The four ‘R’ rules were religiously followed by our so called conservative older generation people. From what I observed in my home and around, I can easily say that our parents and grandparents were concerned about the environment way before the younger generation started making a hue and cry about global warming. Sticking to the food and kitchen related practices, let me share some examples!
1) Reduce: Much care was taken to store large quantities of spices, vegetables, pickles etc by storing food in proper way and thereby reducing the spoilage or wastage. Huge trunks were used to store 50-100 kg of rice/wheat. Rice and wheat grains, after getting rid of stones or pests, if any, were sundried by spreading on an old bed sheet (not a fancy plastic mat) in the sunny courtyard. The grains were then stored in trunks and stems/leaves of neem were mixed. Every week the required quantity of wheat was sent in a steel flour storage box (with the name of some family member engraved on it) to local flour mill for grinding, while smaller quantities of rice were kept in easily accessible aluminum or steel containers.
The monthly ration was brought after making a list and the quantities of dal/pulses/sugar/whole spices to be purchased were fixed. The required quantities were weighed by shopkeeper and packed in paper envelopes often made from recycled newspapers or at times, from brown paper. Everything was then put into the huge cloth bags that we carried not because the government put a ban on plastic but because plastic bags were not popular then. There was no ‘sale rush’ and generally things were purchased only as per the requirement.
The perishable items like bread, vegetables or fruits were brought as much needed. We never stored bread in refrigerator. The real ladi pao would spoil within 24 hours, so it was brought fresh and at times I was rushed to the bakery to buy just one pao (for 25 paise) if my mother fell short of binding agent for tikkis or kofte.The trademark blue slanting stripes, white and red packaged, 400 gm Wibs bread was cut half into two, each part covered with a piece of newspaper (no cling films) and the mouth tied with a thread & handed to you by the shopkeeper, without a fuss, if you asked for half a bread.
The street food parcel always came either wrapped in newspaper or in dried leaf donas.
The peels of vegetables were not dumped in trash but were rinsed well, seasoned and sundried. These were later flash fried and consumed with meals as crispy bits.
Peels of bitter gourd sun dried and shallow fried
Due to absence of copious amount of pesticides, the fruits like chikoo, apples etc were ate with skin on. The vegetable or fruit sellers would daily carry stuff from door to door and hence no plastic bags were needed to buy vegetables.
The Khari waala ( person who sold baked goodies) carrying a large aluminum trunk with neatly stacked khari biscuits, nankhatai, rusk etc. fresh from bakeries, landed at our door steps once or twice in a week. The weighed baked goodies were purchased and directly stored in containers. Yes, shopping was done sitting at home, but the goodies didn’t came heavily packed in layers of bubble wraps and cartons. In the evening the panipuri waaley uncle used to enter the streets with his trademark jingle and music made with clay plates, tempting people to come out of their homes carrying their own steel utensils to buy puris and paani. No disposable stuff was used.
2) Reuse: The rotis were wrapped in pieces of clothes or even handkerchiefs and not in any foil or cling- film. The green vegetables were stored wrapped in newspapers while the Rattan/nylon/plastic baskets were used to stash the vegetables in kitchen or refrigerators.
Rotis wrapped in handkerchief and packed in steel lunchbox
No matter how many relatives turned out for the feast, no Styrofoam plates, spoons or cups were used. People were not ashamed of borrowing utensils or steel plates (later, melamine too) from neighbors during ceremonies. Exchange of food between friends, neighbors and relatives happened via steel dabba unlike the trending so called microwave oven safe plastic containers and those were almost always, refilled with some food before returning.
The kitchen platforms and gas stoves were cleaned with old but clean clothes, which were regularly ‘boiled in water’, washed and sun dried before reusing. Many of tissue papers and disposable kitchen wipes are made from plastics, cotton and wood pulp, and these when impregnated with cleaning agents and chemicals, not only create a burden on landfills but also on drainage system.
3) Recycle: As a child I remember the milkman carrying a large aluminum container, on a bicycle. The raw milk (from tabela to our door steps) was measured and poured directly into the pan provided by my mother. But even when the trend of pasteurized milk began, the plastic pouches were not mindlessly thrown in trash bin but rinsed with water, stuck on the tiles around kitchen sink and when dry, those were stashed and used for making henna cones or were sold to the kabari waala roaming in the streets.
The empty oil canisters, shampoo bottles, even the rusted nails or screws were readily purchased by him. The old clothes were given away in exchange of some utensils after bargaining a lot with the chindiwaalas/waalis while the worn out towels and napkins would end up being used as wipes for utensils or for mopping floor. The newspapers were used to clean glass surfaces, to line the shelves, to cover the books and also to drain excess oil from Puris or pakoras (Lead poisoning was a relatively new term then). Unused pieces of muslin clothes or thin handkerchiefs were used to filter out impurities from liquids, to separate whey from curdled milk, to make paneer or chenna , to make hung curd and even to cover the mouth of pickle jars.
4) Recover: The old utensils with broken handles were fixed and not discarded. When the clay matkas or earthen pots used to leak, the cracks were filled with clay and sundried. I have seen the same, well seasoned, iron tawa at my mother’s home since the time I remember entering that kitchen, till this date. The old brass and copper utensils used to get a new life at the hands of skilled craftsmen, the kalai waaley, who used to tin the metals. The humble but rightly skilled artisans carrying wooden frame with a stone wheel shouting out in the streets to get your knives and scissors sharpened were a boon and not a nuisance.
I agree that many of us still follow the old traditions and do care for our environment in our own sweet ways but then, we have a long way to go before we can boast of living a life that is in sync with nature/ ecosystem or environment. A lot more could be done to avoid mindless use of plastic, chemicals, disposables and other hazardous substances. To follow the four R’s approach in my kitchen is my new year resolution so if you have some ideas that could be implemented in modern kitchens, please do share, via comments. Thanks in advance!