March 6, 2019

Food is the Greatest ‘Soft Power’ for a Nation

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Food is the visible manifestation of God. When we see food, we see the Divine in it. The physical, as well as metaphysical aspects of food cannot be ignored. Man is born of food, nourished by food and becomes food of other creations. Matter draws energy from food to become alive, gets nourished and then grows. Rasa – the juice of food, converts into rakta, the juice of life, to cajole the seed of tomorrow, to propagate life.

Food is an integral part of our cultural philosophy since it comprehensively reflects the essence and experience of life. Food in our culture is never merely a material substance of ingestion, not just a transactional commodity. Maybe that is why India has never been loud about its food and the knowledge behind this food evolved over centuries. Now, the time has come to aggressively promote knowledge — which I argue is the greatest soft power of any nation.

The Vedic science of gastronomy now referred to as the ‘anthropology of food and nutrition’ is still as relevant today as it was in the ancient and medieval times, and will continue to play a crucial role in the future as well. This knowledge which is universal will help gain a better understanding of gastronomy and recognizing a crucial place of the interdependence between food and wellness living. Given the importance of fire in the cooking process, AGNI or fire finds its place of pride in the first sloka of the Rig Veda. The verse means: “Oh Agni, you who gleam in the darkness, to you we come day by day, with devotion and bearing homage. So be of easy access to us, as a father to his son, abide with us for our wellbeing.”

Just as the oldest text of the human race – the Vedas – acknowledge the value of Agni in the wellbeing of mankind, we must understand its role in the evolution of man in the context of food since the Stone Age, and how it is responsible for our existence. With fire began cooking. The deeper connect between food and fire was discovered – as man realised that fire was required to digest food in its digestive form – Agni. Fire helps to cook food, improves ingestion, making food easily digestible, enhances absorption and makes metabolism more efficient. Man soon learnt that nutrients absorbed from the food provided for the energy needs of the body, helping improve the immune system, which in turn helped the organs function the right way. The development of the brain occurred in a complementary fashion.

Slowly, with time, man also began to understand that food not just nourishes the body, but also the mind, which in turn, leads to evolution – through developments of culture, language, knowledge. Wellness and sustainability – the twin objectives have always been driving the evolution of Indian cuisine. With these in mind, our food passed through various stages of evolution on the basis of continuous learning and observation from nature by saints, sages and wise men, who refined it through experimentation – over centuries! What they found was that eating is not to be considered in isolation as satiation of hunger. Rather, food is a source of nourishment for the body, mind and soul. They discovered the link between the five elements of nature, six seasons and the six tastes. Our ancestors have very well documented the essentials of cooking food:

1) One must have complete understanding of the characteristics of each food ingredient and the bearing on cooking and its impact on the body. The characteristics include seasonality, the taste of the naturally-occurring ingredient and its therapeutic effects on the body. All of these will assist you in making the correct choice and mixing of ingredients (which you may also call “pairing” or combinations).

2) One must be emotionally involved in the cooking process. You must touch and feel the ingredients. Just by touching the food ingredients, you can judge their quality from their texture, and observe their colour, and smell it. No wonder, the Indian philosophy relates to cooking as a spiritual process.

3) The process of cooking can be considered as a high level of meditation. It requires utmost concentration of the mind, and deep involvement of the one who cooks. And it is not easy to control the mind! Bringing the focus of the mind on the act of cooking and holding your concentration there to create sumptuous, soulful and tasty food which creates happiness and wellness of the diners – makes the cooking process nothing short of a highly spiritual activity.

4) The mind must be filled with good thoughts, and must be devoid of all negativity.

This is the understanding of food we have inherited through our culture, and it forms the basis of the immense wealth of knowledge of our cooking.

The first vertical of Indian gastronomic science (Ayurveda) is wellness. Food is the only source of serving the nutritional needs of the body. For over 5000 years, our gastronomy which is a vertical of Ayurveda has been practised to promote wellness. It has influenced our philosophy of gastronomy. It was true in the olden times as much as it is relevant at present – beginning to find its place in the diet trends of the day. It is considered to be a sacred system that unites natural elements of the body and is tethered to the nourishment of the mind and the soul.

The second vertical of Indian gastronomic science is Sustainability. For a life with peace, harmony and happiness, we need to ensure that our surroundings are healthy, clean and balanced. Taking care of the environment around us is just as important, or even more, than taking care of our individual health or our body, mind and soul. Simply because, our individual ‘balance’ is contributed by the ‘balance’ of the environment around us. It is as simple as this: Every time we contaminate our surroundings or the environment, we end up contaminating ourselves. It is usually taught in Ayurveda that whenever you throw something outside, assuming it to be a waste, rest assured it will always come back to you. If it is in the form of harmful fumes, we will breathe it back.

