Nov 19, 2019

Farm visit at Gumalapura - my experience

Many years back, my husband K and I attended a 4-day "Art of Living" course. One of the phrases that the instructor mentioned is clearly etched in my memory - "Expectations reduce joy, Surprises increase joy". When I enrolled for the 2-day weekend farm visit organized by Bhoomi College in their Gumalapura organic farm, I absolutely had no expectations. All I wanted was a break from the usual weekend routine.

It was such a memorable experience for our whole family. If you love nature, farms, fresh air and interaction with good set of people, I'd highly recommend you enroll for this weekend programme. Yes, get surprised like us. It will be a unique experience for the kids as well as city-bred adults.

Don't read the finer details mentioned below. I'm jotting down here, so I can revisit the experience through my own words years later. Even if I go there again, I may or may not feel the same joy I felt while returning home on Sunday evening.

****Spoiler Alert******

We packed our bags on Friday night, started early on Saturday morning and reached Gumalapura around 9:30AM. The winding roads of the countryside, green fields and eucalyptus trees on either side were such a treat to the eyes. The rest of the group who had enrolled for the programme had already arrived. After a quick round of introductions, we headed for breakfast - fresh and piping hot pongal and coconut chutney. 

We then started for a walk around the farm. The farmer Mr.Ashok showed us fields of paddy, horsegram, ragi, groundnut etc. He also took us to a couple of caves that were around 500-600 years old. After walking around, we were served fresh lemon juice sweetened with jaggery. Felt so refreshing, sipping the drink standing near the fields. The weather was perfect that morning. 

The next activity was to make panchagavya as a team. The organizing team brought all the required ingredients - cow urine, cow poop, ghee, milk and curd (5 things from the cows). They also add bananas, honey, coconut water and jaggery. We had to mix all these 9 ingredients together. Though I was hesitant to touch the first two ingredients, there was an enthusiastic 10-year old girl who mixed the poop with ghee without a hint of disgust. Hats off to her. Mr.Ashok explained the proportions, how to dilute it and at what stage panchagavya needs to be sprayed on plants.

It was time for a homely vegetarian lunch - rice, veggie-loaded sambhar, beans palya and radish salad. The salad, in particular, was so tasty without the pungent flavor of radish. After lunch, we played a fun team activity of rolling a marble using broken pipes. Though it seemed like an easy activity, it required tremendous coordination as a team. 

We then headed again to the farm for a novel experience of riding a tractor. We all plowed a small plot of land and also got to drive a tractor, which was such a fun experience. We then manually tilled another small plot of land and planted dill and coriander seeds. We also got to understand how sprinklers need to be setup.

We were then taken to a beautiful spot, near a lake and a spectacular view of the valley. Mr.Ashok explained the history of Gumalapura village and the annual temple festival celebrated in praise of Goddess, sitting in front of a spooky cave whose length is around 11 kms and ends in another temple. Sitting on the rocks, inhaling plenty of fresh air, watching a brilliant view of the sunset and the vast expanse of the valley and hills, eating bhelpuri and sipping tea - such a magical evening it was!

We returned to our rooms, freshened up a bit, played badminton and football until it became dark. A bonfire was set up and we all sat around it, listening to music, admiring the remarkable night sky with plenty of stars - a rare sight for city dwellers like us. Dinner was again a fresh, homely meal - chapatis, bhindi sabzi, veg palya and curd rice. 

After dinner, we went to the terrace, lied down on the floor, watching the night sky and just staying quiet without talking. When we asked D what was your most memorable experience during the trip, she pointed to this very moment.

After a long day, we went back to our allotted rooms and slept. Being a new place, D couldn't sleep well and woke up multiple times as she is not used to the sounds of the night insects.

The next day, we woke up early and after a quick cup of tea, we headed for a trek into the forests. Climbing up the small hill in the tiny pathway and walking into the morning fog, we noticed a spot of fresh elephant poop. The guides who accompanied us asked us to wait as they went ahead to check for any wild elephants in the vicinity. After they came back and gave a go-ahead, we continued the trek and came to a nice spot with a magnificent view of the mountains. As we sat down at this peaceful place, we kept hearing loud music emanating from somewhere. The guide told us that such loud music is played in a resort near a place named Muthayalmaduvu. Loud music at 8AM on a Sunday morning. Imagine the noise on a Saturday night and how it would affect the animals in that area. 

