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Indigenous methods of food preparation: what is their impact on food security and nutrition?

Dear FSN Forum members,

I am very happy to be the facilitator of this online discussion on indigenous methods of food preparation. I must highlight that this forum held an interesting previous discussion on how indigenous knowledge systems can be used to improve agricultural productivity and food security among rural poor communities. However, we did not touch on how communities use this knowledge that is passed from generation to generation to prepare their food and the possible implications on the socio-economic dynamics of a typical rural household.

Let me start by introducing myself. My name is Edward Mutandwa and I am a graduate research assistant at Mississippi State University’s College of Forestry in the US. I have previously worked in Rwanda at the Higher Institute of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry (French acronym ISAE), a public institution focusing on improvement of rural livelihoods. During that time I had the opportunity to work with rural communities and this current topic emanates from those experiences. I have also personally seen how some methods like using grass, soil and ash can be useful in preserving sweet potatoes (article in African Studies Quarterly, Vol. 9, No 3, 2007). Before going any further, it is important to define indigenous knowledge. It is the knowledge that is unique to a given culture and provides a basis for local-level decision making in agriculture, health care, food preparation, education, natural-resource management, and a host of other activities in rural communities (Warren 1991, Flavier et al 1995, , Kolawole, 2001, Maikhuri, et al, 1999). Unfortunately, this knowledge is usually not taken seriously as a viable alternative for ensuring food security and nutrition. Many people rely on methods based on the scientific approach and thus IKS may be at the verge of extinction. 

Rwanda is a small country in East Africa which has experienced tremendous strides in the areas of agricultural and food security. At the same time, culture and tradition still remain vivid aspects of their day to day lives. There are some very popular foods like “isombe” which is prepared from cassava leaves. However, one thing that is striking about this delicacy is the seemingly high opportunity cost of time that women spend preparing it. It can actually be prepared for 5 or more hours (grinding) and then an extra 2 to 3 hours of cooking. There are other food classes in the same category. This has several implications on household socio-economic setup. First, since food preparation is done by women, the amount of labour time available for other activities in the household is limited. Since the household operates under constrained optimization conditions, what can be done to ensure efficient use of limited labour resources? Secondly, after spending so much time from grinding leaves to cooking, it is not clear whether the nutritional content is maintained or reduced. Third, it would be interesting to see if there are any formalized studies carried out to determine the nutritional contents of foods prepared in an indigenous way.

Let me state the questions of interest more formally:

More broadly can we consider indigenous methods of food preparation as a viable means for achieving food security and nutrition in rural poor communities? I am specifically interested in hearing from the diverse base of FSN Forum members on the following issues:

  1. Are there any lively examples of indigenous methods of food preparation and how do they influence food security and nutrition? Formal published research will be welcome on this point
  2. What informal strategies have been put in place by local communities to ensure that this knowledge is not lost?
  3.  What is the perception of formal public institutes in your country towards integrating IKS in food preparation programs? Are there any opportunities for modifying some methods for example for child nutrition based programs?
  4. If indeed indigenous methods are important, what can governments do to create incentives for their continued use?

I would like to thank you in advance for taking your time to participate in this discussion.


This discussion is now closed. Please contact for any further information.

Gopi Ghosh former FAO, India

Dear Moderator

The discussions on Indigenous methods of food preparation: what is their impact on food security and nutrition, brings to the fore a whole lot of interesting issues. It underscores the need to recognize traditional food products, processes and culinary traditions – unique to several cultures and communities across the world. To do that it has to focus on the need to inventorize, preserve and promote various indigenous and underutilized plant species that are integral to sustain such traditional fares. This diverse agro-biodiversity has great potential for food and nutrition security for many reasons, particularly under the gloomy scenario of climate change.

India is characterised by diverse community groups that represent a multiplicity of cultures, which live in fifteen distinct agro-climatic zones, each with its own types of food and culinary specialities. Many of these indigenous food crops can be effective in countering India’s critical malnutrition problems, as these are locally grown well, with minimal management and external inputs. They also suit better to the culture, ecology as well as the physiology of its inhabitants.

