Earth Day: The Rise of Slow Food in a Fast Food World

What do you see when you are served a plate of food? Is it all about what meets the eye or is there something more to it? While most of us may not care enough and get busy rampaging through the food to satisfy our hunger pangs, there are a few who would perhaps spare a few moments to admire its presentation, make a note of all the ingredients that have gone into creating it and appreciate the flavours, colours, aromas and textures. But is that good enough? Perhaps not.

It is about time we start giving more thought to the food we consume and where it is being sourced from. What makes a dish more beautiful is also when you understand its creation in totality and the kind of ingredients that have gone into its making. While the current drift is towards organic and healthy food, there is also a growing interest in sustainable local food. On this Earth Day, we can only hope more and more people follow suit.

Back to innocence

A sustainable food system mainly refers to the production of food in a manner that meets the requirements of the people but doesn’t have any negative impacts to hamper the earth and its ecosystem. Most often we do not pay heed to the fact that the process of producing and consuming food affects the world’s resources.  

Just as there is a systematic cycle for all natural processes, the production of food too is time-bound. You cannot make a crop grow faster or expect the plants to bear fruits within days. The more we try to speed up the process using unnatural methods and chemicals, the earth takes a toll. And then there are issues like pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, excessive use of land and water resources, dependence on fossil fuel, pesticides, depletion of phosphorous, etc.

According to many agriculture-based reports, food production globally is exceeding environmental limits or close to doing so. Agriculture, including fisheries, is the single largest driver of biodiversity loss.

The demand for faster food

There was a time, long ago when humans lived by the ethos of foraging – the system of gathering food from the wild. Doing so, they enjoyed the most seasonal fruits and vegetables. The practice of food cultivation began when the demand increased with the rise of civilisations across the globe. While it started for the greater good, somewhere along the way it became a means of aggressive reproduction of food to satisfy the never-ending demands of the modern world.

The modern era, which brought development to the world, did so at the expense of severe consequences. While industrialisation and the rise of supermarkets brought numerous kinds of food from the world over right to our neighbourhood on the other hand, they ended up breaching the delicate relationship between organisms and the environment. Yet, very less has been done to rectify it.

The fast food revolution still rules. Can you ever imagine a world devoid of frizzy drinks, wafers, processed food, ready-to-eat boxes, and the like?

The slow food movement

While you can’t change the world in a day, you can hope and attempt it. And this is exactly what a young man called Carlo Petrini and a group of activists set out to do in 1989. In their words, “Slow Food is a global, grassroots organization, founded in 1989 to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast life and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us.”

Their initial aim was to defend regional traditions, good food, gastronomic pleasure and a slow pace of life. In over two decades of history, the movement has evolved to embrace a comprehensive approach to food that recognises the strong connections between plate, planet, people, politics and culture. Today Slow Food represents a global movement involving thousands of projects and millions of people in over 160 countries.

During one of their events in New Delhi last month, Fabio Antonini, a leading slow food chef from Amsterdam, hosted a talk followed by dinner on the ethos of slow food. He brought light to the idea of using locally grown ingredients to create dishes, both regional and international.

“It is important to know the source of your food and in that way build a relationship with the local producers and contribute to a sustainable system. We must learn to value the seasonality of the ingredients and not look for ways to overproduce. I think it is bad to say ‘consume food’, because it indicates something coming to an end. We should co-produce food,” said Chef Antonini.

Local Indian ingredients in the limelight

In recent years, several renowned chefs in India have been showcasing local ingredients and food concepts on their menus such as Chefs Floyd Cardoz and Thomas Zacharias in their popular Mumbai-based restaurant The Bombay Canteen; Chef Manish Mehrotra in his highly acclaimed restaurant Indian Accent, New Delhi; Chef Manu Chandra of Olive Beach Bangalore, The Fatty Bao and Monkey Bar; Chef Joy Banerjee of Bohemian, one of Kolkata’s most stunning restaurants; and Naren Thimmaiah of Bangalore’s award-winning Karavalli, to name a few.

“I am all for sustainable food. While most may be adopting this concept for the sake of nobility, I think it is the best way of preserving biodiversity. I have been using a lot of local ingredients in my restaurants for a while now. In Olive, we use bathua to make pasta such as ravioli and cannelloni, ragi to make our bread and pizza bases, and other ingredients like amaranth leaves, ajwain leaves, local eggplants from south Karnataka, etc. to prepare a variety of dishes,” said Chef Manu Chandra.

With these masters leading the way, one can hope to see more and more Indians adopting the sustainable food concept and steering away from the fast food culture starting this Earth Day. Like the popular fable of the rabbit and tortoise, hopefully, here too slow and steady wins the race in the days to come.

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