For a world scrounging forever for some silver lining in even the gloomiest of the clouds, the current COVID 19 crisis has been no exception. While the outbreak of the pandemic has been obvious reason for panic, what with normal lives and everyday existence thrown out of gear, it also has heralded for us a reverting to some times and means in the past in whatever extent possible. Take for instance the Cottagecore fad that has prodded the world, at least in virtual reality, to take a fancy for the pastoral life. One that is free from modern disruptions, relying instead on the basic needs of food, augmented by self farming and such other pursuits that indeed are basic to survival. With months of lockdown, we sure have somewhat learnt the optimum utilisation of available resources, be it having to make do with whatever we could manage to stock up our pantries with at that time or even transforming an otherwise chaotic home into a place that strives to meet our professional requirements of working from home. In learning to live with adversities acknowledging them as much as a part of life, the coronavirus sure has imparted such lessons that we sure could do with a revising after years of our frivolous means on end.
However, what we choose to deliberate on today is something even graver than the ravages of a virus that has engulfed the whole world for almost a year now. For years and decades of modernisation, the privileged many of the human race has rested in a luxury they consider exclusive to their own. Even when that luxury in question is something pertaining to as essential a right as food- the basic means of sustenance. Food wastage is a sin we all are guilty of committing, but that is not even the most appalling part of it. That we refuse to acknowledge rampant food wastage as an offence however is. In treating the food we buy with our money as our exclusive resource, we feel entitled to do whatever we wish to do with it, even if that amounts to rampant wastage. And perhaps what is even more disturbing a truth of modern existence is that the wastage stems not always out of such food that might have gone inedible for any number of reasons. Food wastage and sadly, the lack of stigma associated with it, has continuously been manifested in the human penchant for the aesthetics, as ‘ugly’ foods make for a great proportion of the food that we mindlessly toss in the bin every single day.
What do you make of a cookie that has been mildly burnt? Trash it of course. Or that unsightly carrot, that appears somewhat deformed? It finds its way into the bin because even the most rational you could not bring yourself to devour something as ominous. Or that humble, overripe banana that begins to brown because you had overlooked it for almost a week now? You can’t even stand its pungent aroma. So out they go, into your trash can and from there to the landfill to yield harrowing effects on the environment. Not to mention how it makes you another offender in the ever burgeoning list of humankind who refuses to give up their fancies with the absolute best even as a greater number of their kind are not receiving enough even of such ‘measly’ meals.
While the wastage of such food that goes bad is something that is unalterable, even when definitely avoidable, there however exists a very feasible means of saving such food from going to waste that which are selectively discarded by haughty humans at their own whims. As every year supermarkets toss out hundreds and thousands of hideous apples and evil tomatoes, as households regularly ditch the end slices of bread because they do not look like the white soft sheets of warm comfort that breads ideally should be, as tins and packets of soggy biscuits and crumbly cookies find their way into the bin and as tons of curd whey find no takers even with its extensive range of use, it’s no surprise that the world continues to stare into a perilous hollow of hungry dynamics. In steps therefore a concept novel in its approach and suited for the times, even when it is by no means a new phenomena, that sounds like something as exciting as food upcycling.
Upcycled foods however have only come to be defined recently with the Upcycled Food Association announcing as recently as May 19, 2020 that upcycled foods are those that “use ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to human consumption, are procured and produced using verifiable supply chains, and have a positive impact on the environment.” Even when upcycling has been at the core of a host of Indian traditional food practices, the trend as a conscious manifestation of utilising resources efficiently has been gaining ground only since the past couple of years. For generations altogether, the Indian populace has been relishing on such foods that are potential waste of the modern times. Bring to your mind those over ripe bananas and jackfruits whose emanating potent stench likely left you grimacing. But trust your grandma or mother to make delicious tasting fritters out of that same fare and your evening tea cravings would be sorted in no time.
