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A Peek into the Foods of our Ancestors

In the present world of digital technology, artificial intelligence and mad rush for development, we have made it a habit of disregarding the very fundamentals of life. And one of them certainly is food and diet. Dubbed, ‘Diseases of the Western Civilisation’ , conditions like obesity, hypertension, type-2 diabetes, breast cancer, myopia, etc. are on a steep uphill curve for the last few decades across all levels of human society.

Increasing Trend of Obesity in USA

Although, phenomenal progress in medical sciences and health care has ensured longer life spans, we now are exposed to new kinds of diseases. So, something must be going wrong! We should try to learn from our ancestors, their diets, lifestyles and environment. Having said that, we must tweak our ancestral food habits to cope with the modern world. Now don’t get me wrong! I am definitely not suggesting you to live in caves, roam around in bear skins and hunt for food.

A day in the life of tribes

Let me share a brief experience with one of the many tribes of India. During my late twenties, one of my colleagues and I had visited a place near Ranchi, the state capital of Jharkhand in India. Jharkhand is home to various tribes and Mundas who are settled agriculturists, is one of the prominent ones. After our work, we had a few hours in our hands to explore the scenic countryside and agreed upon a trip to the famous Jonha Falls.

A snap of Jonha Falls

The falls is in the midst of hilly woods with trees towering to the skies. We could feel the aura of nature immersing our senses with the musty smell of moist earth and foliage underneath, crickets chirping in an unrelenting monotone, birds tweeting to declare their presence as if mocking us as outcasts. The faint burble of water was growing louder as we approached. Out of nowhere, Jonha Falls popped up like a magic-trick leaving us awe-struck with its power, milky water cascading down 17 metres. It was past three in the afternoon and with all the huffing and puffing we were famished. But in that wilderness, any hope for food for another two hours seemed hopeless. As we ascended with churning stomachs we saw a few huts and men and women adorned in tribal attire and ornaments doing their daily chores. One of the men, like godsend, advanced and asked if we were hungry. Of course we were, as we threw all semblances of manners and prudence out into the wind. In no time they slaughtered a junglefowl and started cooking on a fire pit; fresh aroma of spices and meat pervading the surrounding air. We had a sumptuous late lunch with steamed rice, some sort of broiled vegetables made with potatoes, tomatoes and onions and then junglefowl curry. Although, we both consumed more than our usual appetites, none of us felt any discomfort. While eating we listened to our hosts’ stories and came to know they were the Munda tribes settled there since a millennium.

Munda tribes of Jharkhand

The recipes of the food they offered us had hardly changed from what their ancestors had a number of centuries ago. Their traditional food was tasty, flavourful, nutritious and filling, yet not overwhelming. A glimpse of our friends left no doubt how healthy and strong they were.

Traditional food of the Mundas

The conundrum of healthy food

The cuisine of ordinary folks of South-East Asia mainly consists of rice, noodles, jungle vegetables, fermented fish or soybean sauce, tofu and bits and pieces of crab and fish; whereas, North Americans prefer a diet rich in meat and milk which have high protein content. As a result they are taller and physically stronger than their Asian brethren. But such a diet is also responsible for certain health hazards and gives rise to a greater risk of chronic diseases. Most nutritionists and food writers tend to ignore and misunderstand the natural science behind human evolution and focus instead on simplistic models of human nutrition and physiology. According to me there are three simple steps to improve your health while living in modern societies:

  1. Keep moving The majority of us, especially city folks lead a sedentary life with sudden spurts of physical activity. Critics point out that frantic physical exercise makes us hungrier and in the process there is an increasing trend of obesity particularly among Americans. The cryptic key to good health lies in how much calories you burn. Early males covered on an average nine miles on foot and the same for females were six miles per day. The modern day humans cover only three miles per day walking. So, good news folks!! Eat to your heart’s content but burn more calories than your intake. The French are an ideal example. Their food is rich in fats like butter and cheese and their intake of meat is no less. Yet, an obese French can hardly be spotted on the streets.
  2. Eat less meat and dairy when younger Your children could be up in arms against you if you utter such rubbish. But as rubbish as it may seem, the facts prove otherwise. Meat and milk are extremely good resources of all the major nutrients required for growth and sustaining life. But, the combination of too much of these could play havoc with your children’s inner linings. Cancer and other chronic diseases take decades to develop and manifest and hence, the detrimental effects of consuming copious quantities of meat and dairy show up in the long run. On the other hand older people may benefit from the rich nutrients in animal food. The irony is, what we do is just the opposite.
  3. Eat traditionally- This is where the wisdom of our ancestors comes into play. Ten thousand years back there was no pathological science at all. Our forefathers took centuries to develop their food habits and diet through old time-tested ways. They perfected their art of cooking based on available ingredients and by various combinations of these which tasted well, supported their health and sustained their livelihoods. Regional weather and climate also greatly influenced their preferences. For example, those who dwelled in hot and humid coastal areas used a lot of sour ingredients like tamarind, kokum, etc. to protect them from the harmful effects of salinity. Those who used to live in colder places preferred meat and other items which helped them keep warm. So it seems a natural and obvious choice that we eat traditionally. Isn’t it?
Traditional South Indian food even today

Now, you must be wondering why someone with F&B Management background is preaching about food science. Shouldn’t he do better with some interesting stuff like sharing the recipe of Côte de porc charcutière? Yes, you are right and I shall be gladly doing so! But as I said, it is not enough to know about food only through recipes. Food is a Science as well as an Art. My goal is to make you aware of all aspects of food and beverages right from its history.

Bryndzové halušky, a traditional dish of Slovakia

So, friends; keep an eye on my next blog on a new topic which I hope to share with you in ten to fourteen days. Would, very much appreciate your honest feedback.

So long………!

Credits: 100 Million Years of Food by Stephen Le

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