In 1848, during the tumultuous times of the German Revolution, German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach coined the phrase 'we are what we eat'. Although stated in a different context, it is indeed true that much of today's cultural heterogeneity can be traced back to the varying assortments of food items around the world.
No wonder the people of Bangladesh, where I belong, are called Mache-Vaate Bangali (rice and fish-eating Bangali). Because without plates full of rice every day, Bangladeshi people can turn hangry (a portmanteau of hungry and angry). Don't believe it? Try me.
But it's not just Bangladesh. We know other prominent cuisines from Asia, Europe and Latin America by their starchy plant staples as well. For example, Italian cuisine is famous for wheat flour-made pasta and pizza. We recognise the Spanish or Latin American cuisine by the tortilla or paella, made from rice or cornmeal; the English by its fish and chips; the Indian by its Mughal biryani with basmati rice, and the Japanese by sushi and sashimi; all of which are made with some kind of starchy crop.
Among the 50,000 edible plants in the world, just 15 provide 90% of the world's food energy intake. Rice, corn (maize), and wheat make up two-thirds of this. These three crops have supplied the calories that made it possible for the world's population to race toward 10 billion.
Wheat fields take up way more land space than any other food crop. Other food staples include millet and sorghum; tubers such as potatoes, cassava, yams, and taro; and animal products such as meat, fish, and dairy.
The oldest and the longest running festivals are also related to crop harvesting. Consider Bangali or Punjabi Pahela Baishakh, Persian Nowruz, South Indian Pongal, Moon festival in mid-autumn in China, Yam festival in Ghana etc.
People make delicious cakes and food from newly harvested crops and their flour. During the harvesting festival in Jordan, they make a type of bread with new flour and salt from the dead sea. They believe that as salt preserves food, this salty bread will preserve their bond with God and eventually God will bless them with a good harvest the next year.
Ann Gibbons, a food historian, said in her article 'Evolution of diet', that we are basically what our ancestors ate. She travelled from Bolivia to Tanzania, Greenland, the Mediterranean region, Malaysia, Greece and Afghanistan- to follow their food habits. But what I have heard about human ancestors is that they were mainly meat-eaters, from the hunter-gatherer analogy. Then how did we get used to such bland starchy foods?
The transition from hunting and gathering to sedentary agriculture took place in thirteen to twenty-four different locations around the planet, starting around twelve thousand years ago. According to anthropologists, it was in the middle east- Iraq, Iran region where agriculture emerged.
There are several theories related to this. One theory talks about populations expanding, which created a strain on local food supplies until it was necessary to give up the leisurely life of the hunter-gatherer for the nutritional deficiency and toil of farming life.
Another major set of theories focuses on climate change. Around twelve thousand years ago, the climate ceased to fluctuate and became cooler and drier, and more atmospheric carbon dioxide was available, which could have made growing crops more feasible.
David Grigg, an anthropologist, in his 1996 journal 'The starchy staples in world food consumption' explained this. He said that this transition from a meat-based palette to cultivated crops occurred because as the communities grew, the early homo sapiens needed easy calorie sources. And these starchy staples, cereals and roots were generally the cheapest source of calories. Cereals were also one of the cheapest sources of protein, so they made up a high proportion of food intake.
Even today this remains true in poor countries. As M. K. Bennett coined the term the "starchy-staple ratio" and argued that it was inversely related to income. It has also been suggested that the absolute consumption of starchy staples is related to income.
This supposition probably explains the present economic inflation. With a basic animal protein source- egg priced at Tk15, we, modern humans are taking refuge in the very old classic plate of rice or white bread or maybe a basic pasta.
Meanwhile, Loren Cordain, an evolutionary nutritionist at Colorado State University, suggests an interesting but expensive Stone Age diet. In his book The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat, he says, it "is the only diet that ideally fits our genetic makeup". He studied the diets of living hunter-gatherers and concluded that 73% of these societies derived more than half their calories from meat, Cordain came up with his Paleo prescription: Eat plenty of lean meat and fish but not dairy products, beans, or cereal grains—foods introduced into our diet after the invention of cooking and agriculture.
Well to Loren and his paleo diet, I say "Sure, I would love to have lean meat pieces on my plate. But the ancient people didn't have to struggle with inflation, recessions or price hikes. So I, like most other people, will take refuge in my plate of rice."