day or retail them?
But of course, most of us do not think of how the food comes to our tables, who these farmers are, what happens when I buy a particular product and how does the retail chain work. These are problems of the local farmers, but most of them sadly do not know all this science, they will just sell off their wares for lesser money if be and run their loss. Next time, they will plant cucumbers, they sell better.
Food variety extinction is actually a global phenomenon. A special report on National Geographic reflects the same case: “Food varieties extinction is happening all over the world—and it`s happening fast. In the United States an estimated 90 percent of our historic fruit and vegetable varieties have vanished. Of the 7,000 apple varieties that were grown in the 1800s, fewer than a hundred remain. In the Philippines thousands of varieties of rice once thrived; now only up to a hundred are grown there. In China 90 percent of the wheat varieties cultivated just a century ago have disappeared. Experts estimate that we have lost more than half of the world`s food varieties over the past century. As for the 8,000 known livestock breeds, 1,600 are endangered or already extinct.”
This in fact brings the same question in our minds: Will our kids eat the same food as we? What will we do to preserve our local flavors and Local produce? How much can we sustain our diverse food variety? And this should be war-cry to all “culture-fundamentalists”, if we cannot even sustain our local indigenous prawns or fish varieties, how will we showcase our culinary culture? What will our “culture” be with just Moreh chillies, Punjab-produced Basmati and Thailand imported sardines?
I am glad for just one fact that we still have farmers who come up everyday to our markets to sell their local produce. But will local produce sustain the food needs of a rising population? Will farmers pick which crop he/she wants to grow and thereby judge people’s eating behavior? If people do not know the food varieties and the recipes that they can make, how will they even buy a certain food item? For a farmer to produce something, there needs to be a demand, and the people will demand it only when they know what can be done with them.
We either eat what we get served, or we experiment. We try to cook with new recipes or keep eating the same food that we have prepared for years. Why do cook shows work? Because, first people like to know from experts what are nice to eat, second they help glamorize the ingredients hence increasing their appeal. How will people crave for food that if they have never tasted them? How will the recipes be shared? Should our “Bhamons” host cookery shows and write recipe books? I don’t know, maybe that will help. Let’s try.