Revisiting India’s Culinary Heritage on Sustainable Gastronomy Day

India’s millennia-old culinary heritage intertwines food, culture, nature, and wellbeing. The consonance between topography, climatic conditions and agricultural practices have contributed to the diversity of cuisines across the length and breadth of the country. Dietary practices also have a direct bearing on the physical, emotional, and intellectual being as reflected in the consumption of food with Satvik, Rajasik, or Tamsik characteristics. Furthermore, earthen pots and copper vessels, having scientific properties, have been used for centuries for the purpose of cooking and storing food. Indian culinary heritage, therefore, is more than just the blend of spices, condiments, and nutrition on the platter. It rests on the traditional wisdom of holistic wellbeing and the conscious effort towards maintaining ecological balance.

The realization of the significance of eating healthy and consciously has also dawned upon communities across the world. This has led to trends such as farm-to-fork, green culture diet, and zero-wastage being widely promulgated by food entrepreneurs, high-end fine dining restaurants, and governments alike. Furthermore, with the on-going health crisis tracing origins from wet markets, there is an increasing shift towards a vegetarian diet. A simple example of this is the recent popularity of the Indian-origin Jackfruit that has made been adopted globally as a healthy replacement for meats.

With the idea of preserving and promoting "gastronomy as a cultural expression related to the natural and cultural diversity of the world," the United Nations, in 2016, adopted the resolution to observe June 18th as the Sustainable Gastronomy Day. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines sustainable gastronomy as “cuisine that takes into account where the ingredients are from, how the food is grown and how it gets to our markets and eventually to our plates”. This concept has served as an impetus for food enthusiasts and experts to revive regional culinary practices and, recreate cuisines through locally sourced and alternative ingredients.

Regional culinary practices not only add to the diversity of Indian cuisine but also provide insights into local cultures, agricultural patterns, and the suitability of various foods for different occasions. For instance, saffron, known for its heating tendencies, is cultivated in the cold regions of Kashmir and frequently incorporated in winter foods. Similarly, the cultivation of shade-variety of coffee necessitates protecting the green cover and in-turn revering them as sacred habitats. Regional cuisines also narrate local histories and create crafted food experiences. While many local food customs have continued over centuries especially related to festivities, there have also been efforts to revive certain forgotten culinary traditions through research and experimentation. The use of clay ovens and charcoal, or recreating foods from the Indus Valley Civilization and Marathwada region exemplifies this.

Another trend that has led to the popularity of regional and locally sourced foods is their recognition as superfoods. Native to India, moringa and millets, are being adapted in cuisines across the world owing to their immense health benefits. Grown in arid regions and requiring little water, millets like Ragi are also environment and labour friendly. Moreover, foods that are locally sourced and organically cultivated have lesser carbon footprint as compared to processed food, making it healthier and environmentally sustainable choice.

Regional cuisines are also being closely linked to the burgeoning concept of “wellness cuisine” across the globe. In India, this understanding has been deeply entrenched through the millennia-old science and philosophy of Ayurveda. The ancient science speaks at length on the medicinal values as well as the emotional and intellectual impact food practices have on individual wellbeing. Not only does it talk of the healing properties of spices and herbs, or the nutritional composition of grains and vegetables, but also elucidates on the methodology of cooking, consuming, and storing food. Ayurveda and various other Indian texts on gastronomy also mention the direct appeal food has on one’s sensibilities. It is therefore important to cook as well as consume food with compassion and in a calm and focussed state of mind. Internationally, this realization is much recent and has spurred the trend of “mood foods,’ wherein culinary experiences are crafted keeping the emotional quotient in mind. An Ayurvedic diet, when consumed in accordance with the weather cycles, topographical conditions, and energy constitution of the body – represented through the earth, air, and fire element – can, therefore, lead to harmonious sync between the mind, intellect, and physical wellbeing.

India’s gastronomical heritage has a myriad of authentic cuisines, truly reflective of the country’s cultural diversity. The observance of Sustainable Gastronomy Day serves as a reminder to connect with our roots by revisiting India’s traditional food wisdom encapsulated in works such as Bhojanakutahalam and reviving native gastronomical heritage. With the understanding of the linkages between sustainability, wellbeing, and culinary traditions increasing across the globe, and even being reiterated through the UN Sustainable Development Goal, India’s gastronomical wisdom—complemented by the philosophy of yoga—has an immense offering for the world.