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Nov 26, 2022
’Tis the season for big meals and stomach aches — right? Maybe not.
– by Nupur Roopa in New Delhi
You used to be able to buy seeds for some 307 varieties of sweet corn. In the U.S. in the early 20th century, according to the Rural Advancement Foundation International, commercial seed houses offered 341 types of squash, 408 kinds of peas and the same number of different tomatoes, as well as hundreds of varieties of other vegetables.
To the modern eater, such variety might sound overwhelming. Why would anyone need so many types of tomato? But the loss of variety in the human diet has been problematic, says Prabhakar Rao, who holds a Ph.D. in plant breeding and genetics and a decade ago founded Hariyalee Seeds, in Bangalore, India. Old-fashioned, indigenous plant varieties — which are mostly absent from the modern diet — are nutritional powerhouses.
Today there is a global movement to bring back those lost species and the nutrition they hold. Perhaps surprisingly, this revival is led not only by farmers but by people from a range of backgrounds who have decided that nothing is more important than a healthy food supply.
Thanks to their efforts, superfoods are making a nutritious comeback. For many interested eaters, however, the question is: Should I try “superfoods” — and, if so, where do I start?
Vedic Wisdom + Seasonal Flavors
Sangita Sharma quit a high-profile job in corporate affairs to become what she calls a “commonsense farmer.” Today she runs Annadana Soil and Seed Savers, which she founded with a mission to save heirloom seeds and help farmers. By now, she has saved seeds for thousands of plants and grown an impressive selection of species while operating on just two acres of land.
“The source of food is a seed, and it is sacred,” she tells OZY. “We have seven varieties of bananas, nine varieties of mangoes, six varieties of guavas, 78 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, and more.”
Prabhakar Rao is an unusual character. While he has the authority and prestige of a doctor in plant sciences, he has chosen to devote himself to promoting Vedic agricultural practices that were devised by Indian seers more than 10,000 years ago. Such practices espouse a holistic view of plants, soil and humans, giving equal importance to the environment above and below the ground. Rao points out that the Panchanga — the Indian Almanac — lists fruits and vegetables to be eaten seasonally for health. Broadly speaking, cooling foods like cucumbers, melons, buttermilk and yogurt are good for summer, while heat-inducing foods like green vegetables, pearl millet, sesame seeds and jaggery — an unrefined sweetener — are recommended in winter.
While modern diets have lost much of the variety that was common a century ago, it’s clear even in Western countries — especially as the Christmas holiday approaches — that some rituals of seasonal eating are still in wide practice today. (In the U.S., think turkey, ham, pie and cookies.) The question, then, seems to be how to bring back some of the ancient variety that was so good for our health.
Rao, who conducts workshops on Vedic agriculture, has tested over a thousand varieties of native vegetable seeds and, to date, has saved 516 varieties to sell. He likes to point out that the Soopa Shastra, a 16th-century cookbook from Karnataka, India, lists 16 variations of rasam (soup). “Only two or three can be prepared today, because the required vegetables aren’t available. The dishes are lost,” says Rao. This, he noted, is harmful not only to health.
“The loss of vegetables is a loss of cultural identity,” he says. Yet this absence isn’t obvious to many consumers, whether in India or elsewhere, who simply buy what’s available at the supermarket.
If Rao and others are successful, more consumers will have easy access to ancient ingredients that can be incorporated into their modern diets. This change is underway in parts of India, where some urban consumers shopping online can now purchase superfoods grown in nearby rural communities.
Vishalakshi Padmanabhan used to be a chartered accountant. Today she is a farmer who runs a cooperative called Buffalo Back Collective in Bangalore, with the mission of connecting urban consumers with traditional produce, and helping farmers by eliminating middlemen.
Buffalo Back Collective offers more than 25 traditional varieties of rice and four different varieties of wheat, including the ancient Emmer, which is low gluten, and Paigambari, which has a low glycemic index. At present, the enterprise runs with the help of dedicated volunteers and a fairly small group of customers who seek out the native varieties. If Padmanabhan can find enough support, she hopes to expand operations.
Shubhra Chatterji and her husband Anand, who live in the northern state of Uttarakhand, founded the online store Tons Valley Shopduring the pandemic. Chatterji notes that, in Uttarakhand, rural residents eat millets, foraged plants, grasses, local herbs and roots. She calls this an “environment-based kitchen pantry.”
Chatterji and her husband are working on bringing some of that rural abundance to online shoppers. They sell a nutritious variety of goods including amaranth, finger millet, local red rice, Khapli (Emmer) wheat, pink mountain garlic, spiced salt and traditionally prepared ghee.
Their mission, says Chatterji, is to revive the “traditional way of cultivating, preserving, and cooking that has taken us thousands of years to learn.”
Two Brothers Organic Farm is a family-run business founded by brothers Ajinkya and Satyajit Hange. “Today, on 15 acres, we have a food forest with 25 to 30 types of crops including Emmer wheat, Ghungroo (ancient variety) groundnuts, and Kagzi (thin peel) lemons,” says Ajinkya.
They sell online and have their products in stores in Mumbai and Bangalore. They offer ancient grains, cold-pressed oils, herbs and ghee — clarified butter that serves as a base for Ayurvedic medicine. Visitors from Germany, France, Italy and Austria have come to the farm to study its organic practices.
Rao of Hariyalee Seeds says that urban consumers, and urban gardeners in particular, are taking up the cause of ancient seeds to bring these superfoods to more people.
“When they grow uncommon seeds and share on social media, they create awareness and demand,” says Rao. He notes that the uncommon purple bhindi (also known as lady finger, or okra) seed is now sold by WayCool, an agricultural startup. This seed has been saved, he says, “as it has entered the demand and supply cycle.”
He hopes that such seeds will help restore good health to people around the world.
Recipe courtesy of the author, whose great-grandmother made the following dish.
Easy Indian Squash
2 cups pumpkin or other squash, diced into cubes (Remove peels if hard)
Heat oil in a pan. Add asafetida and cumin seeds. Stir for two minutes. Add fenugreek seeds. Stir until the seeds are roasted. Add green chili and turmeric powder. Add pumpkin pieces and salt. Mix well and cover. Let cook for five minutes. Stir again. Cook until the pumpkin is tender, adding water or additional oil in small amounts as needed to prevent burning.
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