Eat poor to live rich. As the health-conscious Indian moves away from fat friendly western snacks, including consumption of pizzas and burgers, herbs and spices traditionally used by Dalits is all set to find its way into more mainstream cuisine, thanks to its wellness enhancing abilities.
From saffron-colored and-not-yellow turmeric sourced from water-distressed regions of Maharashtra to pungent Bhiwapur chillies that don’t cause acidity even if consumed in large quantities, these spices used by Dalits and scoffed at by the uppity is now being tapped by nutritionists for its healing properties.
“While conducting a socio-anthropological project to study the food habits of Dalits in UP, commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania, I discovered that poor Dalit settlements had an unusually large number people in their nineties,” said Dalit columnist turned entrepreneur Chandra Bhan Prasad.”In comparison, the longevity in Thakur ‘bastis’ was relatively low.” Prasad is planning to use his indigenous wisdom to launch an online startup called Dalit Foods that will peddle food products sourced from Dalit farmers including spices and millets.
Disseminating information on authentic Dalit cuisine will also be a big part of the company, which is expected to be launched later this month.
Physical labour – toiling 910 hours in the farming fields under the sun – is welded into the lifestyle of millions of Dalits. Prasad felt food could be one of the reasons behind their high life expectancy.
“Traditionally, Dalits didn’t have large tracts of land. They mainly grew crops such as millets that don’t require much water. Millets are good for health. They didn’t have money to use chemical fertilizers, which meant organic food,” said Prasad.
“Dalits ate rotis along with wheat husks. Nowadays, the same is being touted as a superfood for diabetics,” he adds.
While several innovations from desi kitchens have captured the imagination of the west over the decades, the current favourite being turmeric latte (essentially haldi-doodh). Closer home, top nutritionists have termed this interest as going back to the roots. “Look at it this way,” said celebrity nutritionist Pooja Makhija. “Earlier, everybody here aped the West. Now, the west is telling us that authentic Indian cuisine is the best and we are going back to it in a big way.”
Dalit cuisine is essentially full of whole grains, which means a high amount of fibre, nutrients and antioxidants, said Makhija.
“Other than the rich organic nature of the food, the ingredients make digestion harder in a good way , allowing blood sugar levels to remain stable.”
Prasad, who has been working on the project for two years, has set aside a modest capital of Rs 5 lakh.
From a two storied building in Patparganj, he operates a packaging facility . “I cannot sell the products through brick and mortar retail in the beginning because I will get paid later. We will start selling online and scale up once demand intensifies,”he said.
He is sourcing raw materials from across the country where agriculture is done in old fashioned Dalit way, meaning no chemical fertilisers and less water.