The growth and health of women and children in the mountainous regions such as the villages in the hills of Uttarakhand has been in a steady state of decline. Anemia amongst women and stunting in children has become a common sight in mountainous regions as nutrition has taken a hard hit. This has chiefly been a result of the nutrition deficient diet that has overwhelmed the traditional cuisines that were known for their rich iron, protein and other mineral and vitamin content. With a steep decline in the cultivation and general awareness regarding coarse grains mountainous regions are faced with the dual threat of losing their cultural heritage and a rich source of nutrition.
A lot of the young generation that lives or has lived in the mountainous regions is either unaware of recipes of locally farmed coarse grains or has willingly moved away from it due to the misconceived image that has been painted around them. With the passage of time dishes made using pulses like bhatt, gahat and grains like millets have gotten associated with the idea of shame and embarrassment. A belief that those who consume these belong to the underprivileged and lower class of the society has been established both around the people who consume them and the grains themselves. Such a misconception has ultimately led to a lot of people abandoning the local produce of mountainous regions and the cuisines made using them for more popular and publicised cereals and pulses. The issue of social embarrassment gets further magnified when families that would occasionally consume cuisines made of bhatt, lingura (fiddlehead fern), nettle leaf, barnyard millet or other coarse grains would not even think once about serving such cuisines when guests visit them.
Traditionally made indigenous Red Rice
It was the understanding of these issues when I trained with Lok Chetna Manch under the NMA II program that I felt the need to emphasize upon the importance of our traditional, cultural and nutritionally rich coarse grains. During the course of my capacity building training I was also made aware about the numerous medicinal values (immunity enhancers) that these grains and local fruits such as Hisalu (Golden Raspberry), Bedu & Timil (varieties of Indian Fig), wild strawberries and Kafal possess.
Chapati made from Horse Gram
Due to various reasons that made sustainability on farming alone extremely difficult, people gradually began doing away with farming in mountainous regions all together. Added to this, the increasing gap between mountainous people and their culture has further caused a lot of coarse grains to reach the verge of disappearance both from memories and from fields. Furthermore, cuisines made out of such grains do not look as appealing as the white basmati rice or the chapatis made out of wheat which has led to a lot of the young generation to not try or even accept them. This fact has been further capitalised by the junk food market and the way these food items have been publicised. The young generation is greatly of the belief that consuming junk food associates them to a certain class that they aspire for or look up to. But what they are unaware in their consumption of all this “junk” food is numerous health issues that spring up due to an excessive and regular consumption of such food items.
In an effort to counteract this I planned to creatively implement my learning from the training at Lok Chetna Manch to organise a Traditional Food Making Competition in my village (Digoti) along with my friend Deepa. It was aimed to bring back traditional cuisines in the plates and minds of the people, especially the children and the young generation. The food was asked to be made in such a way that there were numerous different dishes made out of a single variety of coarse grain. My intention behind doing this was to make people realise that cooking coarse traditional grains was not as much of an effort as it has been made to believe. But the most important thing that happened through the traditional food making competition was that the community could come together and share their experiences, their knowledge and thoughts about why the mountainous farming community has slowly ventured away from the traditional and locally available grains and fruits.
Various Traditional Cuisines prepared for the competition by the villagers
It was in this coming together of the community that I along with my friend Deepa could talk to them about the common issues that they brought up. The people sat with us to discuss problems related to animal menace, the lack of awareness about the nutritional and health benefits of local and traditional coarse grains of mountainous regions amongst others. It was during this food making competition that I was able to explain to the farming community about the immensely valuable characteristics that grains like bhatt, gahat, millets amongst others have. Coase grains are also more adaptable and resilient to climatic fluctuations. With the changing rainfall patterns, growing water scarcity and unprecedented draughts, traditional food grains are one of the best options for farmers in the mountainous regions.
An elder woman from the village judging the traditional dishes that were prepared
Deepa and I also emphasised on how gradually due to the growing animal menace and the prominence of wheat and paddy in the market, the community has greatly reduced growing locally available traditional grains. This has doubly affected the community as the new generation is completely unaware of these grains and their innumerable benefits and since the grains are hardly planted, they have also been unable to taste the delicious traditional cuisines of the region. It has led to a community forgetting their cultural heritage that now exists only with the older generation. This was another important reason for conducting the competition as I thought of it as in innovative way to bring back recipes that were on the verge of being lost.
A community discussion being held after the completion of the competition
The success of the traditional food making competition greatly inspired children and the younger generation. As a consequence of this a group of young women went around the village each week to talk to elder women and learn traditional recipes from them. In addition to this as and when someone in the village prepares a traditional dish such as bhatt ki churkani, gahat ke dupke, bhang, dadim and/or alsi ki chatni, they make sure that they share it with their neighbours. In this way the young group of girls have started making an attempt to innovate these recipes and make them more diversified. Their efforts have helped in reviving various traditional recipes and in gradually developing a taste for them amongst young people.
Me awarding the winner of the Traditional Food Making Competition with a Prize
The overwhelming response from the community and the fact that a lot of young people wanted to talk more to me and the older people regarding these food grains further strengthened my resolve. It was heart warming and inspirational to hear the stories that elders of the village shared about their time farming and eating food made of traditional grains and fruits. The success of this endeavour boosted my confidence further to work on enriching the nutrition of the children of the community as the lack of it has been a major cause of concern and health problems such as stunting and anemia. To work on this, I have begun insisting the addition of healthy and nutrition rich diet to the mid-day-meal plan of students studying in primary schools and Anganbaris in Digoti and a few surrounding villages. While the effort is ongoing, I hope that its success will not only help the children to boost their nutritional status, but will also help them acquire a taste for our traditional cuisines and appreciate them.