We, the Government
By Hugh and Colleen Gantzer
Graphic Era’s Conference on the herbs in our Himalayas was a watershed event. (GP 15 Feb, 2019) It must not be allowed to fade away as another pedantic exercise. It could be the turning point in the fortunes of our villages, fighting for survival in the unforgiving environment of our mountains. During our travels in the Garhwal and Kumaon Himalayas, we noticed their remarkable resemblance to the highlands of Greece, Turkey, Jordan, Spain, even Malta, and the other areas which the Brits called the Med and Middle East and Nehru referred to as West Asia. The cuisine of these areas, of increasing popularity worldwide, is flavoured with herbs rather than spices. When the Spices Board of India commissioned us to research and write their authoritative Spicestory, with a foreword by Dr MS Swaminathan, we concluded that the use of these flavoursome ingredients probably dates back to our Neanderthal ancestors. In all likelihood, they were discovered quite by accident when protein-rich products of the hunt were wrapped in leaves to prevent charring during ember-cooking. Then, in course of time, it was realised that certain leaves had given an additional medicinal value to the food.
As quoted in the GP report: “Chancellor, Graphic Era University, Prof (Dr) RC Joshi emphasised that locals and villagers had immense knowledge of traditional and medicinal plants which should be utilised by the researchers”. We have personal experience of this. One of our employees recommended a poultice of nettle to cure the ugly swelling of a sprained ankle. It worked with almost miraculous efficacy. In another case, a sanitary worker cut his foot and it bled profusely. He took the advice of a local woman and plucking two leaves, growing wild in our wood, applied them to his ugly wound. The bleeding stopped in less than a minute and, the next day, there was only the faintest line of a scar!
For this column, however, we are restricting ourselves to culinary herbs without going into the strictly therapeutic ones.
Broadly speaking, spices have distinctly assertive flavours and they are generally endemic to tropical lands. The European Age of Exploration was triggered by a search for a route to these lands, then the secret of Arab traders. The European quest to break this price-fixing monopoly was, in turn, spurred by the West’s unhygienic practice of slaughtering cattle in autumn, because no fodder grew in their cold lands in winter, and hanging the carcases. To disguise the decomposed taint in the meat during the later months of winter and early spring, pepper, cinnamon and cloves were used liberally. All these grew in the tropics and so the mad rush for the spice lands of the east began.
In our warm countries, however, spices served a different purpose.
Here they aided digestion during the long siestas imposed by mid-day heat, and produced cooling sweat. Their anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties were also welcome. Turmeric has acquired such a valued reputation that it was given a religious status in what was (as still is), essentially, a hygiene-based social system!
Then came the egalitarian wave of modern mores. People abandoned caste-based living clusters, in which your status was decreed by birth, in favour of ability-oriented organisations. Once valued male musculature was bypassed by mechanical devices and female intuitive empathy acquired value in quick-response digitalised societies. Climate control obliterated the need for the siesta. With the diminishing demand for physical effort in the work-place, the maintenance of physical health became a growing obsession.
Consequently, herbs are emerging as the delicate flavouring agents of the low-bulk cuisine of the hi-tech world. For us, they have many advantages as the alternative crops for our marginal Himalayan farmers. They can be grown in small, demand-responsive plots and, because they are light-weight, their transportation costs are minimal. We have grown celery, parsley and mint in zinc tubs in our cottage garden and monkeys shun them. Presumably they are also wild-boar proof! Among the other culinary herbs that could be grown are sweet basil, borage, chamomile, chives, dill, lemon balm, thyme, tarragon, savory, sage, oregano, lavender and fennel.
Now it is up to the people We, the Government elect, and finance, to act. Can Graphic Era help?