Eating to save the world! (perhaps?).

It’s great to see the recent revival of interest in cooking in Australia. With cooking and lifestyle TV shows talking about fresh, seasonal products and sustainable farming practice, maybe we as a community are becoming more aware of what we eat and of the health of and environmental issues around our food. Changing a few simple items on the menu can have great benefits for health, reduce our individual carbon footprint and increase our enjoyment of food.

How often lately have you said, “Wow, that tastes great!” after a meal? Travelling and eating great food in India for the last few weeks (quite a few WOW moments!) set me thinking about how removed we’ve become from our food sources, with processing, packing, transport and storage often happening to food before we get anywhere near it.

I grew up on a farm. We had a cow, chooks, a vege garden and acres of fruit trees. Meat came from the local butcher. A lot of local produce was swapped and shared, as was the work of harvesting fruit and berries in season. Farming in Kashmir still looks like this, with most people still living on the land, just miles of crops round each village, with people working together weeding, harvesting, storing food. In Kashmir, there were many large self-sufficient family farms with big houses and gardens. Here people are not so crowded and they look prosperous and healthy.

Ethical Eating?

While in India, I read Angela Crocombe’s book “Ethical Eating” and the ideas expressed there fitted well with my Indian experiences (see below) and recent thoughts on reducing the impact of us humans on the earth. In the Himalayas, evidence of past and present climate change was all round. Although it’s hard to accurately predict the future human impact on the earth’s climate (looks like it’s getting warmer), it’s also obvious that 6.5 billion humans have caused significant change to all environmental niches, from the highest mountains to deepest oceans.

Our species has changed the face of the earth, released carbon stored for millions of years into the atmosphere and thus must have an impact on the climate. The rate of change could therefore be decreased by reducing our impact on the environment, and we can only do this one human at a time! So what can we do? Some of Angela’s recommendations include: 

Avoid animals that fart!  Cows and sheep out-number humans in Australia and green house emissions from their internal grass fermentation mechanisms are the source of 10-15% of Australia’s greenhouse gasses. Angela C. suggests that reducing consumption of lamb, beef and dairy products would be cheaper, healthier and have an equivalent environmental impact to buying a hybrid electric car! Protein could mainly come from soy, pork, chicken, fish and native (kangaroo*) meat, so no need to go vegan or vegetarian, although that is a great option too. 

*It’s said that Australia is the only country that eats its national emblem animals (kangaroo and emu). However, the British have none of theirs (lion and unicorn) available, and the Americans never developed a taste for eagles…

Find great local, seasonal fruit and veges. Significant green-house gasses are produced by transporting and storing food, and food quality decreases with processing, storage and transport. In Australia, we are lucky to have a wide range of food available all year and there is little need to import garlic from China, asparagus from Peru or oranges from the USA. We don’t need to eat grapes, strawberries and cherries out of season, and they taste better in season!

Organic produce has big advantages. Although it costs a bit more due to the more intensive farming methods used, organic products generally produce less greenhouse gas and are kinder to the soil and water supply. The money saved by not buying that Prius can pay for lots of organic produce! Free-range organic meat production does not use GM food for animals and has less animal ethics issues. The chemicals, hormones, antibiotics and fertilizers of non-organic farming all have an environmental impact, and often a health impact on consumers. 

Tap into tap water. In Australia we have some of the best and cheapest water on-tap in the world. Buying the same stuff in a plastic bottle seems like a rip-off. If your household water needs filtering due to old pipes (as in my house) a water filter jug is all that’s needed. For fruit juice, it’s best to make your own, or buy Australian products. We have great wine and beer, and quite a few organic brands and local micro-breweries now, so no need to buy products from overseas where transporting them has a significant carbon impact. 

Eating in India

Food in India’s North West Himalayan regions is also very local. Most of the population is vegetarian, although chicken and fish are on the menu in restaurants. The local vegetarian curries, biryanis, talis and dosas are full of variety and flavour, with some weird and tasty vegetables seldom seen here (okra, lotus roots, something called pumpkin that wasn’t). Spices, like high quality saffron, and herbs are locally sourced and dairy products, particularly the goat and sheep soft cheeses, are delicious. The Tibetan ladies of Leh sold home grown produce daily. At this time of year, apples, apricots, walnuts and almonds were being harvested. Chai tea, fresh lemon soda and salt lashi were the best drinks. The wine was awful and the beer had obviously travelled a long way, so it was a good time to give the liver a rest. 

More Readings: 

Ethical Eating, by Angels Crocombe, 

Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Plant Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé

Incredible India!

In the last month, 3 of us (David, Bruce Rodgers and I) have been travelling in the western Himalayas and Rajasthan. We started in Delhi, took trains across the plains (shining in post-monsoon wetness and fluorescent green growth) and up the misty hills to Shimla, the old British summer capital, now the domain of Indian honeymoon couples and decrepit Raj era wooden buildings. The newly-wed India couple sharing our space on the little train seemed a bit morose, but then we discovered that they were accompanied by his (very cheerful) mother and two brothers! .No getting away from the family…..  

