Blog Post

10 Handfuls of India

While working on farms and learning about seed preservation this past year for the Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship, I have really gotten to eat some amazing foods. If my hands weren’t in the soil or toiling with seeds, they were usually grabbing the nearest edible item. People talk about how amazing Indian cuisine is -- the thalis, the street foods, the home-cooked meals -- and yes, those are all pretty great, but where this creative and intricate cuisine comes from, its ingredients, its flavors, its uncooked beginnings, that’s where the real magic lives. This fertile soil (at least that which is untouched by deforestation, drought, or chemicals) breathes so much beauty into our hands. And I consider myself beyond lucky to have held such raw beauty, however briefly.

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  1. Chikoo: Also known as zapota, chikoos are one of my favorite new fruits I got to try in India. I took this picture to show my friend Kimmy what this magical fruit looked like - like an old boring tree potato I had described in words, so she was curious. It tastes like cotton candy, but better, with a texture somewhere between kiwis and peaches. Native to south Mexico and Central America, chikoos also grow throughout south India. This particular chikoo in my hand, I harvested from a farm in Tamil Nadu. When harvesting, you gently scratch a little of it’s fuzzy skin - if it’s still green, it’s not ripe; but if it’s brown and soft to the touch, pick that chikoo!
  2. Ayurvedic Tastes: These small bites -- date, bitter gourd, rock salt, tamarind, banana, mustard flower -- represent the six flavors of Ayurvedic practice: sweet, bitter, salty, sour, astringent, pungent. I took a three-day workshop on Ayurveda Diet and Lifestyle, learning about basic Ayurvedic theories and how to incorporate them into daily lives based on particular constitutions, environments, and moods. Check out more here: Establishing Yourself: Foodways in Ayurveda.
  3. Potato Man: Kamodi-ji, a farm manager at Navdanya in Dehradun, India, was really excited to show me this potato when we were harvesting the crop in February. He tossed it to me with a giggle. “Oh! It looks like a little man! Kind of like Dr. Shiva’s brother,” I exclaimed. No matter where in the world you are, vegetables that look like people will always be amusing.
  4. Baby Bananas: A former coworker of mine, Gaby, is obsessed with mini-vegetables. We would always separate out the small fruits from harvests to admire their adorableness. I took this picture to show her how cute small bananas grown in Karnataka are. Not just cute, but these bananas were probably the sweetest I ever had.
  5. Wheat Harvest: In March, I helped with the wheat harvest at Annadana’s urban farm in Bangalore. The farm produced over 700 lbs of wheat grain from less than an acre, which was also intercropped with mustard. Annadana runs several trials for land management practices which can help farmers not only grow organically, but efficiently and resourcefully.
  6. Amla: Also called gooseberry, amla is pretty much ubiquitous around the country. In all sorts of medicines, juices, pickles, candies, amla is the answer it seems. That's because it is one of the highest sources of Vitamin C. Heart health, metabolism, aging, digestion, immunity, eyesight, blood, stronger bones, skin and hair beauty, leaking roofs, cheating husbands, general ennui, there's nothing amla can't solve, I'm told... Shaken from a tree and eaten raw, amla makes your whole face pucker up more than any sour candy kids dare each other to eat. The trick is to suck on the fruit while drinking water -- there's some kind of reaction going on and the amla becomes as sweet as can be. This amla in my hand was used in the 5-gallon batch of pickles I helped prepare.
  7. Jaggery and Sesame Seeds: Vasant Panchami marks the beginnings of Spring in North India and celebrates the birthday of Devi Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, wisdom, arts and music, worshipped to rid oneself of lethargy, sluggishness and ignorance. Standing in fields full of mustard blooms, we gathered around a branch of a pear tree to listen to prayer and poetry. The celebration ended with the sweet tastes and crunch of handfuls of jaggery and black sesame seeds.
  8. Palmyra: This is by far the oddest thing I have eaten in India, perhaps ever. It tastes like a coconut jellyfish, straight up. The clusters of the black palmyra fruit are harvested in South India April-June, and often eaten on the spot, under the tree’s canopy. It takes quite a bit of effort and skill to slice one of these babies open properly (especially with a dull machete) without slicing any of the undeveloped jelly seeds. They are good for reducing the effects of prickly heat, and so it’s no wonder they are readily available in the intensity of summer. Thanks nature! This particular palmyra was enjoyed with my friends at a farm in Tamil Nadu in the afternoon of 108 degrees.
  9. Fallen Fairy: Not actually a fallen fairy, well, could be depending on your definition… But this is the flower of Love Apple or Jambu or White Jamun, which had fallen to the ground at Calcutta's Horticultural Center. Once developed, the fruit of this tree is a beautiful rounded triangular shape that can be used in salads, desserts, drinks, or pickling. It tastes a bit like an astringent sour apple. It helps cure digestive disorders and throat infections.
  10. Parsi Ice Cream Sandwich This is a Mango ice cream sandwich from K. Rustom in Mumbai, a no thrills, strictly business, Iranian ice-cream parlor run year-round since 1953. No, this ice cream sandwich was not grown from the soil of India, at least not directly. But, K. Rustom's makes the most of seasonal ingredients and quality milks. Really, it just was too good not to include on this list. Especially because between the Fulbright Nat-Geo fellows, there has been a running thread discussing fellowship struggles, political struggles, existential struggles, but mostly ice cream. I was feeling left out because I really haven’t had access to ice cream in India, so this was my first ice cream in 7 months! Well worth the wait.

Lauren Ladov is a local food activist and educator. For the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, she is based in India, engaged in indigenous seed preservation and creating a digital curriculum for teachers and youth to learn more about seed saving and diversity education.

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