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When ancient practices become a new age commodity…

The aroma of freshly cooked red rice squashed into little balls slathered in buttermilk, dipped in the pickle deftly thrown into the mouth was like a little juggling act for a little girl of six, squatting in-front of her grandfather, taking in the aroma of the food and mesmerised by the shiny brass plate. I always wondered how the taste was so yummy, as I waited for a mouthful of that - I always got from his plate. His eyes will twinkle as he dipped the ball into the pickle. As children, we always left the pickle on the side - not finishing. My grandfather insisted we need the fire of the pickle to be strong as we grew up.

That was 60 years ago. Welcome to the age of convenience. And Loss of common sense. We have fashionistas and new age gurus peddling on pickling and lactofermentation as a big commodity. Beyond affordability of any ordinary folks. When the rich peddles anything, it suddenly becomes exorbitantly expensive. I remember at the peak of younger activist days I came across a book by Susan George, How the other Half Dies. While the book deeply influenced me, there was particularly a section that is still etched in my memory. It was about how the rich world ‘discovers’ wooden tools and earthenware pots, and suddenly it is fashionable and a collectors item. The same is true about lactofermentation and pickling.

Long before the days of refrigeration the only way to preserve surplus was through preservation of some kind. While in the tropics harvests perished quickly, the cooler temperate regions did not have many days to grow food outside the short summer season. Across the world our ancients developed many ways to preserve food. Be it Kerala’s special mango pickle buried in the ground, or similar ways Korean pickles buried in giant pots, or the dried meat and mushrooms, even tomatoes dried and preserved for cooler weathers - a culture all the way from Mongolia, Siberia, many parts of Northern cultures- even today remnants of food preservation is well and alive in parts that are not encroached by supermarkets. I remember early 2017 /18 during my field work on local adaptation research in remote areas of Bhutan, living on dried meat, cooked with dried chillies, strips of pumpkin, spinach, downing equally pungent butter tea, often made with fermented butter.

Come down from the high altitudes to the ‘civilised world’ - always signposted by the garishly coloured supermarkets - and you will note the entry of new products. Instant, packaged. Cheap and flashy. The poor with their pockets often not lined with notes, (plastic cards) find the supermarkets almost fulfilling the aspirations of becoming a city dweller.

In Cape Town it is very fashionable and chic to be a ‘foodie’. From fermentation workshops to sour dough breads- the list is endless and price is steep, yet the poor who need the good old ways of eating nutrient dense food, packed with good microbes to nourish the gut biome - still is grappling with the loss of common-sense- mind-washed by the modernity mantra of packaged and flashy food designed to make people stay forever hungry and sick.

Nirmala Nair, 31 March 2022

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