From Shimla we hired a car and driver to Manali, a lovely hill town with a central forested area of Deodar cypress trees. These hills must once have been covered with these tall, scented trees with moss and ferns underneath. Cicadas singing in the forest were like a chanted mantra, a truly en-chanted forest of whispering trees and singing insects. 

From Manali we headed north to Leh, Ladakh over three >5000m passes. The first if these, the Rotangla, features a notoriously unstable road (shown recently on TV in the series ”Worlds Deadliest Roads”).  Luckily there were no landslides, rain storms or snow falls when we went over, but lots of road works. At times we were following the bulldozer as it cleared the road, ploughing through the mud. We were most impressed with our 2-wheel drive diesel Toyota and our local driver! Fellow travellers including many trucks (beautifully decorated for “protection” with eyes and Shiva pictures) cars, buses, motor bikes (Australians on Royal Enfields!) mad German cyclists and two tuk-tuks (3-wheeled motor rickshaws) driven by crazy Brits dressed as father Christmases! 

For 2 days we were above the tree line on high plateaus with incredible mountain ranges, some snowcapped, others eroded to look like castles forts and walls. There are a few villages, and we met with two re-incarnate Lamas, local teachers, farmers and fellow travellers. Most folk move out in winter when the area is inaccessible, under 3-4m of snow. These roads are only open May to September, so we were trying to get through after the monsoon (June-August) and before the snow (end of September). All round, there was clear evidence of icier times, with ancient glacial moraine, eroded hillsides and deep river channels full of huge boulders. Only tiny glaciers, far up in the mountains, remain.

Leh is a clean, quiet little country town, like Kathmandu 30 years ago. The power goes off and the internet is unreliable, but the food, people and atmosphere are lovely. Leh is an oasis, the only green patch at this end of the Indus valley. Each hill nearby has an old palace or Gompa and many of these are being restored with original building methods. The Gompas, occupied for hundreds of years by Buddhist monastic communities, house wonderful examples of exuberant Tibetan Buddhist artistry, with huge gold Buddhas, frescos with gods, demons and legendary heros in all colours and configurations. Most are active still, providing schooling, medical centres, religious and community support to the surrounding districts

From Leh we headed West, skirting the Pakistan border (no earthquakes here, just the rumble of India army trucks), via Kargil, the scene of the most recent Pakistan attack (1999). This is rugged, tree-less high country, inhabited by shepherd nomads and wild animals (the locals mention ibex, panther and black bears). We had one last high pass to traverse, the Zojila. This was the worst road of the lot, narrow, muddy, though land slide shale, sloping out from the mountain side with a >1000m drop below. Traffic supposedly ran one way for 4 hrs, then the other. We were however still on the narrow bit when cars started coming the other way (our driver muttered about bribery and corruption)! But we made it through to the Srinagar valley in Kashmir, with a sigh of relief to be back among trees, golden rice fields and lakes. Indian tourists were picnicking and riding horses (tough to do in a sari, but the ladies seemed to manage). At this lower altitude it was good to be able to walk up a hill without running out of breath. 

Srinigar with it’s Moghul gardens full of bright flowers (under the care of the Department of Floriculture) mirror lakes and wooden house boats is just beautiful. The political turmoil of recent years has left few marks and all is peaceful at present. We felt like Maharajahs staying at Fantasia Houseboat on Lake Nageen (cleaner and quieter than Dahl lake). This boat, newly restored by the owner, Rahim Langoo, is lined with Deodar pine panels so it’s like living in a cedar chest: smells wonderful. We can recommend this clean, spacious boat. Rahim’s Mum is a wonderful cook and visiting trekking guide and “concierge” Anna Candy was great as our local tour guide. 

From the peace of Srinigar, we were back into the warm air and crowds of Amritsar, to see the Golden Temple and learn something about the Sikh religion. This temple and the surrounding complex truly does rival the Taj in splendor. What is equally impressive is the Sikh dedication to cleaning and maintaining the area, and to feeding thousands of people each day, all with volunteer labour. Our guide, Ravi Singh even put David and Bruce to work in the soup kitchens! 

Our last few days were spent relaxing at Udaipur  (yes another lake, but we didn’t stay in the Lake Palace), and Delhi. We’ve been to India often and usually central Delhi is quite confronting, with scenes of filth, poverty and chaos as an introduction to the real India. This time we were amazed: it has been transformed since our last visit in 2007. Streets are relatively clean, traffic more organised. Connaught Square seems to be undergoing major renovations, the subway and freeway to the airport work well: It’s starting to feel like a good place! Hopefully this Commonwealth games effect will continue and spread as infrastructure improves. International tourists are still few and far between, but India is changing, becoming a more user-friendly travel place without yet loosing it’s charm, colour and diversity. In 3 weeks we saw mountains and plains, Buddhists, Sikhs, Moslems and Hindus and travelled happily in cars, planes, boats and trains. A great trip, but (as usual) too short! 




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