Review of 'Gastronama: The Indian Guide to Eating Right' by Kalpish Ratna.
Just a few chapters into Gastronama: The Indian Guide to Eating Right by Kalpish Ratna, I was overcome with rage.
My anger was not directed at the book. Rather, it was aimed at all the doctors who had treated me when I had a condition called Cushing Syndrome. Not only had it taken eight years for me to be diagnosed in the first place, even after the diagnosis, I was never told why I felt and looked the way I did.
Gastronama, on the other hand, had just told me in a few paragraphs everything I had not understood about my body in the last 15 years of my life, and I was furious. Really! Why go to doctors when they clearly have no clue?
After a couple of hours to calm down, I began reading the book again. This time, my emotions ranged from wonder to awe to disbelief at times, and even mirth, such as with this passage: “How does the brain evaluate the worth of a food? Studies show, rather shockingly, that the brain is a sucker for advertising.”
But the emotions I felt while reading did not distract me from what I was reading. Gastronama: The Indian Guide to Eating Right is not about traditional ideas of good food, as the title rather unfortunately implies. Instead, it’s about what happens to our bodies when we eat. The idea is that, once we understand the effect of food on our bodies on a cellular level, we will understand how best to eat. And for me, almost everything in these pages was a revelation.
Kalpish Ratna is the pen name of two surgeons, Dr Kalpana Swaminathan and Dr Israt Syed. They wrote Gastronama at the time the world began to understand the fact that obesity makes it easier for the SARS-CoV-2 virus to wreak its havoc in the body. But Covid-19 is not the only disease for which obesity spreads out the welcome mat. Obesity disrupts the body's processes so much that it makes the body receptive to every disease. The only way to protect ourselves from ill health, therefore, is by eating correctly.
In itself, the fact that we must eat correctly is hardly a revelation. The whole world has been discussing how to eat correctly since the phrase ‘lifestyle disease’ became a thing, and the recent pandemic made these discussions even more fervent. But somewhere along the way, half-baked theories of how the body processes food popped up. So much so that by now, most people are utterly confused about the whole concept of food and the body. Meanwhile, the body really doesn’t give a damn about lifestyles or viruses. It only cares about doing its job, which is to support itself. Anything that disrupts its processes of supporting itself is potentially fatal.
With Gastronama then, Kalpish Ratna set out to explain exactly what eating correctly means, along with the why of it (the effect of various foods on our cells, hormones and organs) and the how of it (cooking techniques that help make the best of our foods are included). The book goes right down to basics and explains the processes that take place in our bodies from the time we put a morsel of something or the other on our tongues to the time we’re ready for our next meal, and beyond. It explains why an excess of anything – even ‘good’ foods – is bad for us, by showing the effect of this excess on the hormones and organs that process the food. It even explains what the word ‘excess’ means when it comes to fats, sugar, protein, minerals, etc. (Spoiler alert: The body's idea of ‘excess’ is a much, much smaller volume than we think.)
As I read the book, I felt as though I was watching a 3D model of my own body demonstrate the things that were being described. It was an extraordinary feeling, and try as I might, I can't describe it. All I can say is that I saw myself as I had never seen myself before in all my 53 years, and it was mind blowing.
As exciting as that was though, the book also helped me understand the whole concept of eating correctly. More importantly, it gave me the feeling that I can quite easily eat correctly if I really want to. But it’s the last part of this sentence that tests the book. No matter how much I appreciate the sheer common sense of Gastronama and the genuine urgency of what it says, I still have to deal with my mind. That same mind that “is a sucker for advertising”. Will my new awareness of what French fries will do to my body help me mostly choose bhindi, dal, and chapati instead? I wish I knew.
Gastronama: The Indian Guide to Eating Right
By Kalpish Ratna
pp. 336; Rs. 495