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First Food and Locavores

 One evening, I found a large package waiting on top of my mailbox as it would not fit in. I opened it and found a copy of “First Food – A Taste of India’s Biodiversity”, a surprise gift from a friend who shares a curiosity about traditional foods. Intrigued, I turned the pages of this large format book packed with glossy photos and I could not put it down till I had skimmed through the book. Skimmed because it is not really possible to absorb the extent of information that has been presented. And that is only a small fraction of what information is actually available.

You may ask what is the connection between a book of recipes and disaster management. It is not so much the book as the message it conveys that is relevant. Some years ago, when a research study was being carried out in Nagapattinam district about disaster preparedness, the study group came across a village where the members were quite nonchalant about the fact that every year, their village used to get cut off by rising river water so that they were marooned for about a week. Since this was a regular affair, they had evolved a system of using local produce, pumpkin varieties and other vegetables, processing them as pickles and preserves of various kinds. In other words, they were quite self-sufficient. It was the same throughout the country. Locavores prevailed. The study also found that as the distance to the nearest large town was reduced, this self-sufficiency also diminished as people were quite sure that they would receive help quickly in an emergency. Knowledge of local biodiversity also diminished and in an emergency, with no outside supplies, it is quite likely that people will starve even if there were creepers with gourds and herbs a-plenty growing in their backyards.
 
The book is divided into five chapters on various kinds of meals. Information on the plants used in the various recipes in the book and some fast disappearing old traditions are interspersed. A lot of it appears rather exotic for a south Indian palate – the names used are either the local name or the Hindi name. The few south Indian references and recipes are largely in daily use even today.
 
What would definitely have been good is the provision of a better photograph of the plant in its habitat and a close up of the edible parts so that a lay-person can identify. For example, a photo of a close up of grains of paddy could easily be mistaken for a photo of anemic-looking star fruits! 
 
However, the information provided is an eye opener in many ways, making you think much beyond the mere loss of local knowledge. One hopes that this endeavor will spur many to think about local ‘wild biodiversity’, document it and promote its use. Think globally, act locally.   
 
First Food is published by CSE, New Delhi. It is priced at Rs 950.
 
Ahana Lakshmi