Food fables: Eatables have a story to tell

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS
Friday, December 3, 2010

NEW DELHI - Food was once a good word. It symbolised fulfilment, nutrition and well-being. But when did it all change? When did we become such guilt-ridden unhappy eaters? Food writer Ratna Rajaiah explores many such questions in her new book “How the Banana Goes to Heaven”.

“As our cells are nourished and replenished, rejuvenated, our noses should exult in the embrace of a hundred aromas. Our taste buds should laugh joyously at being tickled by all the six tastes,” Rajaiah told IANS.

Published by Tranquebar, her book explores the history of “old buddy foods” to discover the nutritional and medicinal value that common foods have.

Rice comes first. Rajaiah explores the unusual history of the country’s staple grain - also known as the grain of tranquillity.

The ancestor of rice that we eat today was a wild grass that possibly grew in the super-continent of Gondwana at least 130 million years ago. From this ancient grass, two mother species evolved and they parented the approximately 120,000 varieties of rice that grow all over the world today, staple for more than half the world’s population.

“An astonishing 20,000 of these varieties come from India. In fact, the Shunyapurana, written by the 13th century Bengali poet, Ramai Pandit, mentions that more than 13 varieties of rice were grown in Bengal, Rajaiah said.

Then come bananas, which Rajaiah describes as happiness in a peel. Many believe it originated around 4,000 years ago, somewhere in the jungles between Malaysia and India.

In 1999, scientists at the Kasturba Medical College in Manipal, Karnataka conducted a study of six popular varieties of south Indian bananas and found that people who consumed a couple of bananas a day for a week recorded an amazing 10 percent fall in blood pressure, Rajaiah said.

According to Rajaiah, the Bengal gram is the pulse of health - a complete food. It was baptised as the Bengal gram by the British because they first discovered it there.

The high-energy gram finds a place in the ancient texts Markandeya Purana and Vishnu Purana, apart from many 16th century works, Rajaiah says.

It is a complete food, the healer and the fixer. Both the unani and ayurvedic systems of medicines hold the Bengal gram in high esteem, she said.

The mung was born in India at least 5,000 years ago. The Sanskrit name for the bright yellow lentil was mudga. In the Rig Veda, the three ‘m’s of health that get repeated mention are ‘mudga’, ‘masha’ and ‘masura’ - or mung (lentil), urad (black gram) and masura (lentils), Rajaiah writes in her book.

In the Mahabharata, when Bhishma lies dying on his bed and imparts profound wisdom to Yudhishthir, he says an insensate man is one who through stupefaction steals paddy, barley, peas and mung.

Mung (lentil) is an excellent source of B vitamins, many of which play and important role in preventing and managing heart diseases, she said.

Potato, the much misunderstood tuber, too has a fascinating past. It originated in the Lake Titicaca region of Peru and Bolivia between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago. The Incas cultivated at least 200 varieties of it.

The potatoes’ journey to Europe began hundreds of years later when Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizzaro arrived on the Peruvian coast in 1524. It came to India in the 17th century - and was cultivated in Surat by the Portuguese, Rajaiah said.

Every food has a story. For example, British writer-philosopher George Bernard Shaw was a brinjal-loving vegetarian.

And there are interesting descriptions of the foods like pigeon peas - the protein power, arvi - the nature’s raincoat, fenugreek - the girl’s best friend, chillies - the good little demons, white pumpkin - the goddess gourd, turmeric and ginger - the Gemini of health.

For those accustomed to alternating between sinful gorging and pious dieting, the book could surely be food for thought!

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