When Umendra Dutt of Kheti Virasat Mission in Punjab informed me of the upcoming festival of traditional foods being organised in two villages -- Jida in Bathinda district and Chaina in Faridkot district -- on Aug 23 and Aug 30, respectively; I really felt enthused. Reviving our traditional foods, bringing back the nutritionally rich and locally adaptable food recipes, not only renews our romance with food but also brings into fore the lost biodiversity and teaches us the principles of healthy living in connosance with nature and surroundings.
I am keenly looking forward to a taste of bajra-rabbri. I must confess that I had never heard of it. I am as ignorant about traditional foods as the rest of the country is.
In fact, after hearing from Umendra Dutt I realised that I had kept an article for later reading. I spent some time digging it out, and I feel like sharing with you all what columnist Vikram Doctor says. It was just by sheer chance that I stumbled upon his article (that appears in one of the glossy supplements accompanying The Economic Times, which I rarely open). Perhaps what made me pause and look at it was its headline: Against the Grain.
The writer asks in the opening blurb: Never had barley, rice or mugwort in your tea? You are missing something. Since I had never heard of barley or rice tea, what to talk of having it, my curiousity drew me to read the article in one go. I found it very interesting and useful, and I think such articles should be widely circulated.
Vikram Doctor talks about Mahatma Gandhi's love for cereal coffee. To his followers in South Africa, he promoted both civil disobedience and cereal coffee, he says. I didn't know about it, although I have been a keen follower of his struggles in South Africa. Neither did Richard Attenborough disclose Mahatma's love for cereal coffee in his epic film Gandhi. Nevertheless, this is what the article says:
Many coffee lovers cannot distinguish it from coffee, he (Gandhi) wrote in his publication Indian Opinion. Wheat should be well cleaned and roasted in a pan... till it becomes red and is about to turn black. It should then be taken off the fire and ground rough in a coffee-mill . A teaspoon of this powder should be put in a cup and boiling water poured over it. Boiling for a minute improves the flavour. He advocated this drink through his life even in April 1947, with Independence near, he took time off to write a note for the naturopathy centre he set up in Uruli-Kanchan near Mumbai, where he said that rather than serve tea wheat coffee will do.
Perhaps there are Gandhians who still drink it, but I cant help feeling this strong health promotion is counter-productive ; we dont like things we are told are good for us. In any case, the health benefits are questionable: if roast grains have little caffeine, which was yesterdays demon food chemical, they have lots of acrylamide, the effects of which are currently under investigation. But a few cups wont hurt and I'm not hooked up on this health angle anyway. I made the drink as per Gandhis recipe and the result wasnt remotely like coffee, but it was nice, murky looking, but with a pleasantly lingering toasted taste that had distinct sweet notes.
Vikram also introduces us to genmicha, the popcorn tea from Japan. He thinks green tea with grains of roasted brown rice makes for a really nice drink. And of course takes the readers into a wide array of infused drinks. We have forgotten these drinks, our taste buds have been so dominated by the modern tea industry that whatever they market is what we like to drink. Marketing has surely narrowed down the choices of food and drinks we have. This is a heavy price that the society has unknowingly paid for.
Instead of waiting for the tea companies to start manufacturing rice tea or ragi tea, I would go by what the author suggests. He says that grain teas are very easy to try and experiment with at home. You can take any grain and roast them and then steep or boil them, and get many variations on the same pleasantly toasted tasting tea. Leaving the wheat grains whole gives a clear drink and a crisper taste. Red rice (or ragi ) is earthier, and can be combined with green tea for an easy home version of that Korean drink. Quinoa, the Andean grain that I had written about in this column, roasts to a sensational smoky taste. You can also add spices a single star anise flower goes very well with roasted wheat. And like Korean barley tea in restaurants, they are all refreshing to drink cold.
He agrees that none of them is coffee or tea, both of which I will keep drinking, but as grain teas they are very much worth trying in their own right.
You too can make the effort.