Ancient Indian scriptures mention ‘Annam Brahmam’ meaning Food is God. Traditionally food in India is revered and given respect as though praying to God. The practice has always been eating locally grown, seasonal produce and being resourceful by producing minimum waste. 

The Indian diet is primarily plant-based which does not have a huge carbon footprint. Pulses, vegetables, fruits, and many varieties of plant-based products are locally grown in different climatic and geographical conditions. This habit of local consumption is a principle encouraged by ancient medicinal systems as it helps decrease the ecological footprint by reducing energy requirements involved in processing, packaging, storage, and transportation.

This blog post has tried to cover many of India’s sustainable traditional practices for food with the hope to motivate the readers to become sustainable citizens of the world.

This is part of an ongoing series by Ketki from Ecokats an Indian ecologist and sustainable travel blogger sharing lessons we can learn from India’s Sustaianble Traditional Practices. We hope that you can pick up some tips to incorporate into yourlifestyle by harnassing traditions from India. Once you’ve read and commented head over to part 2 to learn about textiles and clothing.

WHAT WE’RE COVERING

QUICK LOOK

  • Discover ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle for a lower impact diet
  • Indians culture focuses on vegetarian, waste-free eating
  • Embrace seasonal and local cuisine
  • Think of ways you can implement these traditional practices in your kitchen

The Indian Way of Eating with Hands – Reduce the use of Cutlery

When it comes to food, Indians still prefer eating food with their hands rather than using spoons and forks. According to the Indian Vedic tradition, human fingers are said to be the conduits of the five elements namely space, air, fire, water and earth which are believed to transform food by heightening the senses of smell and taste and make the food digestible by feeling its texture in hand. According to Ayurveda, eating food with bare hands not only feeds the body but also the mind.
A thali served on banana leaf during a wedding, south India
Sistak, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Eating with hands serves as protection to the tongue. The hands act as a temperature sensor and it becomes easy to gauge the temperature before putting the hot food in the mouth.

Food Preservation w/o Refrigeration to Reduce Energy

Before the invention of refrigeration technology, ancient communities had discovered the secret of storing perishable food items for consumption around the year. The method involved sun drying or storing food in salt/sugar/lemon solution or oil. The science of pickles is a way of preserving food by covering plant-based foods with lactobacillus bacteria. During pickling, these bacteria grow while suppressing the development of other bacteria that cause spoilage and disease. The bacteria metabolize the sugar in the vegetable. By producing lactic acid and other antibacterial substances the plant’s nutritional substances, such as fiber and vitamin C, remain intact. This process is called lactic acid fermentation, which gives fermented pickles their characteristic tartness.

Indian pickles are famous around the world and they are made using the most sustainable method. These pickles do not use fossil fuels for cooking nor do they use refrigeration for storage. Pickles are fruits or vegetables that are sun-dried, mixed with spices, and stored in salt and oil. Commonly pickled food items are mangoes, lemons, garlic, chilies, mushrooms, and even chicken and meat. Learn some recipes for picked vegetarian foods. 

Mango pickle from BiharJagisnowjughead, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Using salt is a great preservation technique where vegetables and fruits like raw mangoes, gooseberries, and tamarind. Salt binds with water molecules which acts as a dehydrating agent in foods. Foods are dried and stored with salt in airtight jars and left out in the sun. Halophilic or salt-tolerant bacteria are naturally present on their surface to digest the sucrose in the fruit or vegetable matter which produces byproducts such as carbon dioxide, acetic acid, and lactic acid.
Dried Mango Slices
Miansari66, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Recycle Food to Reduce Food Waste

Indian communities have many examples of creative use of extra food which helps in reducing the waste produced during the preparation and even the leftovers. Each state in India has its own creative way of reducing food wastage.

Recycling and Using Leftover Food

In East India, which is mainly a rice-eating community, cooked and leftover rice is left to ferment overnight. This fermented rice is consumed as breakfast the next day after draining water and adding salt, lime, and chilies.

In northern India, leftover lentils are mixed with wheat flour, and after the addition of spices, they are rolled to make flatbreads or paratha for the next day’s breakfast. 

In Western India, leftover Rotis are roasted and turned into a snack called Khakhra. This snack can be stored for weeks without refrigeration. Stack of Khakhra a Indian snack

Upcycling Food Waste Into Different Products

Hot summers often cause milk to curdle in absence of refrigeration. This milk is turned into Paneer or cottage cheese and combined with freshly squeezed lemon juice. This dish is a favourite, high nutrition, and versatile product in India.

