During lunch at a recent conference, a colleague from the south recommended I try pappadam. "Good?" I asked. "Better than good," he said. "It will help digest this heavy meal."
I had always reached out for the pappadam or papad more for its taste. Wafer-thin crisps, roasted or fried, made out of lentils or rice-flour, potatoes or chickpeas, there are countless versions to this Indian preparation that spans most of the country. However, this was the first time I had heard it to have digestive properties.
"How will it do that?" I inquired, as I helped myself to more than a couple of roasted papad. "It helps absorb the oil, we believe," he explained. "Back home, we usually have it after a meal."
Origin of culture
Cultures originate from the environment. Every region has a particular topography and climate. The soil, too, would be specific to certain conditions of earth, water and weather. The land, therefore, throws up or supports flora and vegetation that is suited to thrive in those conditions.
From what is available through nature in a region, culture originates. In Kerala, for instance, coconut grows in abundance. The name Kerala, in fact, means "the land of the coconut (kera)".
Every bit of the tree and the fruit is used in daily living. The leaves and husk are used as material to build local houses or sheds, baskets, doormats and serving dishes. Oil, milk and even toddy is derived out of the fruit, which itself is grated and used in numerous dishes, chutney preparations and sweetmeats.
The coconut tree is to coastal India what the olive tree is to the Mediterranean region. The culture relies heavily on the uses of olive. Similarly, in colder climates such as the upper Himalayan region, where vegetation is scarce, local inhabitants use yak milk for tea and rely on meat for nutrition. Hence, environment shapes and even defines culture.
A study recently reported in China indicates that eating spicy food may lower the risk of early death. Close to half a million people were tracked over seven years. Researchers found that eating chillies regularly in moderate quantities helped lower the risk of respiratory diseases and cancer.
This is not to say that those unaccustomed to eating chillies should do so immediately. Some body types, especially those who are prone to acidity, need to watch their spice intake. Importantly, maintaining a balance is essential. So, while the people of Andhra are known for consuming red-hot spicy food, they make it a point to finish their meal with curd-rice. This helps protect the stomach lining and the digestive system from the extreme effects of super hot food.
Such sense of balance is often the contribution of culture. It is collective wisdom from observation and study of humans and their habitat, often copiously compiled over several hundred years.
In the times we live in, things are changing faster than we can sometimes take note of. Speed is the new culture, gadgets the new gurus. As habits of living and eating change, it is even more imperative that we regard older wisdom with care so that we may yet draw balance from it.
Meanwhile, I am grateful to my friend for his advice on pappadams. Considering that the session after lunch was heavier than the food we ate, it is probably the oil that the papad absorbed that kept one wakeful and of use.