What to eat by Marion Nestle

On my first visit to the US, about five years ago, my hostess took me on a trip to the local supermarket. I was overwhelmed and fascinated by the displays , the long isles and the number of product choices . I spent most of my grad school days trying to navigate and interpret these, because i cooked my food at home. The first challenge was the produce section - the supermarket had huge tomatoes, i was excited , but they only looked and felt like tomatoes, alas they did not taste like one. Shouldve been charged for impersonating a tomato. Vegetables, the mainstay of indian cooking were really really expensive. A pound of Eggplant was almost 3$, around 150 rupees. I couldve bought one in india for as little as 10 rupees. This situation lasted until i discovered the local farmers market for a wider variety of cheap veggies.

Bread was another challenge.With no guidance, i took to subjecting the brands of bread i bought to what i called the soaked in milk test. Back home i would soak a slice of bread in milk sprinkle a little sugar and voila - dessert. The bread soaked up the milk and retained its shape, and gave a good bite. I soon discovered that breads which were very light, more air than dough did not pass this test. Going through all the brands in the supermarket, including the wonderbread i had read so much about , i discovered bakery bread and artisan bread, finally getting into baking my own bread.

With time supermarkets in the US have become less intimidating places for me. But with marion nestles book i feel like i have been handed the key to navigating american supermarkets, a tourist guide and a pretty comprehensive one at that. The first real clue that i got to the aggressiveness with which supermarkets are planned are their layouts. Stick to the periphery and dont got towards the centers. Only 5% ( or some small figure like that) of customers manage to stick to their shopping lists. She then proceeds on a walk through the supermarket, through produce, bread, milk, eggs, meat, fish, the center aisles*, beverages*, and special sections*. Along the way she interprets labels and nutrition information for us along with juicy tidbits on the amount of political fighting it took to reach these.

The main issues she focuses are on are both dietary( eat less, portion size, nutrients and what they do to you) environmental ( organic, fair trade, humane treatment cows and birds) and political( the sordid marketing practices of multinationals, the price of a potato to potato chip, selling to children). She points out how ownership of these corporations, Altria specifically with its ownership of phillip morris and krafts results in marketing practices being 'imported' from 'hazardous' industries into food marketing.

Supermarkets back home are getting bigger( with ice berg lettuces being sold in a hot AZ Phoenix like Indian city for 600 rupees - about 12$ a head :)) . Marion nestles book gives me insights into the ways these will evolve too. With this guide to American supermarkets and their products, i need to look at the indian food scenario under a similiar framework.

*Center Aisles: Processed foods, Sugars, Cereals, Packaged foods, Snack foods, Foods just for kids, Oils
*Beverage Aisles : Water, "Healthy" Drinks, Teas and Coffees
*Special Sections: Infant formula, Supplements, Bakery

What to Eat - Marion Nestle Review of the book at NYT

Gulmohur Tree

Delonix Regia, Gulmohur, the flame tree and native of magdascar and mauritius. Gulmohur, i rolled the word in my mouth, sounds very moghul. Gul - flower and Mohur - coin; maybe. Although my marathi friend insists Mohur also means something like season in Marathi.

Ive always been fascinated by the fact that trees are almost symmetrical above and below ground. A stark contrast between light, air, breath and life and death , darkness and claustrophobia. Every tree perches on this divide with something like equanimity, but no the gulmohur is distinctive in almost dancing its way into confinement, the trunk in gentle whorls like the folds of a dancers gown.

My earliest memory of the gulmohur is at the house i used to live in as a child. It was big and blue, a whale of a colonial house. The bedroom was rectangular, stretching into in a semicircle. One whole side of the room was covered by windows- small squares, meticulously barred. I remember, once, on a summer night when the electricity went out , we opened up all the windows revealing the blooming gulmohur outside in all its glory. In the moonlight the tree pressed against the windows, almost bounding inside, filigreeing the view of the street outside.

It was in Bangalore and Chennai , that I saw the Gulmohur used extensively along streets as an ornamental tree. These trees were huge, so much that two from the opposite sides of the road intertwined, making a canopy through which the sun filtered and made you feel glad that you were alive.

Curry by liza collingham

Growing up in a medium sized indian city, the only place i ran into the word curry was on the menus of restaurants serving chinese, continental , punjabi and south indian food all at once. Thankfully such outings were rare. Curry was a word very much on the periphery of food, indian or otherwise. So a book on Curry, with all its 'indian' associations - very tempting.