The best way of reducing waste at the source is by turning vegetable peels into chutney. Vegetable peels of bottle gourd, ridge gourd, and bitter gourd are generally thrown away after peeling, but instead they can be ground with spices, lemon, and salt as a meal accompaniment.A bowl of bottle gourd chutney an Indian dish

Weather Adaptation and Weather Based Foods

Being a huge country, there are different weathers across India. The ancient locals have adapted to locally grown, seasonal food which helps the body to adapt to harsh weather – hot and cold. 

Cold Weather Foods

Winter often leads to mineral deficiencies in the body that can be replenished by a proper wholesome diet. Come winter and Indian households prepare various types of high-energy, high protein, and nutrition-rich foods with a long shelf life. Chikki is a traditional Indian sweet prepared with jaggery. Dry fruits, groundnut, sesame seeds are added to jaggery which binds together to form this no-preservative food. Due to high glucose content, it acts as an instant energy bar. Similarly, there are various kinds of laddus (a sweet in circular form) that are prepared using dry coconut, edible gum, dates, almonds, and garden cress seeds. 
Chikki on a silver platter aTraditional Indian Anack

Hot Weather Foods

The only good thing about Indian summers is the refreshing fruit drinks. While lemon juice is easily available, the majority of people look forward to consuming raw mango juice. Commonly known as Aam Panna, it is a traditional summer drink recipe for good digestion, is disease resistant, and helps keep the body cool. It prevents the loss of sodium chloride and zinc which is lost due to body sweat. 

Keri Ka Sharbat
Miansari66, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

High energy Ragi (finger millet) drink is also consumed during summers. The drink is known as Ambil which is highly nutritious, delays hunger, and keeps a person active in extreme heat. 

Another superfood is Sattu, which is made of roasted gram flour. High in fibre content and low glycaemic index, it is a healthy food with high shelf life which has a cooling effect on the body. Learn how to make Sattu and why it is so great for your health!

Sattu fiber drink sustainable Indian food practices

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Non-Mechanical Kitchen Tools – Reduce Energy

Preparing food is nothing short of magic. A great dish is made after using local seasonal products, the right amount of salt and spices, and the perfect kitchen tool. For centuries some tools have not undergone any changes and are used even today. These are non-mechanized and do not use any electrical energy.

Traditionally, Indian homes prepared butter at home. All the women who still make this white butter at home swear by a tool called Madhani. The tool is a wooden churner stick that is inserted into a pot containing cream of milk. This stick is hand rotated, wherein the butter-fat breaks which separate the water from butter globules. The butter globules clump up and float together which is the white butter.

Indian spices are world-famous and the secret behind their taste is grinding them in mortar and pestle instead of an electric mixer grinder. The mortar bowl is made either from wood, ceramic, stainless steel, or stone. The pestle is a heavy club-shaped object. Traditionally all spices were ground using this tool, sometimes even chutneys were made like this. Many homes still practice this for authentic taste.
wood, pepper, spice, soil, material, mortar, man made object, masher, Free Images In PxHere

Fresh fruit juice sold by street vendors is very popular all across India. The vendors make a living by visiting residential societies instead of having a fixed place where people visit. Since it is not possible to use electricity while on the go and battery usage would increase their cost, the vendors use manual fruit juicer wherein the wheel of the grinder is manually rotated squeezing fresh seasonal juice right in front of the buyers. two men standing at a fresh fruit stand in India

Served Zero-Waste

Before the invention of plastic and styrofoam-based disposal plates, India used easily compostable, naturally available cutlery, especially in community functions serving a large number of people. Even today in the state of Kerala, food is served on banana leaf which is available in plenty and is considered healthy. Being big in size, it can easily accommodate large and many portions of Indian food. It is believed that banana leaves further enhances the aroma of hot food when placed onto it.Indian food served on a banana leaf

Discuss and Share

These sustainable traditional practices for food are still prevalent in large parts of India which helps in energy reduction, reduction in food wastage, and make the best use of natural resources. I hope you learned something new that you can incorporate into your daily habits to make more sustainable choices surrounding food.

Engage and Leave a Comment!

  • Go back through and think of ways you can incorporate some of these sustainable traditional practices from India in your kitchen and diet. Leave a comment with at least one idea below.
  • What is something you learned from this post that surprised you?
  • Make sure you save this post so you can return to it again and again as you build on your sustainable journey.
Sustainable food practices from Traditional India