After travelling across the world’s nations and experiencing their cuisines, I can summarise my exploration as a culinarian thus: What we found and laid stress on for centuries has become the motto driving all the food concerns today – which is wellness and sustainability! It is being accepted that eating food in courses has no scientific basis. This neither aids in digestion, nor does it lead to satisfaction and happiness. The world is waking up to the exploration of tastes, and the impact of seasonality on the body. But, we have known it for aeons!

The knowledge of our gastronomy – Why eat seasonal? Why eat tasty food? When to eat? What to eat? How much to eat? What is the effect of food on the mind and the soul? This knowledge is already with us. I appeal to all the knowledgeable stakeholders – in the government (AYUSH), various agencies, scientists, ayurveda practitioners, nutritionists, and the most important ones who put food in our stomachs – the chefs – to make people aware of this food in a presentable manner that encourages them to appreciate it by stimulating salivation. This can happen through food that is good to look at, but it must be complemented by the well-balance of tastes as per season, which triggers the neuro-systems for the digestion process.

Some time back, I had an interaction with Paul Newnham – who is the Coordinator of the UN’s SDG2 Advisory Hub working towards Zero Hunger. We were at a place where poppy seeds were served in the form of a beverage. It led to a discussion on seasonal food where we spoke about the element of seasonality in food consumption which does not apply only to fresh produce. Even the seeds have a bearing on the body according to season. Now, poppy seeds are best-suited during the summer or grishmaritu. For winters or hemantaritu, one could rather consume alsi (flax seeds), or til (sesame seeds). This is the knowledge which we already have, and if this can be stated in a simple, understandable and accessible document for the average person, it will help fix most of our common day cooking misadventures. It will lead to the spread of good practices and produce wellness longevity from our routine food.

It is difficult to cook something well without understanding the philosophy of any cuisine. Indian gastronomy goes beyond rules to discover the underlying ’Gastro-semantics,’ which can be understood as a culture’s distinct capacity to signify, experience, systematize, philosophize and communicate with food and food practices, rendering it as a central subject of attention. Our food is deeply grounded with five elements, five senses, three strands, three humors, six tastes and nine feelings. The five elements are earth, water, air, fire and ether. The five senses are hearing, sight, touch, smell and taste. The three strands are benevolence, passion and indolence. The three humors are Pitta or bile, Vatta or wind and Kapha or mucus. The six tastes are sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. The nine feelings are love, joy, wonder, calmness, anger, courage, sadness, fear and disgust.

As per our Ayurvedic gastronomic science, food cannot be nutritious, even while it has the essential nutrients in it, unless it is a well-balanced experience of six tastes. This literally means, that “If food is not tasty, it is not nutritious!” The six tastes are each composed of two elements: Sweet is water and earth, sour is earth and fire, salty is water and fire, pungent is air and fire, bitter is air and ether and astringent is air and earth. Further, even the body types Pitta, Vatta and Kapha are also determined by these elements. Pitta is fire and water, Vatta is air and ether, and Kapha is fire and water. The interaction of the five elements of nature through food, whether in the tastes or humors, determines what kind of body one has and the life one leads. Further, it is the basic gunas – sattva, rajas and tamas that have permeated all matter to form their basic nature. Human personality, too, is a blend of these three gunas and the dominance of any of the tattva (matter) determines behaviour patterns.

Sattva is a benevolent, unobstructiveguna. Sattvic tattva enhances the longevity, mental power, health and the feeling of contentment. Rajas, reminiscent of royalty, is characterised by passion, valour, pride and possession. Known to be the manas or mind of the human cycle, the rajasic tattva in food triggers activity and the wish to conquer.

A verse from the Bhagavad Gita is simply interpreted as “You eat what you are and, you are what you eat.”

Food as a Soft Power

This wealth of knowledge of food must now be disseminated through the various agencies and practitioners to the culinary enthusiasts and the Chefs, so that food as wellness becomes the norm. Our science of gastronomy has a universal basis – the philosophy, principles, guidelines, fundamentals, applications – can be easily customised to prepare traditional wellness food anywhere across the world, using their unique geo-tropical ingredients and techniques.

My own experience by visiting and interacting with the professionals at various seminars, forums, workshops, demonstrations relating to food, I found in every country that people are very anxious to know the goodness behind the great food. Not just the recipe! But, what is the knowledge behind this food? What makes it so good? There is no doubt in my mind that Indian food science is the foremost culinary philosophy backed by our ancient gastronomic wisdom. It is scientifically validated through research by scientist Dr Ganesh Bagler of IIIT-Delhi who worked with data analysing 2,500 recipes of Indian food, and found that Indian cooking is all about using spices without overlapping their tastes.

