• Slow & steady

      3rd September 2015 Published in English in mydigitalfc.com

      At heart, slow food is all about going desi by design and using local ingredients for global dishes. The question is, will the concept dig deep roots or remain an elitist indulgence?

      India is gearing up to host the International Terra Madre at Shillong in November, a privilege it has rightly earned, say slow food proponents. The issue, however, is whether the concept of slow food will dig deep roots or remain an elitist indulgence?

      By slow food, we don’t mean food that’s cooked slowly, but about cooking with organic, locally sourced indigenous ingredients. Basically, slow food in a way is a more organised and more global expression of the age-old farm to table concept. In other words, you make use of the seasonal stuff available and work out your own recipes and systems. Like, for instance, Indian ingredients which earlier wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near fine dining tables are now being dished out into exotic recipes by slow food champions across the country.

      At heart, slow food is all about going desi by design, and using local ingredients for global dishes. So, you have nine course meals paired with wine — with every ingredient organic and locally sourced — and dishes incorporating the humble bathua, cholai, ash gourd, jackfruit, plantain flowers, amaranth and such. All served with a contemporary twist by leading chefs at upscale restaurants with patrons coughing up four digit figures per head for these slices of slow food life.

      Spearheaded by slow food champions and aided by some top eateries at the country’s metroes, there is no doubt that the movement has inched its way, slowly but steadily into the Indian food world. And just how much the slow food movement in India is garnering its resources to hop on to the fast track to gaining recognition and acceptance can be gauged by the proposed three-day International Mei-Ramew (IMR) 2015 at Shillong, capital of the north eastern state of Meghalaya from November 3. The second edition of the International Terra Madre (ITM) is to be hosted by the North East Slow Food & Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS) in partnership with Slow Food International. Incidentally, Mei Ramew is Khasi for mother earth and, befittingly, the event is to be held at Mawphlang, close to the unique Sacred Grove in the state.

      The first of its kind international event in the country, IMR (ITM) 2015, will gather indigenous food communities, UN agencies and other global supporters to showcase their traditional knowledge, evolving skills and sustainable practices that safeguard natural resources and contribute to a resilent food system that promotes a more humane future for a diverse world. “It will be a platform for these food communities to interact and engage with scientists and policymakers as they reflect on indigenous perspectives and actions,” says Pallavi Mithika Menon, project coordinator, Slow Food India (North) and head of kitchen operations at CAARA (Culinary Arts and Research Academy).

      What originated in the late 1980s in Italy, founded by Carlo Petrini, the slow food movement today is a global one involving people in over 150 countries, and appears to be acquiring more converts with its declared aim of ‘working to ensure everyone has access to good, clean and fair food.’ Petrini, who has been chairperson of Slow Food International since its inception, travelled all the way to an indigenous food festival at Shillong in 2010 at the invitation of NESFAS chairman Phrang Roy, and was bowled over by the variety he saw. “He found it fascinating that so many diverse food, flavours and biodiversity were on offer and suggested that we organise Terra Madre here too.”

      So where exactly is India positioned in the global slow food map? “Although slow food in India is relatively new, a concentrated effort has been made in the last couple of years to work in a rural grassroots network of smallscale producers and an urban network of responsible consumers, including chefs. Slow food projects on biodiversity such as Presidia, Ark of Taste and Gardens have also taken root as well as work on indigenous communities. The slow food local chapters are a hub of slow food members who are interested in the food they procure and consume, and who participate in the philosophy of slow food and related activities. A chapter organises activities to educate consumers to value local food and producers through taste workshops, farms visits, school gardens, documentary screenings, community meals and farmers markets that encourage producer-to-consumer interactions,” reels off Menon.