Equally versatile have been the broccoli or cauliflower stems that we tend to throw away without as much as a second thought. Our judicious Indian forefathers, or even our parents for that matter, had always found ways to make delightful sides dishes out of these greens for themselves, something the young populace including us does not discover much of a zing in. And why just leaves and stems, even the peels of certain veggies and fruits have long been savoured because of their nutritional benefits. The cuisinal culture of India abounds in a wide range of chutneys and pickles that has certain peels as their primary star ingredient. Potato skins or in fact the skins of some other veggies also do as well as crisps as the more popular potato chips. While peels do equally well as additional accompaniments in salads, even the seeds of certain foods, like papayas and pumpkins, jackfruits and mangoes have long been cherished both for their taste and for their array of health benefits. Banana stem curry is another delicacy in a number of traditional cuisines in the Indian subcontinent even as a particular variety of the banana peel also finds its way in Assam as an alkaline preparation called khar, that which itself incorporate a whole lot of such ingredients that are somewhat void in flavor to churn up really lip smacking sides to devour your plateful of rice with.
The peel of certain other fruits however, particularly citrus fruits, have always find universal usage in ways that go beyond the traditional notions of their healthy essence. Orange rinds and lemon zests are popular flavouring agents in various dishes and soups, as well as in a wide range of bakery and confectionery goodies. Even the shells of eggs find a variety of uses, both as food and in a myriad range of other ways. Unappealing bread slices can be used to make breadcrumbs and so can the crusts of pizzas and the crumbles of cakes and cookies find their way into no bake dishes, desserts or appetisers. And still useful but not so much preferred rotis and chapatis can find makeover as a panoply of interesting chai time snacks and so can that somewhat soggy rice bowl from the night before be moulded into some quirky, inventive and healthy mithaais. And if not something sweet, leftover rice can anyway find interpretation as the forever favorite fried rice, not the authentic Chinese one but a simple preparation of steamed rice fried with some veggies and eggs perhaps, in resounding emotions of nostalgia that dictated the breakfast scenes of a whole generation.
And if you thing upcycling food in the Indian context is just making the best out of the obvious waste, then you need to do a rethink perhaps. Our lineage of food culture is replete with the age old ‘dadima ke nuskes’ that teaches us to not waste that big kadhai of dal even where there is some too much salt in it. All you need to do is put some atta dough into the salty dish to soak up all the excesses and make it the most perfect dal ever. Dal done and dusted, rice also comes with its own range of superlative uses across all its encompassments. Drinking rice water is like having your energy drink while in India, and acts as much as a beauty potion, caressing the hair as well as the skin. Likewise, crying over split milk has never been so much of a bother in India, where instead we grin wide grins over it. Because a saucepan full of curdled milk spells opportunities for us to prepare delicious treats worth the split- whether that be syrupy rasgullas, delicate kalakands, rich milk cakes et al. Indeed, excess milk also is put to a variety of uses here, much like in other parts of the world. Huge handis of curds, big chilled glasses of lassi, gigantic jars of ghee, mounds of paneer and a wide serving of traditional drinks ranging from shrikhand and chaas to delectable sweets like peda and kulfi and of course the ubiquitous Indian dessert kheer are all assortment of delicacies that ensure our surplus milk production stands no chance in going to waste.
In all its instances and manifestations therefore, it is apparent that food upcycling has been a part of the food culture in this part of the world and perhaps also in some other regions. But the concept in all its profound essence to lessen food wastage so that nutrition can be made available to as many earthlings as possible is a recent phenomenon. The ‘trend’ might have been spurred on by scenarios of the present, for more judicious uses of available resources is indeed what can save humanity from doomsday. And in all its existing prevalence, food upcycling should not be too challenging a lifestyle change to adapt to. The challenge lies instead in making people aware of its viability and benefits, so that they readily embrace this wholesome effort not just to reduce the proportion of life sustaining food that goes to waste but also to bring unto themselves holistic nutritional content. For it indeed is in the holistic and balanced coexistence of each other can we as the human race thrive and survive, hopefully for many more millennia to come. If only the current coronavirus crisis lets us, that is.