It’s not just how much spice and in what form, but how intelligently they are incorporated into the dish. Spices used in our dishes are much more carefully selected to produce the least amount of “flavour and taste overlap.” Every spice and ingredient has a purpose and they all work together in harmony to produce the taste of the dish. People from the world over who are seeking hints to the wellness quotient of our food are coming here to learn cooking under the Ayurvedic gastronomic science. They want to visit our country and spend time to understand this practice as wellness is a global concern – and food lies at the heart of wellness.

An Ayurvedic doctor – Dr RamniwasPresar – recently shared with me that there is a growing number of foreigners seeking him out to learn cooking as per Ayurveda. Nothing prevents us from exploring this growing interest in our cuisine on a large scale and it is imperative to take this great knowledge to global platforms and various forums to disseminate it. This will serve the twin purpose of promoting the right route to wellness, as well as establishing the knowledge of our food as supreme.

In the world of food and wine, French cuisine has reigned for the last couple of centuries, setting the standards for professional cooking. We are all aware of how France took its food to this position through structuring of the kitchen, standardisation of their recipes, and innumerable documentation and publication of literature. Many other countries followed suit, such as Italy, Germany and others in the Mediterranean region. In the recent times, countries such as UAE, Singapore, Australia, and even USA, have worked towards presenting their traditional food to the world. Most of them have marketed it innovatively with great success, becoming sought-after tourist and food destinations. Now, many of these countries have no substantial legacy of food worth talking about, but they have consolidated their food from other influences in the region, branded it as their own cuisine, and “sold” it as their own food to the world.

What about us? We already have a repository of knowledge which we have inherited from our past, complemented by diversity of food. But we are yet to go to town with it. With careful planning, branding and selling of this cuisine, we can establish Indian food as the dominant cuisine of the world – with all the right assets – backed by science and knowledge. It is also something we owe to the world that is seeking the right answer after misguided and misrepresented takes on food.

And I strongly believe that if we recognise our food as a soft superpower, it will not only make our food popular, but also enhance our tourism experience with knowledge, contribute to revenue for the economy, and generate employment. As we somehow strayed from our understanding of seasonality of food following the international trends, this knowledge will put pressure on the Chefs to produce diverse seasonal foods that would in turn encourage farmers to adopt diverse agriculture as opposed to mono-cropping. This could critically help improve the agro-economy of the country.

Paraphrasing a quote from Turkey, “Once, we say that ‘we belong to the Indian nation‘ we will begin to show in our language, aesthetic, morals and law and even in theology and philosophy, the originality and personality which befit Indian culture, taste and consciousness.”

Gastro-diplomacy as a Soft Power tool to enhance nation brand

The soft power of food would also help us in diplomacy as Gastro-diplomacy or the practice of sharing a state’s cultural heritage through cuisine. Thailand has established its own gastronomy product abroad. It is called Thai Kitchen with over twenty standard recipes as part of the brand that sells Thai food-based culture to foreigners, thus attracting prospective visitors to visit Thailand. Politicians like Hillary Clinton, former US Secretary of State, ushered in a whole new approach to the provision of food, as a part of what she terms “smart diplomacy”. Indeed, as Natalie Jones, a deputy chief of protocol in the US Government puts it: “Food is crucial because tough negotiations take place at the dining table.”

During my participation in San Sebastian Gastronomika, I met the Indian ambassador in Spain last year. In January this year, I called him ahead of my visit to Madrid. Food lives in the memories. The recall of food is very strong as opposed to many other cultural experiences as it involves ingestion of food in the body and a complete multi-sensory experience. A popular quotation says, “It is hard to sing praises of the Lord on an empty stomach.”  What must we do to harness it?  The Yoga brand. Yoga has to be complemented with the correct food.


Even celebrated author Mulk Raj Anand has famously quoted from the old manuscript KhemKuthal: “I will just record a few lndian considerations about food which might serve to show how, with their remarkable genius for systematising life and its functions, the Indians had raised cookery to a fine art.” The fine art of cooking and dining must include: Food on the basis of its nutritive quality; in respect of its flavor and taste as judged by the palate; and in regard to the delight it gives to the artistic faculty of man’s mind. This transforms the food into a fine dining experience.

What is Indian food? Food that draws upon the vast knowledge from our scriptures, is well-balanced of the six tastes, in sync with the season, includes the local flora and is based on the fundamentals of Indian gastronomy anchored on wellness and sustainability qualifies as Indian food. Indian food is not restricted to food cooked in India. Anywhere, any cuisine across the globe can qualify as Indian food if it fulfils the above criteria. In India, we can and must bank upon this well-established science of food.

(This article is a summary of the speech delivered by Mr. Manjit Singh Gill, Chef and President,
Indian Federation of Culinary Association on 18th December 2018 at the Conference on
Soft Power at New Delhi organised by India Foundation.)

(This article is carried in the print edition of March-April 2019 issue of India Foundation Journal.)






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