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Meghalaya’s indigenous food habits leave US-based food writer, author mesmerised

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SHILLONG, April 7: Mark Bittman, an acclaimed food writer for The New York Times and author of 30 books including the bestselling How to Cook Everything, was in Shillong recently at the invitation of Phrang Roy, founder Chairperson of the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS).
Bittman spent 12 days in Meghalaya and visited several villages in Jaintia Hills and Khasi Hills to understand the indigenous food systems and the sustainability practices of indigenous people.
Bittman also lectures at the Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health on health policy and management. His New York Times column The Minimalist was published for over 13 years.
The Shillong Times caught up with Bittman one evening while he was cooking a meal for some guests at the residence of Phrang Roy – something he does with élan and a flair that comes naturally. He has learnt a lot about the different leaves and roots, fruits and seeds that the indigenous people of Meghalaya use as a daily fare, especially in the villages. Bittman was cooking risotto with some local leaves thrown in and it tasted divine.
Bittman says he has been writing on food for 45 years and still writes cook books. “People who follow me internationally follow my philosophy is cooking.”
Indeed Bittman has turned the very idea of food into a philosophy. He says food is linked to nutrition and the environment and the fact that eating habits have changed, particularly in the West, is the reason for public health challenges on a large scale.
“I teach one semester and in my class last year I discussed food and social justice because food is the pivot around which public health hinges,” Bittman says.
“Fast food in the West started in the 60s and 70s. In the post war period, people were busy reclaiming their lives and felt that cooking at home was a waste of time. Kids of that era grew up not knowing what cooked food was and as adults later they had no idea of cooking,” Bittman explained, adding that this had serious health consequences and rates of chronic diseases shot up even while the lifespan of people shortened with 50 years being the longest life span.
Bittman further stated that the US leads the world in consumption of ultra processed food which is the trigger for most health problems. “It follows the path of tobacco in terms of being addictive and comprises the worst food combinations of salt, fat, sugar, white flour — all ultra processed and robbed of all nutrients. Add to that industrially produced meat and you have a catastrophe.”
“Food companies control what is grown and sold in the market. Industrial farming is a catastrophe we are already facing in the West and is catching up elsewhere too,” Bittman informed and added ruefully that people are dying unhealthy.
Asked about his experiences in Meghalaya, Bittman said he was overwhelmed by the range of food grown by farmers in villages and how fresh and healthy they are. He also noted that people cook their food daily and that is quite a change from what he sees in the West which is the buy and heat variety.
Speaking about his experiences in the villages of Meghalaya, Bittman said, “When we were in those villages we didn’t see a single obese person but I guess we will see those in the cities such as Delhi. We see obese people everywhere in America,” Bittman said, adding that what NESFAS is doing here is much needed and that if the farmers are better organised they can feed the people here and the world too, although there is a lot of industrial farming in India too.
Bittman concluded saying, “Industrial farming is a catastrophe. It is responsible for the greenhouse gases which lead to climate change.”

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