By Dr. Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai/newsin.asia
One of the Maharajas of Travancore, a South Indian princely State in what is now Kerala, had planned a grand feast in his palace. Hundreds of guests were invited. The head cook was ordered to make the best of dishes for the occasion. On the afternoon of the feast, he visited the kitchen to see if his wishes were being carried out. He was indeed pleased with the dishes, but was shocked when he saw heaps of vegetable pieces and peelings which were to be thrown away.
He immediately ordered the head cook to use all the thrown away vegetable scraps and peelings in the food being cooked. The Maharaja abhorred waste.
The head cook was now deeply troubled. He had to cook up a way to cook waste! He mulled over ideas and finally hit upon one which was to leave an indelible mark on Malayali cuisine.
He gathered the vegetable scraps and cleaned them well. Then he cut them into pieces and put all of them in a pot to boil. He then added grounded coconut paste, green chillies, garlic, salt, a few spoons of coconut oil and whipped curd and sprinkled some curry leaves on the top to enhance taste and aroma. Once cooked and served to the guests, it turned out to be the tastiest of all the dishes in the menu. When the guests asked for the name of the strange dish, the head cook was caught unawares as the dish was entirely new. He said the first thing which came to his mind – “Avial” – whatever that meant. And thus was born the delectable vegetarian mishmash called “Avial” which is now a trademark of Malayali cuisine and a popular dish throughout South India.
The story is a reminder of an important aspect of kitchen economics- the need to refrain from wasting food items. I remember listening from my mother and grandmother about the importance of using even the last bit of vegetable scrap while preparing a dish. Vegetable scraps can be used to make an entirely new dish known in Bengali, as a ‘panch-mishali’ dish, which roughly translates to a dish prepared with at least five types of vegetables. The vegetables may include cauliflower, banana flower, spinach, varieties of gourd, etc. The end result is the ‘panch-mishali’ is a wondrous creation, generally partaken with rice.
Utilising the last bit of every vegetable has become a global trend. It is called root-to-stem cooking. The concept propagates the utilisation of peels, cores, rinds, stems, seeds or even flowers at times to make myriad dishes, including starters, dips, main courses or desserts. The dishes ensure macro and micro nutrients in our daily diet. Some of the curries are lauki (bottle gourd) peel sabzi or gobi stalk sabzi or phulgobi danta chochhori (a side dish made from cauliflower stalks). The variety could be expanded to incorporate more innovative side dishes like dips, achhars or pickels and chutneys. Roots, legumes and greens could also be used. There can be desserts and candies made from the peels of apples, watermelon and a variety of citrus fruits.
In the past few months of the pandemic there have seen reports about fleecing by traders and hoarders and about prices of fruits and vegetables skyrocketing. Some have mooted rationing and others have campaigned against wilful wastage. Some have highlighted the need to have small kitchen gardens to make up for shortages.
From both, my grandmother and mother, I have heard stories of the need for using everything in the kitchen cupboard. Both women traced their habit of utilizing everything to the trying times of World War II and the Bengal famine of 1943-44 when more than three million people died of starvation.
Madhushree Mukherjee in her book ‘Churchill’s Secret War’, says that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s policies were responsible for the famine. It was caused by large-scale exports of food from India for use in war theatres and also for consumption in beleaguered Britain. India exported more than 70,000 tonnes of rice between January and July 1943, even as famine had set in. Mukherjee’s book points to Churchill’s refusal to export food to India, citing a shortage of ships, while shiploads of Australian wheat would pass by India to be stored for future consumption in Europe. Imports dropped, hoarding shot up. The police made it worse by destroying boats and rice stocks in coastal Bengal to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Japanese who were expected to invade India.
The economic crisis witnessed the beginning of rationing in India. There was an acute food shortage in the early 1960s, before the Green revolution came. Rationing continues to this day.
A report in the Hindustan Times, dated April 29, 2020 speaks of the Covid-19 lockdown sparking off a scramble for ration cards under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) which entitle economically weaker households to have access to foodgrains at subsidized prices from government-run fair-price shops. Data show a high demand for new ration cards in the states of Odisha, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where up to 90 per cent of the rural population are already covered under NFSA. The article also speaks of NFSA covering 75 per cent of the population in rural areas and 50 per cent in urban areas in the country as a whole. But food rights activists claim that families of migrant workers have been left out.
Rationing came to the forefront with the government of India’s announcement of the recent scheme of “One Nation One Ration Card”. According to latest reports, from the last week of August, this Central government scheme has covered 24 states and Union Territories. 12 states and Union Territories are yet to lend support to the scheme. The Central government has announced that it will make it pan-India by March 2021.
(The featured image at the top shows the Kerala dish Avial, a mishmash of vegetables, first cooked to avoid wastage)