With the Forgotten Food project, Chennai researcher Akash Muralidharan is looking to recover ingredients to revive some of South India’s lost culinary history.
After picking up his grandmother’s copy of the cookbook Samaithu Par (Cook and See) Muralidharan noticed that the recipes called for unfamiliar ingredients. “[The Forgotten Food Project] began as an effort to trace these vegetables and why they [are] not [being] cooked with the same enthusiasm anymore,” Muralidharan tells Food Tank.
According to a recent United Nations report, 25 percent of studied plant groups are threatened with extinction. The report details the unprecedented and accelerating rate of species decline around the globe.
Muralidharan hopes that the project will help reintroduce people of South India to ingredients such as elephant tusk okra and the decalepis root. He believes that the stories of the vegetables can educate others about past culinary traditions and reverse the decline of biodiversity.
Preservation of knowledge and history represent the core of this project for Muralidharan. “With the loss of ingredients, there is a loss in both culinary diversity and biodiversity. Food is always bigger than the plate…any pattern that affects food affects the environment around us,” he tells Food Tank.
At the start of the project, Muralidharan conducted interviews with members of his community relying primarily on word of mouth to trace the ingredients. But when COVID-19 sent the region into lockdown and he was unable to leave the house, Muralidharan could not source the vegetables as usual.
In response he is creating a digital portfolio of the ingredients, which allows him to continue to carry out his mission. He says the platform has already reacquainted people with upwards of 90 ingredients from the South India region.
Eventually, Muralidharan hopes to turn his research into a book that will inspire others to discover the culinary history of different areas all over the world.
“These ingredients have very powerful stories and values behind them that’s most often missing in the modern food system,” Muralidharan tells Food Tank, “and these vegetables, more than anything, have the power to contribute to a sustainable food system that is biodiverse and local.”
Photo courtesy of Akash Muralidharan