I was on my way back from work when the gloomy skies gave way to torrential rains, and that led to being stuck in the traffic for longer than what I would have expected. Famished, by the time I was nearing home, I spotted a lady in a yellow sari sitting on the pavement in a makeshift hut made of tarpaulin—roasting bhuttas [corncob] on coal embers.
Does this scenario ring a bell?
Bhutta—challi, as it is popularly called in Delhi and Punjab—in the rains, is a match made in heaven.
Naturally, I had to stop and buy myself roasted corn on the cob. The lady introduced herself as Bhagwati Rani on being asked, although quite surprised that someone wanted to know something beyond the price of the item she was selling. “Yeh waala bhutta 30 rupees ka ek ha [It’s Rs.30],” she said, pointing to the plump American sweetcorn, “aur yeh waala 15 rupee ka ek hai [and this is Rs.15]'' pointing to the desi corn, which has white kernels and isn’t as plump as the American variety.
I remember a time when, not so long ago, American corn was a rarity—and it was the desi makai that used to be common. Found only during monsoons, makai could be found with almost every vegetable vendor and streetside bhutta sellers. But over the last few years, American corn has taken over India—pushing the desi corn out of the market. “Ab sab log yeh waala hi maangte hain didi, isliye desi wala bhutta kam laate hain hum [everyone prefers this variety, so we hardly buy the desi one],” Bhagwati tells me.
As I further probe her, she mentions that most of them get bhuttas from the Azadpur subzi mandi [vegetable market] at wholesale rates. This made me wonder about the small-scale indigenous farmers and sellers, who grow desi makai in their fields. Do they still find takers—or have they moved to farming other crops? That demands a separate debate altogether, one that tests the veracity of claims made by India’s modern crop of agri-tech start-ups.
Nevertheless, the Americanisation of the crop has not only impacted the indigenous variety, but also the small-scale farmers. One of the issues we face as a society when we promote imported food is that we eliminate the economically weaker sections’ access to nutrient-rich food—since they no longer find value in growing it, and cannot afford to do so just for themselves.
In one of her Instagram posts about corn, Ayurvedic consultant and author Sangeeta Khanna explains that interestingly, corn has never been counted among the most nutritious grains. That, though, is largely owing to its role in being a part of a wide variety of processed products.
Corn starch and high-fructose corn syrup, as Khanna explained, are mainstays of a wide variety of processed food. The indigenous variety, however, was rich in antioxidants—thus being great for affordable, pliable diets.
Another small but key memory goes back to my trip to Mizoram as a child, where I was absolutely fascinated to see what was called ‘rainbow corn’, which I had never seen before in my life. Known as Mim Ban, which translates to ‘sticky corn’, the Mizos have been cultivating and consuming these lesser-known varieties of corn for a long time.
Why did I remember this? Because today, all of a sudden, rainbow corn has suddenly gained popularity as a “superfood”. Such global trends would tell you that now, more than ever before, it is time we not only preach “eating local” as a food trend—but also make a conscious commitment to leave behind a healthier and diverse world for the generations that will follow.
Vernika Awal is a food writer who is known for her research-based articles through her blog ‘Delectable Reveries’