The pattern of cultures and countries mingling and evolving new hybrids of food in india should be familiar to any one with an aquaintance with indian history and religion. Our (the Indian) capacity for assimilation and reworking of unfamiliar ideas into something at once strange and familiar is truly unparalled. In culinary terms, this has worked for indians in india and the indian diaspora - which brings to mind liza cunninghams accounts of indian food in indonesia, africa, mexican punjabi , indian chinese( which is becoming quite big in the US i gather) and the like.

Liza cunninghams book also unearthed memories of food at temples ive visited over the years. From the sundal and pongal of our annual trips to tirupati, to the exquisite sweets made at Nathdwara's Krishna temple... Temples as centres of cuisine were unearthed and made explicit.

She ends with the beginnings of marketed food in India, Tea and Dalda ( Hydrogenated oil). Now that is another interesting story waiting to be told.

Lizzie Collingham "Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors" Find the comprehensive New York Times Review (NYT) here.
Short table of contents:
Pre Mughal : Primarily vegetarian, few records from the Royal Courts. Temple cuisine.
Mughal: Babur and the Central asian influence.
Portugese: and how the vindaloo was born
Colonial: Cutlets and the curry boom
Post Colonial : A British impression of indian food and vice versa.
Present: India twice removed, indian food in indonesia, japan, usa and of course britain.


Ajanta Regional Feasts of India

1. Alu aur Sem ki Fali ( Green beans with Potatoes)
3 tbsp oil
6 to 8 garlic cloves, grated
1 pound green beans in 2" pieces
1 large potato cut similiar to the beans
1 spoon turmeric
3 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp red chilli powder
1 tsp mango powder
salt to taste

2. Sabzi Rangarang
1 tsp mustard seeds
6-8 cloves garlic
1 green chile pepper
1 inch ginger
2 medium onions finely chopped
3 tsp coriander powder
2 tsp mango powder
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsp cumin poder
2 tsp red chilli powder
2 tsp salt
3 medium tomatoes chopped
2 medium potatoes diced
2 carrots in 1/2" slices
11/2 pounds cauliflower florets
1/2 pound green beans

3. Hara bhara kabab
2 slices white bread
1 cup spinach coarsely chopped
1 cup frozen green peas
1/2 cup cilantro
4 medium potatoes
1 tsp salt
2 tsp ajwain seeds
green chile pepper to taste

4. Khumb jahanara
2 tbsp oil
8 to 10 medium cloves garlic
1 green chile
1 inch med piece ginger
2 medium onions
3 medium tomatoes
11/2 tsp salt
2 tsp coriander powder
2 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp red chilli powder
4 cups fresh spinach, chopped
3 tbsp chickpea flour
3/4 pounds shiitake mushrooms
1/2 cup cream
1/2 cup ground cashews

Heat the oil in a saucepot. When hot, add garlic , green chile and ginger. Saute for abt 30 seconds. Add onions and saute over med high to high heat for about 12 min, until translucent. Add chopped tomatoes, salt and all the spices. Cook for abt five minutes.

Add chopped spinach, stir and wilt.


Add chickpea flour, mixing throughly with a whisk to make sure the flour does not become lumpy. Add mushrooms. Partially cover and cook another 10 min. Add whipping cream and ground cashews. Mix thoroughly and remove from heat.

5. Achari Baingan
2 pounds long eggplans
1 tsp salt
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp nigella seeds
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 inch piece ginger
8 medium cloves garlic
2 medium onions chopped
4 medium tomatoes chopped
salt to taste
3 tsp coriander powder
11/2 tsp turmeric
11/2 tsp red chilli powder
crushed chile peppers

6. Bhendichi Bhaji
Bhindi with potatoes and mustard seeds

7. Masala Bhat( Rice with Goda Spice Mix)
2 tbsp oil
2 cinnamon sticks
1 tsp cloves
4 bay leaves
2 cups basmati
4 cups water
11/2 salt

Goda Spice Mix
Mix together, toast and grind
1/4 cup shredded coconut
2 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 dry red chile
1/4 cup cashew pieces sauteed
1/4 cup chopped cilantro

8. Goanese Green Pulav

2 tbsp oil
2 tsp caraway seeds
1 large onion
1 pound green beans trimmed
1/2 cup green peas
11/2 cups basmati rice
2 cups water
1 tsp turmeric
2 - 3 sticks cinnamon
6 bay leaves
1 cup coconut milk
salt to taste
whole peppercorns
1/2 cup roasted cashew pieces

9. Vendeka Masala Pachadi
5 tbsp oil
11/2 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 dry red chillies
11/2 medium onions finely chopped
2 medium tomatoes finely chopped
2 tsp coriander pwd
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp paprika
11/2 tsp red chilli powder
11/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup coconut milk
3/4 cup yoghurt
1/2 cup ground cashews
curry leaves
2 pounds okra

Make the sauce and add sauteed okra to the sauce.