For example, the drumsticks (Moringa oleifera) is one such traditional plants having high nutrition content and almost all parts of the plants (leaves, pods, flowers, bark)  have great therapeutic and food values. Particularly, because of its high vitamins, minerals and amino acid contents, it is extremely useful during pregnancy and lactation – thus a boon for anemic Indian mothers and their children (please see for details  The following links may also give the recipe of various drumsticks preparation ( Likewise, there are many pulses, oil seeds, grains and fruits and vegetables which sustain and support food and nutrition security for generations of local poor.

Besides, India is home to a large number of traditional plants, herbs, spices and condiments that are traditionally put into culinary and medicinal usage. ( see for details of herbs, spices and condiments at There has been increased demand from consumers due to their impressive therapeutic values of these ingredients. Not only these are cultivated by small farmers in various pockets of the country, many of these plants are also sourced from the forests by the poor and tribal communities providing alternative livelihood and income generation opportunities. These also offer significant export potential augmenting their income further – again a key issue in food and nutrition security.

The nutritional qualities of these wide varieties of traditional foods alongside its religious and cultural association, demands continued patronage by the people to derive their unique benefits and prevent gradual extinction of these valuable species.

The traditional food segment operates largely in an unorganized set up.  This neither provides encouraging remuneration to the small farmers who depend on such activities for their sustenance; nor does it ensure sustained supply of raw materials to the business and the industry.  The food security and nutritional status of the poor can be enhanced if the productivity of these crops can be improved with the creation of market demand. Unfortunately these have often been ignored by mainstream R&D and the market. Thus integration of these crops in sustainable food production systems requires active policy support, R&D thrust and market promotion.

Rapidly urbanising middle class and shifting preferences for convenient and ‘ready to use’ format foods – especially of the young upwardly mobile generation - are creating physical distance between the consumers and the traditional foods that they grew up with. They can patronage traditional food products that they identify with, if such foods are recognised, encouraged and promoted. This necessitates innovative market approaches and interventions for promotion and development of such crops and the valuable traditional foods that prepared out of these indigenous plants species.

With kind regards.

Gopi Ghosh
New Delhi.


Peter Steele Independent Consultant Agricultural Engineer, Italy
Peter Steele

Value of indigenous foods preparation – nutrition & food security – the next generation is too busy looking to the future

Everyone wants to share in that development dream and, according recent UNDP reporting, the majority of people worldwide are well on their way of achieving it. In the race to develop, however, previous lifestyles and the systems upon which they were once based are being abandoned. Urbanization of human society across the globe is leading change.

Preamble – justifying those changes

The sea-change in eating preferences, foods available and food preparatory techniques and equipment that has taken place during my life-time continues apace; as a reflection of the choices available to my parents when feeding their growing family, and the choices that my wife and I make today. As people gain wealth opportunities change – that’s obvious, but they typically change for the better; better foods, improved nutrition, healthier populations and more interesting lifestyles.

This raises issues for the meaning, and understanding, of ‘indigenous’ methods of food preparation; and, further, of the value – real or supposed – for continuing to promote them into the next period. There is always this inbuilt supposition that ‘mother knew best’ when it came to food preparation and what was practiced before should continue to be promoted. Why?

We no longer live in a 19th century world; and my mother’s culinary knowledge and expertise reflected the energy resources, technologies, access to a garden and basic shops, poverty and life-styles of her time as a girl growing up in the early 20th century – and learning how to use those 19th century foods and techniques familiar to her mother. You can easily summarize the situation: basic and labour-intensive methods resulted in uninteresting but largely wholesome foods.


So what’s changed during the past 50 years; and more so during the past 20 years? In a couple of words: the ‘Middle classes’ have been discovered everywhere. Once a feature of the industrial countries, this particular group of people can now be found in all kinds of places where they were once least expected; meaning wherever stability has provided people with opportunities for investing their time, intellect and lives. Middle class people invest in their society; and this comes from the opportunities provided by a reasonable government and a buoyant economy.

Check out the report from UNDP[1] of March this year, and their projections of around half the world’s people expected to join the ‘middle classes’ by 2020, and ponder the ramifications of more than one million households worldwide with an income of >US$20,000 annually (60% of which will be in Asia). The report lists Laos, Mongolia and Bangladesh in addition to India and China. Elsewhere Turkey, Rwanda, Ghana, Mexico and others are shown – in total >30 countries currently considered within that rather out-dated descriptor ‘developing countries’ will have shifted appreciably up the socio-economic scale.

