Defining food for body, mind & soul

Book review

We are what we eat,” became an oft-used axiom in an elderly relative’s house every time a plate of greens was rejected by a young member of the family. Some giggled, some nodded wisely and others concentrated in their food.

Veena Sharma’s Vegetarian Cuisine from the Himalayan Foothills evoked memories of my childhood, of flavours which were classified based on novice tastebuds as the following — popular (oily, spicy and fried food, meat), necessary (small fish and boiled egg) and forced (all kinds of greens). The book, which takes one on a unique culinary journey, also reminded me of the gastronomic responsibility in daily life that elders at home would often refer to.

According to Vriddhi Chanakya, “Dipo bhakshayate dhwantam kajjalam cha prasuyate/yadannam bhakshayennityam jayate tadrishi praja,” which means “lamp eats darkness and produces soot/what food one eats daily, so will one produce”. The sloka summarises the role of food in the circadian cycle. A healthy diet, comprising the right ingredients, not only rejuvenates the body but makes the mind alert and active. As Sharma aptly writes, “I had always felt that one’s kitchen could be one’s best pharmacy, providing us with the particular admixtures and combinations that would help uplift both our physical and mental constitutions.”

The Garhwal region of the Himalayas, which is known as ‘dev bhumi’ or ‘God’s abode’, produces an array of indigenous foodgrain, herbs and vegetables which add variety and nutrition to the daily menu. The foods grown here are rich sources of all the nutrients, including protein and vitamins, and one can tick meat off the list and still enjoy a delectable platter.

“Relying on elements such as sunlight, biomass from forests, and crop residues, farmers here have traditionally worked from an understanding of the ecological principles that underlie natural phenomena, to grow crops suited to their specific area,” writes Sharma, who uses her kitchen to experiment with different ingredients but makes sure that she does not spend too much time on preparations. Hence, her recipes are easy to make and less time-consuming.

The recipes consist of a variety of legumes, greens, fruits, spices and herbs which are typical of the Himalayan region. Many ingredients in her kitchen are also available in markets outside the region.

Sharma likes everything indigenous. For instance, she prefers gud, or jaggery, to artificial sugar and was exhilarated by the sight of jaggery fabrication units on the way to Rishikesh where she currently resides.

Some recipes like horse gram (kulath or gehet dal) kebabs, oatmeal and finger millet (mandua) cookies, amaranth (chaulai) seeds and black gram fritters, finger millet pancakes and hemp seed (bhang) chutney can well be called exotic but Sharma presents them with love and ease.

Along with the recipes, she explains the nutrient contents in the food. She innovates and improvises to make the dishes appealing to the cosmopolitan populace.
The author also mentions some of the rare foods grown in the Himalayas, like the rice bean dal or riyaan. The small kidney bean-like legume is made up of a number of rainbow-like hues and are often termed as navrangi dal.

The cereals and grains grown in the region find a special mention in her book of recipes. Millet, says the author, is more than three-fold nutritious than rice and wheat and easily digestible. Several recipes mentioned in the book have millet as the key ingredient.

The vegetarian recipes may seem unfamiliar in this part of the country, including Meghalaya where meat is a popular choice, but the concept of using indigenous ingredients in daily diet resounds even in the northeastern hills. Meghalaya too has a wide variety of local fruits and vegetables which are rich in various nutrients. The vegetables, wild herbs, spices and different types of mushrooms found in the hilly forests here form an intrinsic part of the local diet. Like the Himalayan region, this part of the country too has millet on the list of traditional ingredients and are eaten in various forms.

Sharma takes inspiration from the recipes of an organic café in Rishikesh run by a Danish and an Indian, both dedicated vegans. She uses ‘leguminous milk’ to create raita and a version of crème brûlée that is “easily digestible and light on the system”.
Sharma’s cook book goes beyond the kitchen and connects food with spiritual development of an individual. “Ahara shuddhau sattva shuddhih (wholesome food leads to a good mind),” she says and goes on to explain how the energy from food is transferred to the neurons in the brain and “plays an important role in our cognitive abilities”. She gives cooking a different dimension by connecting it to body, mind and soul by describing the sattvic, rajasic and tamasic food habits and their benefits and detriments to life. This is what makes Vegetarian Cuisine stand out among other cook books in the market.

For connoisseurs of food, Vegetarian Cuisine is an appetising collection and for those who enjoy cooking, the book is a fulfilling experience.

~ NM

Book: Vegetarian Cuisine from the Himalayan Foothills:
Flavours and Beyond; Author: Veena Sharma; Publisher: Niyogi Books; Pages: 150; Price: Rs 750