      The main areas for activities for the next five years have also been drawn up with the focus areas divided into urban, rural and indigenous, education/awareness and, slow food green enterprise/entrepreneurships. The Mumbai Farmers Market and the Delhi Organic Farmers Market are set to be assessed for Earth Market (worldwide network of farmers’ markets respecting the slow food philosophy) this year. It doesn’t stop at that, the Slow Food Chefs Alliance India, says Menon, “is a movement that is aimed at improving the overall quality of food that is grown, cooked and served in the restaurants and hotels of the country.” And more ambitiously, “the chefs shall create a demand for a certain type of produce and in effect create the availability, accessibility for organic, local and seasonal produce.”

      The question, however, remains that in a country with glaring contradictions where farmer suicide has become the norm and TV dinners and fast food are increasingly becoming regular dining habits, how feasible is the slow food movement? Roy, who is also assistant president of International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) and has worked with small farmers both abroad and at home, says: “Whether in Shillong or the flat plains of Bangladesh, we felt the issue of food. There are two aspects that give me hope that the slow food movement is here to stay. First, consumerism may be here but scratch the surface and we Indians have a strong connection with our culture, people still have deep roots, and we are trying to build on that. Second, though proud of modernisation and despite globalisation, industrial agriculture is not sustainable. It is true that science helps produce high yields, but then look at the cost you have to pay, 38 per cent of carbon emission comes from industrialised agriculture. Even the UN is now making sustainable development its focus. In a sense we have to be creative and innovative both at production and consumer end, science and traditional knowledge should work together. There are gaps in our agriculture system that need to be filled. The slow food movement certainly makes sense from the ecological aspect especially with climate change taking place.”

      The biggest challenge to the slow food movement, maintains Roy, is the economics of fast food — it is cheaper. “But again growing commercial crops is subsidised, and besides, nobody looks at the hidden costs — the blood pressures, the heart attacks and the life-style diseases. Ecological farmers on the other hand don’t get governmental support. It is time now for the government to look into that and that is the major hurdle we have to overcome.”

      Is slow food India therefore getting cornered into an elite niche? Surprisingly, the fear that it could be a possibility comes from none other than chef Manu Chandra, chef partner, Monkey Bar and The Fatty Bao (Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore) and executive chef at Olive Beach, Bangalore. The chef candidly admits that, “For such movements to work, there has to be parity; it cannot be exclusive or premium. I wish I could say otherwise but the fact is that at grassroots it has to work with economics of sale and right now it has the tendencies of becoming elitist.”

      The hitch, as Chandra sees it is this: “In the Indian perspective, we do not have a developed food economy. They (the western world) have travelled the entire route and path, and when you are racing like that slow food makes sense, it’s a natural outcome. But we are yet to reach that juncture, we are still struggling to get re gular supply, still trying to match prices of potatoes and onions and unfortunately in the larger prevailing market here, can you get a tomato sweet enough to eat raw?”

      Contradictory as it might sound, Chandra who in his own words, is a “100 per cent supporter of slow food on any given day,” realistically concedes that, “I am not the majority and I don’t run operations for the majority either. Yes, I have a slight sense of scepticism and hope that whatever noises are being made trickles down to the grassroots. But the fact is I am a chef and I know the ground realities. The thought is good but my cynicism stems from the fact that such movements tend to get hijacked.”

      If slow food has to take root, we need to work with agricultural workers and, above all, convert the government to the same way of thinking and policy making, Chandra adds. “There are two ways of looking at it — at the ground level we are losing more farmers than any other country because they are moving into towns or committing suicide or there is no land left, it’s a vicious circle. It all peters down to how messed up our economy is. I don’t see slow food becoming a mass movement because of too many hurdles on the way,” he adds.

      The fact remains that slow food as a concept cannot be found fault with. Unfortunately, Indian ground realities might play spoilsport to its speedy development. It may be a climb as slow as the food itself, but its advocates are sure they’ll get there steadily. In the meantime, anyone for nine-course slow food dining?

      (The writer is a certified foodie and co-author of the book, The Seven Sisters: Kitchen Tales from the North East)