Water: Elixir of Taste

Water is to India what soil is to Europe, says design researcher Priya Mani: “There is a fundamental difference between considering soil as the basis of taste, as in terroir, and the Indian approach that credits water, or the lack of it, for a food’s intrinsic taste. In India, terroir can be found in the sacrosanct too.”

The Little Rann of Kutch is a 30,000 square-kilometre seasonal desert of salty clay mudflats in India’s Gujarat province between the Gulf of Kutch and the mouth of the Indus River. It is one of the hottest areas of India in the summer when temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius. It is also India’s main source of inland salt. In the winter of 2000, I travelled to Kutch for relief work weeks after a devastating earthquake had hit the region. As the winter sun set across the Little Rann of Kutch, I stood with my feet on its crisp land, listening to the constant crunch of the crop filling the silent air. Dark, wiry men and women dotted the surreal white fields around me, farming salt by the margins of the Arabian Sea.

“A / Awan Bangui – Steamed rice cakes from Tripura” from Cookalore’s Visual Encyclopedia of Indian Foods © Priya Mani

The last time these salt farmers were here, six months earlier, they were preparing the land to grow the salt before the monsoon season when the sea and rain floods the landscape, saturating the barren land with briny water. As winter set in and the water receded, the workers had returned to the land to grow salt by pumping saltwater from below ground and allowing it to evaporate in the fields, a process they call namak pakana (literally: “cooking the salt”), which transforms these floodwaters into taste-giving salt.

I cupped my hands around some berry-sized salt diamonds, brought them close to my face and licked them. The intensity of the taste overwhelmed my senses. My guide reminded me, “It is the same salt you eat every day. Just purer due to our unique water.” What I was tasting was the essence of water. The salt workers flush the flavours of the Arabian Sea and the seasonal rains through parched soil and fountain it into large pans. Little Rann’s water is unique. It is not just sea water but is combined with processes of concentration and mineralisation that come from the natural cycles of Indian monsoons.

I would say that water in India is the defining element of what is known in gastronomy as terroir.

Like salt, water is the defining element of many foods globally but water, in all its variations, seasonality and shortages, has a special meaning in the Indian context. I would say that water in India is the defining element of what is known in gastronomy as terroir. The world borrowed the word terroir from the nineteenth-century French purveyors of vinicultural and then gastronomic pursuits to mean that the innate soul of a wine or foodstuff is defined by its environment – its taste being inextricably bound to place, particularly with respect to soil. In exporting this Eurocentric philosophy of terroir to the East, the taste of a place transcends trade barriers and food takes on the interests of the context its story is set in. Thus, terroir is extended by nurture – culture, construed by the believers in a particular taste; method, the hand of its producers, and context, its use of local resources.

“B / Banana – The orthography of a banana, Musa paradisiaca” from Cookalore’s Visual Encyclopedia of Indian Foods © Priya Mani

There is a fundamental difference between considering soil as the basis of taste, as in terroir, and the Indian approach that credits water, or the lack of it, for a food’s intrinsic taste. Water is to India, what soil is to Europe.

As elsewhere, water is existential for farmers and producers of food products in India, but here they claim that in the taste-making of their products, water is a crucial taste-giver. Geographical Indication (GI) Tags are signs on products in India that certify the possession of qualities attributed to that place of origin. In my study of the Journals of Geographical Indication, which document the awarding of GI Tags, I learned that, for producers, an artefact’s uniqueness and irreplaceable superiority are determined by nature. Still, like all living forms, nurture is decisive. Farmers and other producers, organised as representative bodies (such as cooperatives), apply to receive a GI Tag. To do this, they need to approach a legal practitioner or local agents providing intellectual property rights services who, in turn, draft the application in dialogue with the producers. The agents often transpose their vernacular note-taking to the application’s template, a requirement fulfilled in English, rarely as a bilingual document. Thus, the phraseology of agriculture, environment, production, spirituality, and taste, used to create a GI Tag, echoes the producer’s voice: profoundly vernacular but dramatically translated to English. And in this colloquial form of expression, their deep-rooted dependency on the water becomes evident. There is hardly an application that is not punctuated with reverence for local water bodies. Water becomes defining in its presence, overabundance, or solemn absence.

“B/ Bhaji – A celebration of herbs, greens & vegetables” from Cookalore’s Visual Encyclopedia of Indian Foods © Priya Mani

The need to define the earthly connection between produce and a product’s place of origin is a more modern development, one that became necessary as trade and movement of goods evolved. Terroir is now increasingly becoming a catalyst in defining this relationship. GI tagging and other such labelling of designations of origin have evolved as a protectionist strategy for small producers, a framework earlier achieved through guilds. The recognition bestowed by such labels, however, also draws the attention of big business, driving the interests of smaller producers to the margins.

Globally, terroir has become the most critical element in the orthography of taste.