Pathetic humans we are! Why spoil the peace and serenity of the jungle? 

Anyway, we all sat quietly and ate some oranges and groundnut chikkis. Some of us meditated for a little bit. As we were heading back, the guides spotted a herd of wild elephants in the distance. We were all thrilled to see them and how they walked together as a group. D was so happy to see the baby elephant. 

It was quite a trek, exploring the vast expanse of the jungle and we were told that the distance we would have covered would be around 3.5 kms. My first thought was "That's it? We walked so much and sweated quite a bit".

After a quick shower, we had a yum breakfast of Poha and chutney, followed by jaggery tea. The cooks here in this farm have some sort of magic in their hands - even the simplest of foods taste so good.

Next was farm work and we planted butter fruit saplings. This visit opened my eyes to the sheer amount of physical effort that is being invested by a farmer. I'm not exaggerating when I say that my respect for food, farmers and nature has increased multi-fold after this trip.

We were free for the rest of the morning. Had tea and bananas, casually chatting with other group members while children were busy learning to make fish and crab using coconut leaves from the cook anna, also got a feel of the kitchen as we all helped a bit in chopping up veggies. Sunday lunch was totally sumptuous - Karnataka style veg pulao, cucumber raitha, mixed veg salad, potato palya and the yummax millet payasam, which we all took 2-3 servings.

A couple of the group members asked me to talk to the kids about packaged foods. So we all sat down and had an impromptu discussion on ingredients of packaged foods. I felt so happy that D also pitched in and shared her thoughts about sugar and sodium in junk foods.

The kids were then given an activity to draw their farm on a chart paper. The 2 day exposure has given them enough sparks to think about what their farm would look like.

After a final wrap-up on how we felt about the whole experience, we had our last cup of tea along with some pakodas. We bought some fresh organic palak and amaranth greens. We also got home a couple of tomato saplings. It was time to bid goodbye and carry home a load of memorable experiences.

The organizers were brilliant. They had planned and orchestrated the whole event beautifully. We also got a chance to meet many like-minded people and have interesting conversations. 

Yes, I came home with such a happy, grateful smile. One of the best trips we have ever done with D.

And the best part was that I didn't feel the urge to check my phone in these 2 days. K took a few photos on his phone but we didn't click as many pics as we would have normally taken. 

What I learned about myself - Put me amidst a farm, fresh air, open spaces and a group of like-minded people, my energy levels are totally different.

Nov 14, 2019

Book Review: Gut by Giulia Enders

Nutrition-related books have become quite popular these days, as people are more curious to find out healthy options to eat and diets to follow for weight loss and preventive wellness. The saying - "It is not what you eat, it is what you absorb that makes a difference" has certainly a lot of merit to it. 

Earlier this year, I had made a list of topics I wanted to learn more about. Specifically, on nutrition, I wanted to learn more about the role of our gut. As I was looking for books related to this topic, a friend recommended me this particular book written by Giulia Enders.

What a fascinating and insightful read it is! The author has taken the complex process of our digestive system and explained it with so much wit and humor. If you had taken up Biology in your high school, the chapters related to different parts of the gut and their role in digestion would be a good revision. They took me back to my 12th grade and I surprisingly remembered every single detail. 

The role of saliva, tonsils, how food is absorbed in the small intestine from the perspective of carbohydrates and fats all form such a good foundation to unraveling how our complex digestive system works. The author also explains various digestion-related issues such as food allergies, food intolerances (lactose/fructose intolerance, gluten sensitivity etc). Though I really enjoyed reading these chapters, the one on the linkage between gut and brain was really the turning point for me. I was so engrossed and fascinated to read about how our gut influences our behavior.

"A gut that does not feel good might subtly affect our mood, and a healthy, well-nourished gut can discreetly improve our sense of wellbeing."

"Stress is thought to be among the most important stimuli discussed by the brain and the gut."

"Stress of any kind activates nerves that inhibit the digestive process, which means we not only extract less energy from our food, but we also take longer to digest it, putting the gut under unnecessary extra strain."

