July 17, 2017
My host mother Smita, whose name means “ever smiling lady,” is handsome with an infectious smile, and she stands amidst the shining metal tins and fragrant spices of her Ahmedabad apartment kitchen rolling out thepla, a Gujarati flatbread. Heating the wide, flat tava pan, she sprinkles ghee, clarified butter, over the pan, reminding me that it is “good for digestion and health.”
During the three weeks I spent in Ahmedabad, a city in the Gujarat province of India, with Smita and her family, I tried a wider variety of food and flavors than I have ever sampled elsewhere. I was repeatedly amazed by the alchemy that Smita wrought in her kitchen over peas, potatoes, and rice with her chemist’s spice box of flavors.
My favorite meal with Smita is breakfast. Here, her alchemical skill transforms ordinary grains, dairies, and vegetables into the most delectable of dishes. Each morning, Smita hands me two cups. The first cup is full of fragrant, gingery chai. All of the seven spices in Smita’s chai—cardamom, cinnamon, dry ginger, cloves, peppercorn, and nutmeg—are grown in India. The other cup, which I most look forward to each morning, is a warm chocolaty concoction of Bournvita, a Cadbury malted chocolate drink first sold in India in 1948. Owned by Mondelez International, formerly Cadbury India Limited, the nearest Bournvita plant is in Rewari-Haryana, about a thirteen hours drive from Ahmedabad.
The milk for both drinks comes from the dairy cooperative Amul, whose headquarters in Anand I toured. Amul began as a resistance to the government-sponsored Bombay Milk Initiative, which gave unfair prices to farmers. Modern Amul is the thirteenth largest dairy in the world. Its plants are sleek and industrial, churning out thousands of different products from chocolate to whole milk to yogurt daily. Their products are now available in countries as far away from India as the United States and New Zealand.
Accompanying the invigorative drinks is batata poha, a dish of rice flakes, potato, and onion or upma, a semolina and vegetable risotto-esque concoction. Smita buys dried goods for the entire year at one time. Her semolina comes from a local flour mill. Her flattened rice flakes are from a wholesale market and while the brands she purchases vary from year to year, the rice is most often grown in India. Vegetables for the daily dishes come from a market within walking distance where everything in grown in India. As Hindus, along with 79.8% of India’s population, Smita’s family does not eat meat. Protein for most Hindu families comes from lentils and beans.
Not everyone in India has such consistent access to foodstuff as Smita’s family, however. Over twenty-nine percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Seventy percent live in rural villages with low literacy rates and 64 million people, or one in six, live in slums and shantytowns in India’s cities. For the poor, meals often consistent of lentils, potatoes, and rice, bought from local markets daily or weekly. One family I spoke to, headed by Somar, the patriarch, ate almost no fruit and vegetables because of their extreme poverty and the higher cost of the perishable produce. At most, Somar’s family would eat one banana per person per week, but many weeks passed without any fruit or vegetables at all. When money or food becomes scarcer, already meager portions become smaller and smaller.
Some food inaccessibility and scarcity is caused by inefficient supply chain management. Up to 40% of fruits and vegetables as well as 30% of cereals produced in India spoil on their way to consumer markets. But most food insecurity in rural areas is caused by poor growing conditions and technology. A lack of irrigation means Somar and many other poor rural farmers can only grow one crop cycle per year. And yet, for those farmers with access to irrigation, India’s warm climate can support as many as four crop cycles per year.
Another factor influencing food insecurity is the growing urban population caused by land loss by rural farmers. In rural areas, where 73% of the population still lives, subsistence farmers’ livelihoods are threatened by land grabbing by the government and multinational corporations (MNCs). Somar’s family previously cultivated eight acres of land but now survives on only three, as five acres remain uncultivable due to disputes with the forest department over land claims. For many rural farmers whose land lies in fertile or otherwise desirable areas—such as in the path of the Sardar Sarovar and Narmada Dam projects—the threat of eviction is high. As farmers lose their land, they move to cities and quickly spend their small remunerations on food and shelter, joining the city’s working poor population.
While India’s food ways are largely local and have the potential to become sustainable, much of the population still lacks consistent access to food or the means of producing the variety and quantity of food they need. As India continues to grow, it is important that the government focuses on improving food access for poorer citizens as well as supporting rural farmers in order to maintain local food systems. If the government shifts its focus away from large construction projects like the dams, to improving rural farming systems with irrigation and water access projects, agricultural extension, and clear land right protections, the most vulnerable farmers like Somar may be able to rise out of poverty and food insecurity while the myriad of spices and customs surrounding the foods I ate with Smita will continue to abound.
Images by Caroline Lee.