“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” With those three simple sentences, Michael Pollan ushered in a revolution in the way Americans thought about food. His book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, offers an elegantly simple thesis.
The American diet includes too many “edible foodlike substances” that aren’t real food. The more you process food, the longer it stays on the shelves, the worse it is for you. So, he advises, eat fresh; don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognise; and pay attention to your plate.
“But India’s different,” a foodie friend said. “We eat mostly fresh foods and we don’t have to worry about the whole organic debate.” I wasn’t so sure. So I spent some time in Delhi’s markets, watching people’s shopping habits.
More Indians eat out than ever before, and what we eat is often junk food — burgers, artery-busters like choley-bhature and butter chicken, two-minute noodles.
In INA Market, Defence Colony Market and Khan Market, many shopkeepers confirmed that the Indian household’s dependence on packaged foods was going up. If you speak to school teachers and the parents of young children, they’ll confirm that this is the chips-over-fruit generation.
Even when we’re buying “healthy”, the local vegetable markets have changed. Yes, you can find button mushrooms, broccoli and cherry tomatoes and other such exotica in the markets.
But with cold storage catching on, you lose your sense of what is and isn’t seasonal. I noticed small absences: the varieties of spinach seemed to have shrunk from 14-21 kinds to just two or three, mulberries and phalsa and other local fruit were disappearing off the shelves even as California grapes and prunes became readily available.
Two months after reading Pollan’s book, I came across Barbara Kingsolver’s account of how she and her family spent a year eating mostly what they had grown and farmed themselves. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle demonstrated an increasingly fashionable trend — the idea that eating local is better for you and better for the environment.
Inspiring as Kingsolver’s book is, I didn’t see my husband and me moving down to the farm. Instead, I set out to shop and eat slightly differently over a two-month period, just to see how easy or difficult it might be to eat healthier. This is what worked and what didn’t:
1) Shopping for vegetables every day — desirable, but impractical for many Indian households, especially if the family members keep office hours. Shopping twice a week, however, is easy for even the busiest of us. With veggies in the fridge, the need to order out dropped sharply.
2) Killing your own food: Bill Buford did it in Heat, Pollan did it, Kingsolver did it. I wimped out, given that cutting up a fish makes me nauseous. And besides, the friendly neighbourhood butcher does a better job than I could. I agree that killing your own chickens and goats is a way to remind yourself of the “cost” of meat, that you’re taking a life, but I’m, well, too chicken to do it.
3) The no-deprivation rule: Don’t go completely off chocolate; just save up your “chocolate points” for really excellent chocolate once in a while instead of eating KitKats every day. Don’t swear completely off meat; instead, pass on burgers, cheap sausages, badly made kababs and treat yourself once in a while to really excellent pork chops or spectacular raan. Chuck out the junk food — chips, biscuits, dalmoth — and buy nuts and raisins instead.
4) The do-it-yourself rule: Juicing fresh fruit rather than buying tetrapaks worked surprisingly well; spending Sunday in the kitchen cooking soups and stocks to use during the rest of the week became something of a chore. I did manage to cut down on the processed foods considerably, but it’ll be a while before I make stocks from scratch again. Sometimes, a good bouillon cube is the best way to go.