And then project forward a few more years to 2030 when estimated 80% of the world’s population of middle class people will be expected to be living in those same developing countries. And it doesn’t stop there – for the report suggests these same national governments will, collectively, hold more than twice the financial reserves of the industrial countries; in total US$6.8 trillion. Consider the impact that this will have on social development – healthcare, education, empowerment of women and more; and the juxtaposition that this will bring to global investment, decision-making and more.

Food and the middle classes

And, in the context of what those new middle classes may require, issues of indigenous foods preparation may have little relevance. The people will chose - just as my family and I now eat on the basis of a world that is more inter-connected, wealthy and able to take account of value, human health and lifestyles. My parents would have been over-whelmed with the choices available today.

The rise in middle income people can be found everywhere, and these are the people driving change – choice of foods, where they are obtained, the way they are prepared, where they are eaten and, importantly, how much is eaten. The potential impact upon nutrition and security is largely beyond this brief submission but, as with all aspects of human life, there will be winners and losers involved. Obese and overweight people can now be found in most of the low-income countries; people are susceptible to the power of commercial advertising, the lure of those international brand names and the images of those popular public figures from television, films and the Internet – just as they are everywhere.

Watch the kids come out of school in urban Lusaka, for example, and head straight to that kiosk on the street corner and, five minutes later, watch those same kids standing around joking and laughing and, importantly, sharing half-dozen packets of potato chips between them.

The woman on the pavement nearby preparing her (traditional) maize cobs over a small charcoal stove and offering them to the passing trade can still be found, but she’s rapidly losing out to the convenience, image and pleasure of potato chips.

In fact, this submission was originally intended to promote the humble potato (Solanum tuberosum) as the most significant choice crop in the fight to boost food security wherever it can be grown, but I got side-tracked at the start. I may still get back with a pro-potato submission if no one else offers one.

Innovation and technologies

People invest in their families and homes and, crucially for well-being, to the motivation and aspiration that result from the example of others. Modern communications technologies have linked communities everywhere – and there is no going back on this one. Similarly food preparation, processing, storage and handling techniques now impact upon people everywhere and, leading change of this kind, is the novel impact of the supermarket; once the domain of the industrial countries, but now found in all communities everywhere. Supermarkets drive change.

Fail to adapt, follow change, take advantage of innovation and people will remain captive to the disadvantages of earlier systems. Renewable energy, for example, may resonate as desirable but when this is typified by use of fuelwood, agro-wastes or livestock manure in the home they perpetuate existing environmental and health risks, and the degradation and poverty of countless lives lost by the girls and women responsible for feeding their families. Everyone appreciates power from the flick of an electrical switch. Electricity provides access to modern food preparation equipment in the home, shop or factory; few would voluntarily surrender use of their micro-wave ovens, toasters, grinders, mixers and similar to revert to earlier manual equipment.

Carrying the insecure forward

This, however, is not forgetting the estimated 20% of the world’s population that continues to remain food insecure and the widening gaps between the rich(er) sectors and the rest in most societies[2]. In many cases, those people are no longer the starving images of food insecurity, emaciated kids and death marches that remain within living memory for many of us, but they currently represent the better part of half the world’s people who have failed to link into the expanding middle classes. Herein is continuing need for social investment in safety nets that will help stimulate the natural drive of people to better themselves, and provide the basis with which they can do so.

Modern communications

Vulnerable people of this kind continue to impact given access to modern communications – and particularly television and the use of social networks that link and inform. And, whilst the trend with reducing global poverty is encouraging, natural calamities (and more significantly) those that result from inept socio-political decision-making can impact immediately and quickly destroy previous stable systems. Global reporting kicks in to inform everyone, but this does not always deliver the results required.


Access to information and to the means of making a difference helps place the original question into perspective - concerning indigenous methods of food preparation and the potential impact on food security and nutrition. On micro-scale there may be value with the resilience of these earlier systems – for those who fail to develop, fail to investment, remain ill-informed and/or fall outside modern trends in national socio-development. The next generation – living in that town or city, providing services or manufacturing, earning a salary and exploring those personal responsibilities with freedom from archaic systems – is far too busy looking forward to be concerned about the past.

