Biodiversity is the secret behind nutrition and nourishment for our health

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“We are what we eat,” is an oft-quoted phrase to emphasise the nutritional value of our food. But what we eat is also determined by the world that we live in, one, that in today’s times, requires reinvigorated attention for a healthy mind, body and planet. VEENA SHARMA in “Vegetarian Cuisines from the Himalayan Foothills”, published by Niyogi Books, highlights how biodiversity is vital for our own physical and mental health. Here we reproduce an excerpt on the philosophy behind the book along with a delectable recipe.

IT is not for nothing that the Garhwal region of the Himalayas is referred to as deva bhumi, the land of gods. The topography and climate of this sacred land have spawned a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna, which is a natural heritage of the area.

Water currents carrying rocks and herbs, fed by high-altitude minerals and vegetation irrigate the soils. Steep hillsides etched by terraced farms and, fed by mountain streams produce crops suited to their particular terrains.

Relying on elements such as sunlight, biomass from forests, and crop residues, farmers here have traditionally worked from an understanding of the ecological principles that underlie natural phenomena, to grow crops suited to their specific area.

The diversity of crops resulting from the variations in elevation, differences in orientation and gradient, as also the velocity of winds and quality of precipitation they are exposed to is what gives to this area its environmental uniqueness.

The different crops provide rare nutrients that cannot be obtained from any single crop.

Relying on elements such as sunlight, biomass from forests, and crop residues, farmers here have traditionally worked from an understanding of the ecological principles that underlie natural phenomena, to grow crops suited to their specific area.

Being connected to nature and the environment, they consumed that which nature provided at different times of the year, as that is what the body requires in those seasons.

Respect for, and a connection with nature has led to the emergence of many important religious shrines along the confluences of major tributaries of the sacred river Ganga.

Since the choice of the food we eat is influenced and determined by the society and culture we live in, food in these hills, till recently, had not been driven by fashion or commercialisation. For millennia, these hill people lived on whole grains and unprocessed fresh produce.

Being connected to nature and the environment, they consumed that which nature provided at different times of the year, as that is what the body requires in those seasons.

A combination of natural whole foods and physical exertion in this undulating region is what traditionally gave these people their sturdiness. Hill women are slender and strong as they move up and down the slopes like mountain goats.

Today, our ‘technologically advanced’ society has introduced abundant and easily available packaged, preserved foods that often call for no preparation. Heavy with unwanted fats and carbohydrates, these ‘empty foods’ result in the overfed and undernourished persons we encounter, especially in metropolitan areas.

Perhaps, it is a recognition of this fact that is turning our gaze on ancient grains and herbs that have nourished societies since millennia.

The hill people are also becoming victims of the smart inroads made by these foods resulting in sluggishness and uncalled-for fatigue, dull hair and skin, and other troublesome afflictions that can often be traced back to the food consumed.

Perhaps, it is a recognition of this fact that is turning our gaze on ancient grains and herbs that have nourished societies since millennia.

We are well aware that macronutrients – carbohydrates, proteins, and fats – give us energy, build muscle, and strengthen our physiological equipment, which is necessary for the efficient functioning of our minds and bodies.

But we often do not give enough attention to micronutrients – the vitamins, minerals, fibers, and trace elements – that are essential for the metabolisation and absorption of the macros for their optimal functioning and becoming suitable for our bodies.

Macronutrients are like fuel, which demands a clean and greased engine for proper combustion. Micronutrients are the grease and oil that not only maintain the cleanliness and smoothness of the engine but actually break down the heavy macronutrients so that our bodies may absorb them easily.

So, it is not just what we put into our mouths but how we process it that matters.

Our finely-tuned bodies do not absorb macronutrients in the form they are received. Rather, by a complex metabolic process, they first break them down to their molecular forms and then re-form them into subtler varieties of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats – like amino acids, fatty acids, and glucose.

But we often do not give enough attention to micronutrients – the vitamins, minerals, fibers, and trace elements – that are essential for the metabolisation and absorption of the macros for their optimal functioning and becoming suitable for our bodies.

