Food lessons from pandemic

Recently there was a news report about how farmers in Rajkot in Gujarat have been successful in growing an American variety of mango from Florida named Tommy Atkins. The mango variety has much less sugar than most of the mangoes and is in good demand among diabetics.

Mangoes are native to India and available during the summers. People long await the season as it brings the sweet and delicious mangoes just once a year. The Tommy Atkins variety is not much liked by the Indians settled abroad as they find it less sweet and poor in taste. The very idea that such a variety of mango being cultivated in India which is nowhere at par with the native Indian varieties of mangoes known for their delectable sweet tastes, did not go down well.

A low sugar mango may fit the lifestyle of people who may be following a low sugar diet due to various health issues or may be following a restricted dietary plan. These days it has become very common in parts of Gujarat and Maharashtra where people make a sustainable business with low sugar cakes and cookies for diabetics, low fat wafers and baked samosas as an alternative to deep fried goodies for heart patients, multi-grain breads and no gluten breads and pizzas made with tapioca flour for a gluten restricted meal.

This might be good business opportunity but in a faulty way as foods are compensated by removing some ingredients and increasing others – low sugar food may have a higher fat content and also the ingredients used for such foods maybe highly processed thus extracting the natural food value from the end product.

It is always better to have small quantities of quality food than going in for low fat and low sugar type foods. If we can manage our blood sugar levels then why should we go in for tasteless sour mangoes? The Tommy Atkins is of no good, but it counts to our distorted and disillusioned mindset that anything foreign is good. Craving for food often ends in eating junk food and the so called low sugar, sugar free and other fancy sounding foods than the humble home cooked meal.

Epidemics do bring in miseries for humans but at times their effect on food can be quite astonishing. In the bubonic plague at least one-third of Britain’s population was swept away, but in turn led to surplus of milk which the survivours utilised to make cheese and that slowly led to creating a bigger market for dairy products. Similarly quinine used for curing malaria was mixed in water along with sugar and thus tonic water came into being and accidently became a delicious sundowner.

The outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic and people locked down in their own houses, restaurants closed and limitations to international imports of food, resembles closely what the United Kingdom faced during the World War-II. At that time too there was limited accessibility to imported foods due to the besiegement by German ships; soon the domestic and military supplies diminished giving new and innovative ways of feeding masses.

The credit for which largely goes to Frederick James Marquis, 1st Earl of Woolton, Lord Woolton who was the newly appointed food minister. Since he had emergency powers, he therefore thrusted rationing of food which led to a limited accessibility to food like meat, butter and sugar. He further promoted and propagated people to eat less but to eat healthier and locally procurable fruits and vegetables and encouraged them to grow more seasonal vegetables for consumption. Interestingly, a pie made with root vegetables like parsnips, potatoes, carrots in oatmeal with a pastry or potato crust served with brown gravy came to be called as ‘Woolton Pie’.

Woolton exercised the use of local substitutes like rosehips as they have high contents of vitamin C over citrus fruits imported from other countries. Frying was discouraged over steaming and baking so was sugar over seasonal fruits and honey.

As a result Britain at the end of the war was not only in a good physical shape but was never as healthier. Despite the doctors and medical staff stationed at battlefront and limited access to doctors and medical facilities, UK had never achieved such results pertaining to public health.

Today when we are in the similar situation, with restaurants closed or with limited accessibility, we realise the value of home cooked meal and are even getting an opportunity to try something new and discover the chef within ourselves. Without access to imported products which flood our markets such as the olive oil, found these days quite easily in even small grocery stores, we can fall back on what we have since ages liked to eat, sesame oil for example which has many more nutrients and benefits and whose history can be traced to the Indus Valley Civilization.

Our tables have diversity of imported foods, the daily cooking and the menu setting is further eased by restaurants. But when this crisis is over and life resumes to normalcy, let us take a lesson from it and value what we have and try and live in moderation. And with our own great varieties of mangoes like Alphonsos, Kesars, Dusheris, Banganapalles, Chausa, Langda  there can never be a need to go in for Tommy Atkins.