10. Bheh khumbi aur matar( Lotus root Mushrooms and peas in a caramelized onion sauce)
11/2 pounds lotus root
3 tbsp oil
2 inch piece ginger
4 medium onions , thinly sliced
2 tsp coriander powder
2 tsp cumin powder
2 tsp turmeric powder
3 tsp mango powder
2 tsp red chilli powder
salt to taste
1 cup green peas
1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms

Boil lotus root. Heat oil, add ginger , saute onions until brown. Add all the spices and salt and reduce heat and stir fry for abt 10 min. Add the sliced lotus root, peas and mushrooms and stir fry another 5 minutes.


Stolen Harvest by Vandana Shiva

Just got this book from the library. After a fast read i am fuming, steaming with smoke pouring out of my ears! Here is my fast and furious take aka book review.

This book is organized into short essays which have the following themes:

1. The concentration of world agriculture in 6 corporations
Seed patents and crop patents and their monoculture cultivation
2. Shrimp farming and destruction of Seabeds
3. Cows as only milk and meat producers
4. Soybean Oil and Oil domination

Her tone is passionnate, and she illustrates her case with headline making news in India. Vandana Shiva is against the processes of globalization and industrialization . She contrasts the earlier, more earth friendly, ecological practices in India to current multinational corporation practices. For example, in farming the shift from a dung fertilizer, multi crop rotation scheme to monocultures and genetic engineering.

Sounds great so far. So why my allergic reaction? First thing to make clear is I am sympathetic to all her causes, anti globalization, anti jumbo corporation and all that. But Vandana Shiva writes as an activist only can. Her style is rabble rousing, and provides a small picture bursting with indignation. Its nostaligia for the past is palpable and questionable for its claims of an ecological eldorado.

Why do i feel this? Take for example The Oil Story. Multinationals supposedly want to take over the oil market in India, not only do they flood the country with cheap soybean oil, they also adulterate local eco friendly oil methods. OK. So i go back to my experiences buying oil in India and think - did i really have to choose unilever cooking canola oil? Was there no similiarly priced alternative? Did i eat at an local Macdonald equivalent which might have meant a high soy bean oil consumption on my part.

The answer is NO. I had a wide variety in choice and price with local brands and a variety of oil types to choose from - sesame, castor, peanut, mustard and of course sunflower oil. Was there a macdonalds? Nope , there was only saravanas, and it is a chain of all of 20 outlets. Not even a measly amoeba in the super size me world of the Big Macs.

In short, verifying what i read- with my experience of india leads me to the conclusion that her writing has a lot of bogeyman claims. I agree that multinationals are cut throat enough to engage in practices that border on conspiracies. But i think she needs a more comprehensive picture, backed up with data and statistics to support her claims.


In Light of India by Octavio Paz

Excerpt from In Light of India

"Food, more than mystical speculations, is a reliable way to approach a people and its culture. I have mentioned that many of the flavors of Indian food are the same as Mexican. There is, however, one essential difference, not in flavor but in presentation: Mexican cuisine consists of a succession of dishes....In European cooking, the order of the dishes is quite precise. It is a diachronic cuisine, as Claude Levi Strauss has said, in the which the dishes follow one after the other in a sort of parade interrupted by brief pauses. It is a succession that evokes th eimage of a military march or a religious procession. It is in itself a theory(italics by Paz), in the philosophical meaning of the word: European cuisine is a demonstration.....A radical difference: in India, the various dishes come together on a single plate. Neither a succession nor a prarade, but a conglomeration and superimposition of things and tastes: a synchronic cuisine. A fusion of flavors, a fusion of times.

....I realized that its ( indian food) secret is not a mixture of flavors, but rather a graduation of opposites that are simulataneously pronounced and subtle. Not a succession, as in the West, but a conjunction. It is a logic that rules nearly all Indian creations."