The following chapters on the importance of our gut's microbiome and their role in our immunity, synthesizing vitamins and minerals and much to my surprise, the way they can trigger weight gain were truly eye-opening. It has given me new areas to read up on.

For example, this particular passage gave me an "aha" moment

"Our satiety signal transmitters increase considerably when we eat the food that our bacteria prefer. And what our bacteria prefer is food that reaches the large intestine undigested, where they can then gobble it up."

What I could infer from this chapter is the importance of a balanced meal with a good amount of fiber, prebiotics and complex carbohydrates, from varied sources.

The author also talks about how various bad bacteria affect our health - salmonellae, helicobacter, toxoplasmata etc. 

Last but not the least, the author talks about how our obsession with hyper cleanliness is impacting our health in the form of allergies and autoimmune disorders. And increased use of antibiotics leading to resistant bacteria, a threat looming large.

The role of prebiotics and probiotics is briefly touched upon. I would have loved to see more in-depth coverage as there's quite a bit of hoopla around these two as external supplements.

If you are interested in food, nutrition and human physiology, I highly recommend this book. Unputdownable, if there's such a word!

Nov 11, 2019

Self-reliance in Food

One of the goals that I'm working towards is to become self-reliant as much as possible in different walks of my life. Given the uncertain situations related to climate change, environmental degradation and the various health-related issues, I believe that becoming self-reliant is the ONLY way to cope with the challenges of the future, for the sake of our's, our children's and our planet's well-being. The concept of self-reliance is not a novel idea - that's how most of our grandparents and our ancestors led their lives. Our generation (and to some extent, our parents' generation) completely moved away from this principle of self-reliance. We are dependent on market forces for every little thing to lead our day-to-day life - right from the toothpaste we use the first thing in the morning to the mobile app we use to track our food intake by the end of the day.

As these market forces are becoming more and more centralized, a few big corporations dictate what the general public should buy. From being a country with many small scale entrepreneurs, we have shifted away to a model where we allow ourselves to be dependent on these 4-5 big corporations for our every single need. 

Self-reliance concerning food is what I want to talk about in this post. Let's look at our relationship with food across different stages - food cultivation, food preservation, cooking and consumption. This is a random post of thoughts across different areas of food. As I gain more clarity, I should be able to articulate this whole concept of self-reliance in a refined manner. But I hope you get a general idea here.

As I make my grocery shopping list every time, I want to reduce the number of items I buy from the store as much as possible. As I don't own a farm, I'm dependent on an external vendor from whom I procure the regular staples like rice, millets, pulses, spices etc. As I don't own a press for extracting oils, I'm dependent on a vendor from whom I buy cold-pressed oils. 

For the value-added products, I prefer to DIY myself - spice powders, batters, pastes etc to name a few.  As I don't buy any ready-to-eat packaged foods, I make most snacks at home. I strongly believe that home cooking is the ONLY way to preserve our health.  The enormous VC funding that is being poured onto food delivery apps indicates that these brands want to grab our wallet share of the daily food budget, which is neither good for our health nor for our environment. 

Our reliance on external factors doesn't stop there. We continue to depend on apps to tell us what to eat, how much to eat, when to eat etc. The fact that users log their daily meals seems to be THE main criteria that boost the valuation of health and fitness tracker apps these days. Yes, food logging is a helpful activity as a post-facto to make us feel conscious and aware of the food we eat daily, which is very much possible using a simple notebook and a pen. If we listen to our stomach, we will automatically know whether we need to eat 2 idlis, 3 idlis or no idlis for breakfast today. Yet, we seem to outsource this simple task to a tracker app and make ourselves dependent on one more external factor. How our personal data is being misused and missold is something to be concerned about.

Let's take a moment and travel back in time - homemade snacks, homemade pickles, homemade spice powders, flours ground at a local mill, homemade pappad/vathal/vadagam etc, green leafy veggies grown in the backyard, some of our grandparents even had a few fruit trees in their home garden. 

