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Food Essay|Fit for a Pauper

I have never liked the idea of eating like royalty. It comes with images of bloated, gout ridden, syphilitic Tudor kings, Marie Antoinette or dignitaries gnawing on an animal leg; a stiff, pompous arrangement of people and cutlery, crystal and bone china; roasted swan. All in my own mind, of course, but I suppose it is that I am as uncomfortable with opulence as I am with formality. I believe that both of these things draw us subtly away from true pleasure, from honesty and from our true selves. They are starched collars and corsets. Or they are an Indian city centre, wilfully blind to the slums and shanties a couple of miles down the road.

It is also that the best food is conceived, prepared and passed on by those who have no choice but to think carefully about it: how to stretch it, how to use what is there and what is free, how to maximise on the nutrition and properties of available ingredients, how to share it around and how to make it tasty. I have mentioned India. It is a place that I love, one of frenetic movement and colour, and an ancient seat of learning and experimentation with truth. Over 5000 years ago, practitioners of Ayurveda; the humble and holistic science of life first put forward the idea of the delicate balancing of the gut as the keystone of human health and immunity. 5000 years later we British decided that India was a place in need of civilising, and that we should send our finest company to do so, accompanied by their private armies. Within a century of that decision we have Indian food, yoga classes and chai lattes in every British town, and British medicine is just beginning to recognise and assert the importance of the ancient balancing of bacteria in the gut to our health and immunity. Its erosion, by antibiotics, sanitizers and unsuitable diet is beginning to be linked with the modern epidemics of hay-fever, asthma and obesity.

One of the most visionary, humble and dedicated people ever to have lived showed us how positive change for ordinary people might be achieved, the only way in fact (through committed and collective non-violent, non-cooperation with our exploiters, by being only steadfast and willing to suffer), yet Gandhi was painted by Winston Churchill as a ‘seditious little fakir’ for daring to meet with the viceroy wearing only a dhoti, or traditional loincloth. When told that Indians may no longer make their own salt or spin their own cotton, he politely rejected their decrees, suffered the beatings and imprisonments without anger or malice and led his people in doing the same. When the British desperately tried to divide the subcontinent down religious lines in order to step in and ‘civilise’ further, he pleaded with the people and went hungry until they listened. He was the single most important person in India’s liberation, but insisted that he was no politician. When independence came with partition it broke his heart. He lived and travelled as humbly as the poorest Indian citizens. He had studied law in England. He had tried on the suit and rejected it for the sake of truth. You can read it in his ‘Experiments with Truth,’ where he confronts his flaws and mistakes scientifically, searching for honest, incremental improvement. His humility was more powerful than the British Empire. The world’s media watched, and there could be no doubt as to where the civility lay. A great soul indeed.

The fact that India was occupied first by The East India Company is key here. The order of the day was not in civilising but exploiting. Companies do not speak to right or wrong but only to profit and deficit. They did not bring manners and infrastructure so much as trade embargoes and their kingly right to visit change and plunder on people they viewed to be backward and vulnerable, who ate with their fingers and drank from their saucers. Not a one with a passable tea service. To heads stuffed with progress and formality, this was evidence of their lack of civility, as were the humble days lived by the vast majority of the people. Why were they not extracting all of their many resources, damming the Ganga and her tributaries, or trading on the world market?

We have drifted a long way from my remit and comfort zone of food writing and recipe making. I am no historian or political writer, so my words require a pinch of salt (which you are free to make yourself). I do feel that there is a point here, however. We are often told to trust the market, trust business and that which people buy or do not buy. We are told to trust it to apply morality where politicians cannot, to ensure fair and free trade, responsible methods, decent pay and some sort of world equilibrium, economic stability. I have a simple question. Why on earth would we deem the market trustworthy? Is it the idea that it merely reflects that which people want to buy or how people wish to live and provides it? That it is simply a vehicle for consumer choice?

Not so.

I have written before that the companies which spend the heaviest revenues on advertising accumulate the most profit. The evidence shows that we are told what to buy and we are told how to live and we do as we are told. Moreover, many eminent politicians and people of enormous power and influence either sit on the boards of huge corporations or will do so when they leave office. I am no historian or political writer, but I will write the truth as I see it with no vested interest. Right now in India, the bottled water widely available is not from the many natural mountain springs but is treated mains water marketed and sold by major global soft drinks corporations. There are trade deals and embargoes which do not reflect consumer interest or choice.

The market tells us that we may live and eat like royalty. It means quantity and commodity. It means we can cheaply fill our bellies to bursting whilst flicking through a thousand options on a TV bigger than the roof of a shanty shack. We can all do this, however ordinary we are, and we can all be those bloated Tudor kings, only gnawing instead on mass-produced convenience food. When food is cheap we must be suspicious of its quality, sustainability, provenance and the processes to which it is subject, as well as the conditions for the workers producing it, right down the ingredient list, and the environmental impact at source, in processing and in distribution. It is not enough to trust the pictures of golden fields and happy pickers on the packaging and descriptions such as 100% British meat do not guarantee that the animal feed is grown or produced in Britain and suggest that there is little else positive to say about the animal rearing. If it were organic, free range etc. it would say so and a battery farmer is free to put a picture of open pastures on his egg boxes.

There was a time when we selected our whole ingredients. We went to the markets and shops and chose them for their quality and seasonality and what we would make with them. We grew some too, and we had grains, flours, pulses and yeast in our larders. We were concentrating also, on incorporating calories into our diets, as two thirds of the world’s people are still doing, and making sure our families were getting enough rather than seeking to omit them. I know with certainty that if we use good, natural fats such as coconut oil, olive oil, nut oils, rapeseed, butter and ghee, and use them all, variously and not sparingly, in the making of delicious home-cooked food rich in vegetables, spices and herbs, this will not result in weight or cholesterol problems. All protein diets, calorie counting, two day a week fasts are all nothing but sad, vain symptoms of a first world problem, our royalty amongst nations. Nothing but the weight of the world. Weight loss will never be of concern amongst the world’s paupers.

We also thought about how to flavour our food. In Italy, with times too tight for parmesan, the savvy pauper would spike breadcrumbs with local herbs and a little salt and citrus for delicious sprinkling and dressing. In India, through the med, Turkey, Greece and Cyprus we spread the table with disparate harmonious things; a tray of dal, rice, flour and water chapattis, fried seasonal veg, papad, curds, chutneys and pickles or a meze spread of sparing kebab with tahini, pickled cabbage, hummus, hellim, seasonal salads and herbs and freshly made breads. All was carefully spiced, seasoned and dressed and offered to those around the table in the knowledge that it was nourishing, tantalising and true. The satisfaction is the fullness of the experience and health giving variety.

The recipes that you’ll find here are in this spirit. They are seasonal, cheap and thoughtful. They are prasadam – a sincere offering.

Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu Nationalist named Nathuram Godse, because he believed that the quotient of violence was not reduced by Gandhi’s ideals but was rather internalised and turned on its own. He favoured violence towards the oppressors. I don’t believe that we are violent people. I believe that we are displaced, that whilst we are seeking to conquer and master the world, its vulnerable people and species, we are losing our true place in it and our place of belonging – not our home nations, but our innate spots amid the symbiotic ordering of nature. We often stand separately, alone and believe that to be supremacy. Lonely royals rather than happy paupers. I know at which table I would rather be seated.

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