As the world has moved towards a singular market, protection of trade, authenticity, and prized tastes have emerged as essential economic operating tools. Additionally, now that food laboratories can recreate specific tastes with high accuracy, the notion of what makes a taste “authentic” is specifically challenged. Globally, terroir has become the most critical element in the orthography of taste. In the Indian context, various vernacular terms have long referred to the uniqueness of a place – vaatavaran in Marathi, for example, or iyarkai in Tamil. The Hindi expression hawa-paani specifically relates to the idea that air and water constitute the taste of a place.

“B/ Bamboo – The stem, leaf & seeds” from Cookalore’s Visual Encyclopedia of Indian Foods © Priya Mani

When we lived more symbiotically with nature, water was from a local stream, not from a transregional network of pipes and we were sentient to its taste. Until the 1980s, the Adi women of the East Siang district in Arunachal Pradesh practised a unique technique to make bamboo safe to eat – and in doing so created a flavour that is now lost to modernity. The Adi women collected wild bamboo shoots from the dense forest areas skirting the river Siang. Tender bamboo shoots were sliced and packed tightly into the hollow of bamboo stalks called edung. A few small holes were made in the edung, and their mouths sealed with ekkam, (leaves of the Phrynium pubinerve plant). They were then placed near flowing brooks, so the flowing water grazed the bottom of the edung for many weeks as they fermented. (The water served to regulate the temperature and leach away toxic cyanogenic glycosidic compounds inside the bamboo and to impart flavour.) Dr Ranjay K Singh notes in his 2008 book Biocultural Knowledge Systems of Tribes of the Eastern Himalayas, which documents the Adi community, that by the end of the twentieth century older women in the community recalled bamboo shoots processed by the river kept longer and aged with a mellow taste. Today the cylinder is merely sealed with ekkam and fermented for just four or five days. Water is the essence of taste and yet it is so easily overlooked as communities detach from its flow.

“B/Bhujia – Typology of bhujia” from Cookalore’s Visual Encyclopedia of Indian Foods © Priya Mani

Not just the presence, but the absence of water also has an effect on the taste of local produce grown with great ingenuity by communities working with their land to survive. The producers of the deep-fried noodly snack called bhujia, for example, attribute its remarkable taste to their drought-prone region of Marwar in Rajasthan. The arid land and dry winds there nurture a tiny brown bean called Vigna aconitifolia or moth bean. In the city of Bikaner, dough made from this bean flour is extruded to make bhujia, whose crispness cannot be replicated in factories elsewhere. Although bhujia has become a national snack with its own “Big Food” industry, not all fried noodles are allowed be called bhujia, and fewer still are allowed to use the name Bikaneri bhujia, which can only refer to bhujia made by hand in small cottage industries as well as industrially in the city’s environs. In this case, even industrial production can apparently retain a sense of terroir since the moth bean can only be cultivated in the parched lands of Rajasthan. Farmers there claim that the region’s deep groundwater reserves used to irrigate the fields are what give Bikaneri bhujia its unique taste and crunch. The GI Journal entries regarding bhujia manufacture echo the words of its Marwari producers in saying that both the arid earth and scarce saline water here “are a gift to the area by nature”.

“B / Brindle Berry – Garcinia cambogia” from Cookalore’s Visual Encyclopedia of Indian Foods © Priya Mani

Water’s largesse also lies in its ability to nourish life within itself. For food that engages with or relies upon engaging with water’s microbial world of tastemakers, terroir is grounded in its water. In the vast waters of Lake Chilika sprawled across Khorda, Puri, and Ganjam districts in Odisha, for example, Chilika buffaloes wallow in the lake’s brackish water and feed on water weeds. The buffaloes produce delicious milk, the flavour of which is the result of this diet with its high salt and mineral content. Yoghurt made from Chilika buffalo milk is set in small bamboo baskets. The dairy producers first coat the baskets with a layer of thick yoghurt to form a lining, and then they are sun-dried, providing a starter culture for new yoghurt when fresh milk is added. This unique water-fed ecosystem is the source of an even more unique yoghurt that can be stored without refrigeration for over two weeks.

The Journals of Geographical Indication are fascinatingly regional and dialectical, and do not follow the scripted administrative language normally expected of such documents.

Rivulets and waterways flow through terrains mingling together and washing down nutrients precious to farmers as they go. In doing so, they season food with precious sediments. The Kolhapur district of Maharashtra, for example, is watered by numerous streams that join to form the larger rivers of Kasari, Bhogavati, Tulsi, and Kumbi. The water gushes down from the Sahyadri mountains and through their terrain of basalt rock before entering a broad, deep basin, rich in alluvial soil and minerals. Farmers here claim that their sweet local river waters make the sweetest of sugarcanes. The taste of the sugarcane is crucial to the production of jaggery, a cane sugar made by boiling sugar cane juice for hours on end. For the jaggery to be sweet, the water must not be salty, they say, according to the GI Journals. A farmer’s instinct does not need to be substantiated by evidence, for within him lies the subconscious collective of experience of his forebears. In capturing this ethos and trust in the hands that feed us, I find that the Journals of Geographical Indication are fascinatingly regional and dialectal, and do not follow the scripted administrative language normally expected of such documents.