If we cannot be self-reliant on some of these areas, let's at least take the help of our local community - 
buy greens from a local organic farm (instead of buying from a multi-chain supermarket), 
invest in a community farm and get a share of the produce grown locally (instead of buying imported produce), 
buy snacks/pickles/healthy homecooked food from a home chef (instead of ordering from Swiggy or loading the fridge/pantry with junk foods), 
patronize the flour mill in your neighborhood (instead of buying highly processed branded flours) 

These are just some of the ideas that I could think of right now. I'm sure there are more we could come up with. Such a model generates employment opportunities and enables REAL value creation. It is appalling to see so many business models generating pseudo-value and getting a ton of investment from VCs. Influencer marketing, being one such business model.

Anyway, from a personal standpoint, these are my goals in the near future towards attaining self-reliance in food:
  1. Learn about organic gardening and grow more greens and veggies in my balcony garden
  2. Find a good flour mill nearby and get the flours ground by myself (no more packaged flours)
  3. Learn the recipes of value-added products that I currently buy - sathumaavu kanji, kadala urundais (chikkis), papad, pickles.
What are your thoughts on self-reliance? If this is something that you are pursuing, let's connect and share ideas.

Nov 4, 2019

Mother's Horlicks Review

I vividly remember this incident. The first time my pregnancy was confirmed, I went to meet a gynecologist for a checkup. The prescription had a list of supplements (Folic acid, Calcium and iron) and a protein supplement drink. She insisted that I take this drink twice a day without fail. I didn't like the taste of it and after a month, I stopped taking it. It wasn't Mother's Horlicks but another brand.

Many of these brands have become a mandatory item in most gynecologist's prescription list, right from the first pregnancy checkup visit. Even if gynecologists don't prescribe them, most new to-be moms purchase these mother specific health drinks(?) as part of their grocery shopping.

Nutrition needs are different during pregnancy and motherhood. The common advice we get from elders is to eat twice the portion size, thereby focusing merely on the quantity of food to be consumed. Or we get loads of recommendations to buy such health drinks(?) targeted at new mothers.

Let's focus on the most popular mother specific health drink - Mother's Horlicks

The phrase "No added sugar" is highlighted prominently on the front side of the pack. It also talks about the vital nutrients for a healthy pregnancy and lactation.

Let's take a look at the Ingredients list:
Milk Solids (59%)
Corn Solids (hydrolyzed)
Cereal extract (3%)
Nature Identical Flavouring Substances
DHA powder
Edible vegetable oil (palm kernel oil)
Natural flavour
Natural colour (INS 100(i))

Contains Permitted natural colour and added flavours (natural and nature-identical flavouring substances)

  1. First and foremost, when the pack states no added sugar, it implies "no sucrose". Do take note of the second ingredient - Corn Solids. HFCS (high fructose corn syrup), Crystalline fructose, Corn syrup, corn solids are all extracted from corn using various processes. They are highly concentrated sweeteners, containing other forms of sugar. Sucrose might be absent in Mother's Horlicks, but the brand doesn't share details on the quantity of glucose, fructose or dextrose present in it.
  2. The ingredient "Nature Identical Flavouring Substances" sounds vague. Why aren't the specific names shared?
  3. All health drinks(?) brands available in the market emphasize the added vitamins and minerals. The long list of such micronutrients is printed, along with their benefits. What about the quantity actually present? Let's compare the quantity of these synthetic vitamins and minerals alongside natural sources

Plant-based natural sources are rich in many of these vitamins and minerals. I have just shared a couple of them against each nutrient in this table. To get the detailed list, go to this link, click on each of the nutrients and read up on the respective article to get the list of sources and their corresponding values. 

It is imperative that we educate ourselves on what foods to eat, how to plan a balanced meal, taking into account the additional nutritional needs during pregnancy. A varied Indian diet with a good mix of cereals, pulses, vegetables, fruits, greens, seeds and nuts, condiments and spices etc will help us meet our daily needs of various micro-nutrients. I believe firmly in the strategy - "less variety in a meal, more variety in a month". Do check out my article on this topic if you haven't taken a look.

Let's invest the time to plan out our meals using fresh, local and seasonal ingredients. If you are a to-be mom, I'd highly recommend you take the time to understand the additional nutritional needs and plan out your meals accordingly. Please don't outsource this work to profit-focused food corporations. And also please don't ask for readymade diet plans from dietitians and random strangers on social media. You and the little one growing inside you deserve the time and effort!

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