Food is an organic perishable substance, which is susceptible to spoilage due to microbial, chemical and physical activities. The preservation and storage of food, one of the major revolutionary inventions of human civilisation, the very precondition for man to settle down in one place and to develop a society, dates back to 12,000 BC. Vegetables of diverse cultivars seasonally produced in abundance have to be preserved for consumption during off seasons for varied reasons. Sun drying, the most frequently used method since prehistoric times, is still extensively used for about 20% of the world produce after harvesting. Drying is used to preserve foods, increase their shelf life by reducing the water content and water activity; reduce weight and volume and consequently space and cost requirements for storage and transport; diversify the supply of foods with different flavours and textures, thus offering the consumers a great choice when buying foods. Drying does not improve food quality, however, to be proper and successful; food produced should be safe with good flavour, texture, colour and nutritional properties. Increasing shelf lives of food items without compromising original food properties is still critical and challenging.
Dried vegetables are commonly consumed in most countries of the world. The European Union countries are the major importers with the largest suppliers being China, USA, Hungary and Poland. Traditionally, Kashmiris too use sun-dried vegetables (Hokh Syun) and fish (Hogaade) to offset the vegetable shortage and to get the extra energy needed to brave the bone chilling cold of the harsh winter months, especially during Chilli-Kallan. Until a few years back the sight of garlands of dried vegetables hanging on the walls of houses across Kashmir was a usual scene. These garlands (Aaaras) consisted of dried vegetables such as brinjal (Wangan Hachi), tomatoes (Ruwangan Hachi), turnip (Gogji Aare), bottle gourd (Al Hachi), lily rhizomes (Bhoombh or Buem) and fish (Hogaard). Nowadays the garlands of Hokhsyun are sighted nowhere even in the remote villages, but markets remain flooded with these items. What does it imply needs to be explored.
Use of dried vegetables, undoubtedly, has dwindled over the years but not ceased at all. Round-the-year availability of fresh vegetables via all-season highway improved connectivity with rest of the country, all-season local production of vegetables through successful scientific innovative interventions, better economic conditions and enhanced health consciousness have reportedly caused reduction in consumption of Hokh Syun. Unfortunately, baseless doubts have been created in the minds of the consumers regarding the safety of dried vegetables. No doubt, exposure of vegetables to uncontrolled ultraviolet radiations during sun drying makes them more prone to aflatoxins and fungi which may be detrimental to human health. Sun drying alone, though, cannot be the incriminating cause of unsafety of vegetables, even if it is there, because food safety is dependent on a series of events starting from production to consumption.
Reported presence of carcinogenic substances, N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA) in sundried foods and fish along with highest incidence of gastric cancer has aroused worrisome suspicions in the minds of Kashmiri people regarding the safety of Hokh Syun. The situation is further worsened by the report that peculiar dietary habits of the Kashmiris, like frequent intake of hot noon chai, high intake of pickled Haakh (Brassica olerecea), dried and smoked fish (Hogaarde/ Pharegaade), dried vegetables and extra spice plus red chilly cakes (Wur) are believed to be one of the reasons for the increased risk of gastric cancer in the valley. Thorough scientific studies need to be conducted to arrive at reliable results, rather than depending merely upon some trivial epidemiological investigations, to decide the fate of these dried vegetables. Any culture developed over a period of hundreds of years in conformity with geo-climatic conditions is always time-tested, and cannot be afforded to be abandoned so easily, that too at the cost of identity.
Nutrition is an important part of both disease prevention and treatment. Nevertheless, the consumption of Hokh Syun continues unabated in valley especially during the period of Chillai-Kallan despite changes brought in by middle-class affluence, modular kitchens, microwave ovens, frozen foods and hi-end eateries. People in Kashmir still prefer to relish the taste of these traditional sun-dried vegetables and fish even when fresh food is available round the year in the Valley. Addiction to these winter recipes is not unfoundedly embraced. Intake of a large number of fruits and vegetables containing vitamins and minerals like calcium, vitamins A and C is believed to reduce the risk of cancer in the human body by protecting the mucosa lining against the effects caused by the carcinogenic compounds. Dehydrated vegetables are packed full of vitamins and minerals, thus a good weapon to fight hidden hunger, a predisposing factor for many morbidities. Loss of some volatile nutrients like Vitamin C and beta carotene during sun drying of vegetables can be minimised by dehydrating at lower temperatures or pre-treating with some safe chemicals, and compensated to a large extent by making value addition. Additionally, research-based evidence is available that a high fiber-containing diet may be protective against breast, ovary, endometrial, and gastrointestinal cancer, but with a note of caution that for cancer prevention, the emphasis for dietary recommendation should be on a dietary pattern rather than on an isolated dietary fiber supplement.
Kashmiri dried vegetable, full of high fiber content, besides having other medicinal values, can also relieve constipation: it is now scientifically proved. Furthermore, people regard dried vegetables as medicine for other diseases, too, e.g., dried bottle gourds (alhech) for cough and common cold, hooch hand (dried dandelion) for increasing hemoglobin levels in new mothers, bumb (dried water lily rhizome) for arthritis, besides much-needed heat generation in the body during harsh winter. Eating sun-dried vegetables free of any preservative once or twice in a week is not harmful for health, as no scientific evidence regarding sun-dried vegetables causing any harm has been yet found.
Mouth-watering winter recipes would continue to be used for their taste, flavour, medicinal values and for countering the sky-rocketing vegetable prices during winters, thus preserving our rich and unique culture. Local people should make all the necessary interventions, starting from development of highly nutritious and disease-resistant vegetable cultivars, and innovative, cost-effective and well-suited to our geoclimatic conditions, scientific methods of drying and preservation to keep these dried vegetables safer and more nutritious for maintaining the sanctity of our culture and making it cosmopolitan in distribution. Newer techniques of drying like hot air drying, osmotic dehydration, ultrasound-assisted osmotic dehydration, microwave-assisted hot air drying need to be introduced, popularised and supported for production of convenience health products that mimic the properties of fresh ones. Numerous factors such as type of raw material, available equipments, consumer demand for high-quality end-product, economical, and environmental conditions are necessarily to be considered before venturing into any entrepreneurship of this kind. Marketing avenues need to be explored and generated across the globe to promote Kashmir’s authentic Hokh Syun. All the media outlets should be roped in for increasing the popularity among the masses regarding the utility and safety of the forgotten, mouth-watering winter recipes of Kashmir. Revival of the highly cherished Hukh Syun can be made possible with the concerted efforts of the tourism departments at the central and local levels by organising Kashmiri food festivals at regular intervals to popularise this cuisine. Food critics and bloggers can also play a major role in publicising these delectable and nutritious recipes. Social media with tantalising photos can leave indelible impression in the minds of the people.
We would be better served by the continuation of our traditions. Time will prove us wiser, Inshallah.
—The writer is Chief scientist and Head, Division of Veterinary Clinical Complex, F. V. Sc. & A.H., SKUAST-K, Shuhuma Alusteng. [email protected]