Mahua power to you

A new recipe book for food celebrates India’s biodiversity. Bijal Vachharajani leafs through its pages.


A quick rummage through the contents of our refrigerator reveals how much our eating habits have changed over the last decade. Emerald broccoli florets, butter yellow zucchinis and bitter rocket leaves lie next to pods of country peas, spinach leaves and strings of cluster beans. When pressed for time, it’s easy to rustle up pasta with bottled pesto. When cooking a more fancy dinner, Thai curry with jasmine rice, lasagna or tacos are often on the menu. Yet, while we are embracing world foods and making them an integral part of our larders, we are increasingly alienating the more indigenous foods that used to be part of our grandmothers’ lives.

Take for instance, makhana. For those unfamiliar with it, these cloud-like seeds look like an inflated, rustic version of popcorn. A member of the water-lily family, makhanas grow in the wetlands of Bihar and ponds of West Bengal. Also called foxnut, the thorny plant bears fruits that encase black seeds. The seeds are roasted and cracked open and then sold in the market. Easy to grow and digest, the makhana is also versatile. According to the book First Food: A Taste of India’s Biodiversity, it can be stuffed into a paratha, added to a raita to give it that extra crunch, tossed into a gravy and made into a creamy kheer.

Published by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, the cook book is a treasure trove of 100 regional vegetarian recipes that highlight forgotten, and often endangered, herbs, spices, fruits, leaves and vegetables from the country’s farms and forests. Some of them, such as bajra, papaya and ragi, are familiar names. Others are more unusual. There is palash sherbet, made from the dried flowers of the flame of the forest tree; chaulai laddoos, a sweet made from the amaranth grain; and mahua poda peetha, a pancake made out of the intoxicating mahua flower. There are also quirky recipes where jute leaves are made into saag and chutney from bhang seeds.

In the foreword, Sunita Narain, the director general of the CSE who gave editorial direction to the book, writes, “We cannot manufacture biodiversity. But we can choose to live with it. We can value it in the wild and in the farm. We can savour its taste and smell. This is joy of living. This is what we must not lose. Ever.” She further points out that each region of India is “diverse in its food habits. It has its own recipes; it cooks with different ingredients; it eats differently.”

First Food brings together writings that reflect nutrition, diversity and culture of indigenous foods from past issues of Down to Earth, an environmental magazine by the CSE. The 39 writers, a mix of scientists, academicians, activists and journalists, include Pushpesh Pant, the founder director of the Academy of Natural Nutrition in Uttarakhand; Madhu Bala, an economics professor from New Delhi; and Devinder Sharma, an agriculture and food policy analyst, apart from CSE staffers. “Everyone has a story on food,” said Vibha Varshney, who is credited with concept and research for the book. “Reporters often come back from different parts of the country with stories of local food. Similarly, nutrition experts tell us about healthy food. First Foodbrings together all this learning.”

Many of the ingredients mentioned in the book are regional. Sangri, pods of the khejri tree, is from Rajasthan; or selni, a wild fruit is common to central India. But First Food encourages readers to go beyond those recipes to rediscover other traditional, local food. “That is the basic idea behind the book,” agreed Varshney, who is also the science editor at Down to Earthand a botanist who has been writing about health and science for over 13 years. “We feel that unless this food becomes part of our lives, we’d end up losing it.”

First Food is divided into Breakfast and Snacks, Meals, Chutneys and Pickles, Beverages, Sweets, About the Plants and Traditions. The recipes are simple. When we tried the makhane ka raita, we found that the curd-based recipe tasted similar to dahi bhalla and was a refreshing accompaniment to our foxtail millet upma. And best of all? It took us less than five minutes to whip up. One minor quibble – while the book is lavishly produced with some beautiful photographs, we wish there were more images of the lesser-known ingredients.

First Food highlights food security, but it’s really a showcase of India’s vibrant biodiversity. “Through ages, people have depended on local biodiversity for food,” said Varshney.“But with the new agricultural practices which promote monocultures, this connection is now broken. We hope that with revived awareness, this link would be renewed. For one, it would give farmers additional livelihoods. This would give them an incentive to protect the environment.”

First Food, Rs950. To order, visit

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