These are the forms in which these nutrients are received by the trillions of super-microscopic cells and tissues that our bodies are made up of. It is the minute micronutrients that enable this breakdown of food, which otherwise would either pass out of the system undigested or block some of the subtle passages and cavities causing unwanted deposits.

Micronutrients are what combine with the numerous bodily secretions and catalyse chemical reactions to promote ‘communication’ among the millions of cells, and enable the subtle nutrients to reach where needed, and/or make up a deficiency of one by taking up and converting energy from another. So, there is a riotous intelligent activity of breaking down, reconstitution, and absorption ceaselessly raging within our systems.

The better supplied our system is, the more efficient is this activity.

No one food can give us all the multitudes of micronutrients that are required for the breakdown and release of the macros. Hence, the need for diverse foods that Nature, in her abundance, supplies us with at different times of the year. While macronutrients can be stored in the body for some time, the delicate micronutrients have to be supplied regularly.

The hills abound in seasonal foods that provide these nutrients according to the needs of the body, enabling it to cope with different requirements – keeping it hydrated in summer, warm in winter, etc.

Classically, we eat to gain energy and build our bodies. But we also eat for pleasure.

When cravings, motivated by commercial pressure, take over, we tend to lay stress on certain foods at the expense of others, ignoring the nutrients that our superiorly operating bodies demand.

Eating is the most satisfying activity we undertake, as food caters to a deep-seated human craving. When cravings, motivated by commercial pressure, take over, we tend to lay stress on certain foods at the expense of others, ignoring the nutrients that our superiorly operating bodies demand.

The minute cells and nerve tissues are the foremost sufferers in this process, as the gross foods are not transformed into subtle forms for transportation and absorption into our ultra-fine crevices due to lack of consumption of micronutrients. It is, perhaps, these artificial cravings (or just thoughtlessness) that deprive our tables of the numerous natural textures and colours that are often the indicators of the nutrients those foods carry.

Our food has an impact on our sense of well-being and harmony, as also our levels of aggression and depression, and, of course, satisfaction. So not only at the individual but at the societal level also, food tends to have an impact on our interactions.

The science of Ayurveda informs us that there is a connection between what we eat and how we act or behave.

Our food has an impact on our sense of well-being and harmony, as also our levels of aggression and depression, and, of course, satisfaction. So not only at the individual but at the societal level also, food tends to have an impact on our interactions.

(Veena Sharma completed her Ph.D. from the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has been a UN Fellow and has travelled to various parts of the world to teach and present papers on Leisure Studies. She lives in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, where she enjoys exploring the local produce and collecting and creating new recipes. Views are personal.)

Veena Sharma’s Recipe:

FINGER MILLET AND WHEAT FLOUR HALWA

Mandua aur atte ka halwa

The following quantities may be halved if desired. The halwa freezes well and can be

re-heated as and when needed. Dry roast separately.

Finger millet (mandua) flour 1 cup/ 100 gm

Wheat flour (atta) 1 cup/ 110 gm

Semolina (sooji) ¾ cup/ 110 gm

These are to be roasted without any ghee or oil. Each one takes a different length of time till it is lightly browned and begins to exude a sweet smell.

Now boil Tagar, coarse sugar (boora), normal or crystallized sugar (mishri) may be used instead 1 cup/ 140 gm and Water 4 cups/ about 850 ml

Add Crushed cardamoms 3-4

Set aside the mix.

Now heat

Ghee 1 cup/ 220 ml

Add the roasted flours and fry till the ghee

begins to separate from the flours.

Add

Raisins 2 tbsp/ 20 gm

Pumpkin seeds 2 tbsp/ 20 gm

Cuddapah almond (chironji) 1 tbsp/10 gm

Slowly pour the hot coarse sugar (boora) water and stir. Cook till the water is absorbed and

the halwa gains a semi-dry consistency and leaves the sides of the pan. Serve warm.

Apart from dessert, halwa is also served with puris

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