Ancient Future Foods: Can Looking Back Save our Future?

Can looking back save our future? Simrit Malhi on why the current food trend might actually be centuries old. 

You shop at the local farmers market — mostly seasonal and always in the organic section. Heck, you even know the name of most of the people that grow your produce. Thumbs up for effort, but darling, your habits are so 2000.

Enter 2017. Michelin star restaurants serve insects on sticks and the hottest food trend of the year (after unicorn milkshakes) is… the humble millet.

From Africa, the Americas to the Asian 'rice belt' that runs through India, Thailand and on to Korea – our planet was once abundant with various millets. Discovered and grown by sheepherders of the vast Mongolian steppe some 7,500 years ago, they grew millets because of their short growing season: only 45 days. They helped spread the seed all the way through Asia, Russia and everywhere in between. Even Japan, which has been subsisting on rice since 400 BC, grows millet and occasionally mixes the two to make the rice 'fuller'.

The Holy Triad of Corn, Wheat and Rice, that has ruled plates around the world since the advent of Industrial Farming, today contributes to more than half of all calories consumed by humans worldwide. In the US, corn now uses more land and water than any other crop, and the chemicals used to sustain it have resulted in the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

In contrast, foxtail millet thrives with 4 inches or less of annual rainfall. Take teff, an Ethiopian grain that is hardier, more drought-tolerant and more nutritious than wheat. It can be grown in both water-logged and water-stress conditions. No need for any chemicals, either.

Even better, because millets literally drink up water (even once ingested), you need much less quantities than say, rice. In fact, to avoid dehydration, use millets in porridge, curries and soups as far as possible and eat dishes made with millet flour in moderation. Luckily our modern plating systems seem tailor made for millets' necessity for small portions. And in the end, the nutty complexity of millet will always win over the one-dimensional sweetness of the Triad.

As Michael Pollan, humanity's Defender of Food made clear, traditional food is best for our bodies. It might be the right time to start eating like the ancestors on whose shoulders our DNA rests.

As a farmer, ecologist and mom, I find the world of global food trends and 'buzzwords' inherently interesting. The 'vegetable of the year' (cauliflower, but now increasingly, celery) can dictate what farmers grow, how much water is used and ultimately, what reaches our tables. Unlike almost every other kind of large-scale market, consuming and producing food consciously, seems to go hand in hand with being 'trendy'. I assume we owe this to the top chefs of the world — arrogant enough to educate the masses instead of being a slave to them. For only in the world of food, can the most on-point trend of the year be something as intimate as gut health (predicted by none other than the New York Times).

Fermented foods is an essential Ancient-Future food — indigenous, tribal and medicinal, everyone in our country probably eats something fermented everyday. The airiness of a dhokla, the just-right sourness in a jalebi, or the pungency of mesu (one of the few to feature in India's Ark of Taste) all owe their beauty to fermentation processes that are centuries old.

Ancient foods are making a come-back

Like the millet, fermenting your food seems to be an elegant solution to all kinds of problems —  the live microbes are a blessing for our gut, aiding digestion, increasing immunity and staving off disease; and because you don't have to cook most fermented foods, you save on fuel and reduce the production of endogenous toxins. It also helps that it is genuinely more delicious, adding texture and aroma where there was none. And, oh yes, it is the ultimate fast food!

"Although fermentation takes time, it’s not active time," says Sandor Katz — the fermentation guru. "Having a jar of sauerkraut fermenting in your kitchen will take you ten minutes: Chop up the vegetables and salt them. And then for weeks you have this really nutrition-packed embellishment that you can put on your meals on the run." Seriously, it’s that easy — noodles, broth and kimchi have saved me many a young-mom breakdown.

Indians looking for something more funky, have a long history of bacilli and ingredients to dive into. Take just vinegars, for example, we have kachampuli, used in the legendary Coorgi pandi curry, sugarcane sirka used in Gujarat and Punjab, and the ubiquitous coconut vinegar from Goa; but honestly, you can make vinegar out of anything vaguely sweet. Jamun vinegar is making a huge 'super food' comeback in the country now but I don't know of any restaurant using it… yet.

Fermenting comes into good use in that other food trend of the year 'root to fruit'. Riffing off 'nose to tail', where every part of the animal was used,  'root to fruit' also ties up with being seasonal. It is almost impossible, for instance, to use nasturtium flowers or beetroot greens that are more than a couple of days old.

An old stronghold of our culture is to use as many parts of the produce as you can — you will know this if you've ever grown your own. For example, banana peel thoran and cauliflower danthal sabzi (that both use the stems and leaves); nothing is ever thrown away, not even the peel. Predictably, it’s all super healthy and tasty — fruit and vegetable skins are loaded with anti-oxidants and fibre; and the varied flavours within the same profile are a blessing for the modern chef. Stem pestos and blanched everything with olive oil, garlic and salt are now du jour . Nitin Tiwari, at Razzberry Rhinocerous, even created an extensive 'root to fruit' menu exclusively for his cocktails.

Internationally, Alex Atala is South America's most important chef right now and the original champion of the Ancient Future Food. Literally wading through vast Amazonian forests in Brazil to give a voice to Indigenous food cultures and peoples' rights. His company Instituto Ata, is devoted to the research and promotion of Brazilian indigenous ingredients, which he does through his two Michelin starred restaurant, D.O.M. in Sao Paulo. It aims to "enhance, protect biodiversity and expand the portfolio of local produce for chefs and consumers".

Remember this: the food on your plate starts with a handful of seeds and an idea in a farmer's head. And it is up to us to provide those ideas. Our chefs and us need to make the most of what’s left of our traditional foods.

Back home in Mumbai, Prateek Sandhu at Masque creates seasonal menus with the best of what India farms — and he ferments too! (His rye sourdough is unbelievable). Floyd Cardoz of Bombay Canteen is fiercely protective of India's terroir, eschewing zucchini and broccoli for lotus stems and gourds; and New York based Michelin-starred chef Vikas Khanna is already working on his next book — based on at least 40 different types of millets.

It is time to change up systems and move from the Industrial Era of Food to a new, more inclusive system — which brings not only tradition and the future together, but also the poor and rich, the rural and the urban, and the global with the local. This is the only system that can have a mutually beneficial answer to farmers, the environment, and the consumer, with our ever-sophisticated food habits.  

Simrit Malhi lives on her permaculture farm in Kodaikanal, runs a fair-trade farmer co-op and believes we can eat our way to a healthier planet. Follow her here
Illustration by Namita Sunil.