Book Review | First Food, A Taste of India’s Biodiversity … and Chaulai ka saag {amaranth greens}

“Food is a central activity of mankind and one of the single most significant trademarks of a culture.”
Mark Kurlansky

First Food , A Taste of India's BiodiversityLife can be strangely coincidental at times, or maybe it is just the trend of the times. My recent amaranth obsession is at an all time high, and then I got an invite for the launch of a very very interesting book Centre of Science and Environment – First Food, A Taste of India’s Biodiversity. The locavore in me jumped to it. What’s not to love about celebrating local produce?

Sunita Narain @ First Food , A Taste of India's Biodiversity, India Habitat Centre, DelhiA live wire opening introduction to the book by CSEs petite and very talented Sunita Narain had everyone’s attention. A cause close to my locavore heart, I was thrilled to see how beautifully local and rather unknown ingredients have been woven into the book. A lot of historical cuisine connect runs through the book, emphasising time and again that food is personal, and that everyone has a food story. The book, authored by Sunita Narain & Vibha Varshney,  attempts to share India’s rich, diverse and largely unexplored culinary tradition. Paired with vivid food memories and a deep emotional connect, it does a brilliant job!

Sunita Narain is an Indian environmentalist and political activist as well as a major proponent of the Green concept of sustainable development. She has been with the India-based Centre for Science and Environment since 1982. She is currently the director of the Centre and the director of the Society for Environmental Communications and publisher of the fortnightly magazine, Down To Earth. The recipes in First Food have been curated from Down to Earth.

Beets, carrots and kanji ...fermented drinksImportantly, it makes the mind think. Think out of the box, as also question how far we will be pushed as a community before we realise that we are losing a whole lot of local food wealth falling prey to imports. To make the environment flourish and to add economic value to local produce, getting to the roots of traditional food is essential.

traditional Indian cusineThat somewhat explains First Food, an interesting title in itself. Thought provoking too. To understand the vast economic system that runs behind each fruit, flower, leaf and grain, the book does a good job in bringing together a rich resource of information; food stories, environmental issues, intriguing trivia and of course interesting recipes.beets, amaranthFor me, it is also the ingredients that inspire. I love cooking with beet greens {thanks to Sangeeta’s vast knowledge}, and with turnip greens too {thanks to my mother who used to do it; still does}. Fermented pineapple kanji and beetroot kanji are on top of my list, thanks again to Sangeeta. These days, it’s popped amaranth in cakes and brownies, whole grain in cookies and so much more!

Lamb with turnip greens, shalgam ke patton ka goshtAt the launch that night other than the very talented Sunita Narain, we had Prof Pushpesh Pant {a noted food critic and historian} and Vinod Dua {a food critic and one of the best known names in indian media} regale the rapt audience with their tales. The professor had the audience in splits “When Sunita first told me about the book I thought it was priced too high. Then when I read it, I discovered that it was priceless!

First Food , A Taste of India's Biodiversity with Pushpesh pant, Vinod Dua and Vibha VarshneyVinod Dua, the great orator and entertainer that he is, took to food centric quotes, prose and couplets, both Indian and foreign. Beginning with one my favourite food quotes by George Bernard Shaw, “There is no sincerer love than the love of food.“, he went on to read some best loved ones much to the delight of the audience!

First Food, India Habitat Centre, DelhiIt was a short and crisp launch ceremony, followed by a live food demonstration by master chef Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent fame, and then dinner, all made from recipes in the book. It was impossible to get within hearing distance of this very popular chef, so we had to make do with queueing up for the dinner which was served alongside.  The chefs special touch was discernible…

Cooking from First FoodIt was a vegetarian spread, as is the cookbook, and the food was mind blowing good! There was so much flavour, so much inspiration there that day. The bajre ki khichdi, the gahat ki dal, ker sangri ka paneer, til ke aloo, chaulai ka saag, drumstick leaves curry all delicious. There were  accompaniments galore too. Savoury pancakes, stuffed parathas, chutneys, raita … plenty of flavour and plenty of old world charm. You’ll find all the recipes in the book!

Cooking from First Food I came home rather inspired. Early the next morning, I bought fresh amaranth greens or chaulai ka saag {also lal saag as it’s commonly referred to here} as it’s in season. Stirred up some chaulai ka saag, some chaulai ka raita, aloo chaulai ki sabzi and karonde ka khatta meetha achaar; most recipes from the book, others just inspired. Made mixed grain puris on the side {makki ka aata, chakki ka aata and besan}. Oh so satisfying and all wiped clean!

Cooking from First Food Here’s a quick recipe of Amaranth greens /  Chaulai ka saag from the book.  The books a great buy for recipes ideas and inspiration, a good feel narrative that takes you back to your roots. From herbs, flowers, leaves, fermented foods to summer coolers, it  packs a pretty punch! I also like that the listed ingredients are short & sweet.

[print_this]Recipe: Chaulai ka saag {amaranth greens}
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Summary: A quick, healthy and delicious stir fry that offers a highly nutritious side to an Indian meal. 

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes

  • 500g chaulai {amaranth} leaves
  • 2-3 whole red chilies
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 2-3 cloves garlic
  • a pinch of asafoetida
  • salt to taste
  • 2 tbsps vegetable oil {I used clarified butter}


  1. Wash the leaves and chop finely.
  2. Heat oil in a deep pan. Toss in red chillies and cumin seeds. Add garlic and asafoetida. Stir.
  3. dd the chopped greens and salt to taste.
  4. Cover and simmer for 10-12 minutes. Let the water dry.


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  • I just read about this book in the Outlook.. and was really fascinated and intrigued by it.. and now your post.. its really inspiring me to pick it up!!
    PS– for a moment when you said amaranth greens.. I was a bit flummoxed.. but laal saag…ohh yes.. when in season.. its made almost once a week!!

  • 3 years ago

    You did an amazing review, I want to get this book. Thanks!

  • basma
    3 years ago

    fallen in love with the ladle… whr did u buy it from???

    • 3 years ago

      I love it too Basma. It’s my maternal grandmothers tadka pan from over 60 years ago. Found it lying in a pokey little corner at my Mums. Do you like stuff like this?

  • 3 years ago

    For a second I thought the berries where ziziphus rugosa. I know carissa carandas but I haven’t seen or heard of carissa macrocarpa before. Maybe they exist here in Goa but most probably they must be nearly extinct like all the other berries. I am very much for biodiversity and the book sounds like an amazing resource. I was looking for a book like this and maybe it would help me to discover new ingredients here. Your amaranth bhaji would go well with fat rice and fish curry. =)

  • 3 years ago

    What a fantastic blog post! It’s bothering as I’m enduring some
    issues signing up to your newsletter.

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