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The un-green revolution

Meet the producers and artisans of ‘forgotten foods’ who aim to bring natural, chemical-free dishes to your table

brunch Updated: Feb 03, 2018 21:49 IST
Priya Bala
Colours of corn from Odisha
Colours of corn from Odisha

Baby Ghosh, a self-effacing sweet maker from Krishnanagar in West Bengal’s Nadia district, is presenting shor, a milk product that goes into making unique Bengali sweets such as Shorpuriya and Shorbhaja. This is at a session anchored by food anthropologist Ishita Dey at the Marketplace, 2018, an annual event at the tranquil Vedic Village, a short distance from Kolkata, that is dedicated to food and stories focused on natural, organic and sustainable lifestyles.

Baby Ghosh’s product is no ordinary ingredient and her work is no mere craftsmanship. She is, in fact, keeping alive a rich food tradition that is in danger of disappearing. Shor-making begins with collecting fresh milk every morning and her husband, Ravi Ghosh, takes this responsibility. The milk is then patiently reduced in a line-up of small iron karhais over earthen fireplaces fed by cow dung pats. After hours, the shor emerges as lacy discs that become the key ingredient in specific sweets that will grace elegant tables and afford delicious pleasures.

A woman’s touch

It was Ishita Dey’s research into the sweet-making traditions of Bengal that led her to the shor makers of Krishnanagar. “I started off asking the question why there weren’t enough women in sweet-making and came upon this small group of artisans,” Ishita says. “The need to focus on foods with a long history – many of which are disappearing – goes beyond the culinary aspect. Food connects people and is part of our sociality. These are traditions we shouldn’t lose.”

Chef Anumitra Gosh at the Marketplace

At the Marketplace, Chef Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar of Diva takes the shor and turned it into a stylish dessert served at a special lunch crafted from local produce. Efforts such as this complete the cycle connecting producer and consumer, an essential process if forgotten foods and ingredients are to be revived and brought into the mainstream.

Lentil cakes or boris from Bengal

The food artisanship on display at the Marketplace also includes goyna bori, handcrafted by Pramila Maity from Purab Midnapore, again representing a dwindling group of food producers. Each sun-dried bori has been formed into shapes that resemble pieces of jewellery and they are as beautiful to behold as they are delicious to eat. It’s a disappearing craft and platforms such as the Marketplace provide much-needed encouragement to artisans like Pramila Maity. You do not need to be a food historian to realise that losing this skill would mean forgetting a captivating food story. Gitarani Biswas is another weather-beaten artisan, and she is awarded for her binnidhaner khoi, a rare variety of puffed rice.

Nature calls

Live demonstration of rosogollas being made at the Marketplace

The Marketplace’s focus is not only on handcrafted ingredients, but also on produce, and it is fascinating to see the displays from various farmers and groups working to revive and preserve agricultural produce that is in danger of being wiped out by industrialised farming methods.

There is Jagdish Nayak of Living Farms, which works with the forest communities of Odisha, speaking of the forest mushrooms, the tubers, sorghum and maize varieties that have been revived. “When we lose produce like this, we lose the wisdom of centuries of people who live close to nature,” Nayak says, adding that they have managed to revive 200 varieties of rice that were close to extinction.

Goyna Bori at the Marketplace

“This is not just a question of preserving forest produce or exotic ingredients, it is about returning to mixed cropping and keeping food diversity alive. It is the only way to be sustainable,” says Brindaban Hikoka, a farmer who belongs to the Kondha tribe. “We must return to traditional ways in order to eat healthy, protect the earth and support each other as a community.”

Rupak Kumar Paul of FIAM (Federation of Indigenous Agricultural Movement), one of the participants at the Marketplace 2018, is more strident. “The so-called Green Revolution destroyed our ecology. The only way forward is to look back and return to indigenous foods and varieties and adopt traditional methods of farming,” he says. FIAM has managed to conserve various indigenous seeds varieties, including 170 varieties of rice; these can be grown in organic ways, without fertilisers and chemical pesticides. “Only if we go back to chemical-free food can we feed everyone and save the world,” Paul says.

Korea shows the way

Jennifer Chang, Vice President of International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM – Organics International), was one of the special guests at the Marketplace 2018. While underlining the need to return to an organic way of producing and eating food, she turned the focus on the strides made in this direction in her country, Korea.

“In Korea, the organic movement grew with the democratic movement,” she said. “Also, in the shift to an organic way of life, it is more important to build trust between farmer and urban consumer than to depend, say, on government certification.”

She pointed to an exemplary effort in Korea, Hansalim. This is a co-operative established jointly by producers and consumers. The farmers produce food using traditional, sustainable methods and consumers are connected with the farmers through trust and a deep understanding of what they do. “That is the best way to support and sustain a better way of producing and eating food, which is good for us and our planet,” says Jennifer Chang.

From HT Brunch, February 4, 2018

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