“A/ Aamti – Sour + sweet + spice, the elements of an aamti” from Cookalore’s Visual Encyclopedia of Indian Foods © Priya Mani

Such voices become even more pronounced when water transcends human needs in the mortal world to become an other-worldly entity as well. The water of the River Ganges, revered for its mystical qualities but renowned for its pollution, is a particularly curious case in point. The Ganges’ terroir lies in its wholesome sanctity, its assumed power to cleanse and purify. Like a visitor to the Champagne district of France might bring back home a bottle of its eponymous bubbly, Hindu visitors to towns dotting the course of the Ganges return with vessels containing its water, which is harvested and packed in tiny copper pots called lotas, then sealed with a tin plate. The water of the Ganges, ganga jal, is preserved in Hindu homes, aged for years until a moment of death arrives in the household. In that instant, the pot is seized and wrenched open and trickles of the water are forced between the lips of the dying – water from the Ganges, they say, helps the spirit reach heaven. In India, the idea of terroir also lies in the sacrosanct. Water is an essential element in Hindu India’s rites of passage. An unborn child in the waters of its mother’s womb is protected by appeasing the water god Varuna, and at the end of life, the spirit journeys to the afterlife through water. India’s sacred geography is therefore marked by its rivers. Reverence for local water bodies may well be a universal human trait but perhaps millennia of whimsical rainfall and frightening droughts have instilled an unusual reverence for this precious fluid here.

“B / Baobab – For a refreshing sourness” from Cookalore’s Visual Encyclopedia of Indian Foods © Priya Mani

Coimbatore, the city of my adolescence in Tamil Nadu, is hydrated by the river Siruvani whose waters are famed. I remember the locals claiming it to be the second sweetest river in the world. What was the sweetest then, I wondered? But as a child in the Google-less world of the early nineties, my curiosity was never satisfied. Dozens of bottling plants have now emerged at the spot where the Siruvani, flowing through the thick shola forests of the Nilgiris, touches land in the town of Mettupalayam. Despite the uniqueness of Siruvani’s taste, the local authorities have never considered giving it a GI Tag, while lack of regulation has left its waters open to unrestrained commercial exploitation and to becoming a looming ecological threat in feeding the very high demand for packaged potable water. The famed waters of the river Tunga slicing through the Deccan plateau similarly remain unprotected.

As India remains haunted by water shortages, and yet where water can be as abundant and essential as it is esoteric, the missing protection of this fundamental resource is both stark and deplorable.

In contrast, natural mineral water is a precious resource and a highly contested commodity in the western world. In Europe alone, as an example, Belgium has protected 22 natural mineral water sources, and Denmark has 15. In Germany, where the taste of water is an acknowledged attribute, well over 200 such natural springs are protected by law. As India remains haunted by water shortages, and yet where water can be abundant and essential as it is esoteric, the missing protection of this fundamental resource is both stark and deplorable.

“B / Bilimbi – Averrhoa bilimbi, stewed fruits” from Cookalore’s Visual Encyclopedia of Indian Foods © Priya Mani

Today, intensive agriculture is a transforming factor, too, and soil quality is changing as a result. Water, both from the rain and from the ground, affects soil nutrition and the trace elements it holds, as well as humidity, and porosity. If we listened more closely to the voices of those involved in agriculture, we might develop a better sense of the broader importance of water beyond just irrigation. Whilst there is an acknowledgement of agriculture, most of us have no connection to farming life. Their concept of hawa-paani is genuinely different from ours. Water to a farmer, rain-fed to their crops, or irrigated from rivers, lakes, wells, and springs, is a fragile and life-giving resource. In saying that, I pose the question: who might decide what is good taste? Is it the farmer who grew the produce and knows the potential of its flavours? Is it producers of edible goods who imprint their products with a part of themselves or connoisseurs who enjoy the food in a state of Utopian bliss? Or is it governed by water, the omnipresent elixir in all that we grow and eat?

Raised in India and currently resident in Denmark, Priya Mani is a designer who cooks and writes about food. She uses design and ethnographic methodologies to understand food systems. The craft and practice of cooking interest her as much as designing eating experiences. “Cooking is an act of design”, she says, “sparked by imagination and fuelled by intention.” On her Cookalore platform, she is currently working on an ongoing Visual Encyclopedia of Indian Foods, exploring ingredients, preparations and concepts that are unique to the Indian food narrative – its cultivation, preparation, consumption, myth and mythology.

Cover image: “B / Buttermilk – As a preservative” from Cookalore’s Visual Encyclopedia of Indian Foods © Priya Mani

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