Peter Steele


17 May 2013

[2] Gini Index. Check out the Gini Index in your country – the comparison of national income between the rich and poor. Take the Seychelles, for example, with one of the greatest divergences in the world; estimated 60% of the national population living on the handful of inner islands enjoying the highest living standards in Africa, and compare this to the abject poverty of the remaining 40% living on the more isolated outer islands.


Isabel Maria Madaleno Portuguese Tropical Research Institute, Portugal
Isabel Maria Madaleno

This is a very interesting and important subject. Back in 1998, when researching urban agriculture in Belem, located in the Brazilian Amazon Region, I found that such species as Eryngium foetidum, Talinum triangulare and Spilanthes oleracea were gardened in front and backyards and consumed by local populations (See CITIES, 2000, vol. 17(1): 73- 77)

Regarding cassava, which Laura Pereira mentioned in her contribution, the leaf is toxic, (called maniva in Brazil) so locals cook it for a long time and eat it in delicious dishes such as tacaca, maniçoba and Tucupi duck. You can read more, only in Portuguese, in my book "A Cidade da Mangueiras: Agricultura Urbana em Belém do Pará”, edited by FCT and Gulbenkian Foundation, in Lisbon. For those who do not read Portuguese, please login the EMBRAPA site or the Boletim do Museo Paraense Emílio Goeldi (Belem, Brazil), where you might find translations into English of other papers published on this issues.

As to the Andean region, I found the Carla Mejia links very eluminating. FAO has indeed a remarkable work in this field. As I found in my recent research that focuses mostly medicinal herbs, large number of roots, barks, leafs are still in use. So the idea that indigenous peoples forgot about their indigenous foods is totally misleading. They do continue to prepare them as in the old days, but not so often. Species like quinoa and all sorts of potatoes, yacón (used to control diabetes), as maca roots(tonic and good for the bones, a remarkable antiosteoporosis root) and Amaranthus (called Kiwicha in Peru), also Pasammisia pauciflora (Shingi-Panga) are in use and are considered very adequate for children, as they favour their health. Some are simply added to soups as is the case with the last three. I would very much like other input about this region also.

In Costa Rica as in many Central American regions the Sechium edule (Chayote), also consumed in Brazil under the name of xuxu, is a highly valued Cucurbitaceae that they appreciate enormously. As I found days ago, in my home country, Portugal, people have learned with Brazilian immigrants how to cook it also in soups, we eat xuxu more and more, because the current crisis gives families no other choice but to look for nutritious alternatives, meaning dishes that can give more energy to children going daily to school, or to old people that cannot afford to eat meat and fish, as they used to

Isabel Maria Madaleno

PhD in Geography

Portuguese Tropical Research Institute

Lisbon. Portugal

Edward Mutandwa Mississippi State University, United States of America

Dear Forum members,

I appreciate the dimensions that have been added to this discussion. Perhaps one of the most crucial comment is from Prof Tim Williams from the University of Georgia. I must start by saying that literature does acknowledge the difficulties of showing the difference between "Western" (modern or scientific) and indigenous knowledge (traditional, local, cultural). I had to scramble for a few clarifications. Chambers (1980) attempted to differentiate between the two forms of knowledge by suggesting that Western knowledge is typically centralized and linked with the state machinery (research institutes and universities) while traditional knowledge is dispersed and "associated with low prestige rural life". Traditional food processes include methods like soaking, fermentation, cooking, pounding, and sprouting (Lipski 2010). Another distinguishing feature of traditional knowledge is the "organic relationship between the knowledge and its community" and subsequent harmony with nature. It will be interesting to see what other forum members have to say on this. When does a food preparation method cease to be traditional? still lingers on...

Traditional food preparation may seem inefficient but they are symbols of a culture (Gill). In order to characterize these methods, there is always need for further context specific research due to variations across cultures (Dr Abedin and Pitam from India). Documentation of these practices is important particularly in semi-arid zones (Gill). I am not sure if any of our forum members could give examples of cases and situations where yeast and bacterial cultures are treated and mainitaned (Heslop-Harrison) but certainly there food safety issues to talk about here. On a related note, soaking is a common practice used in many cultures. There is "science in this practice" because it helps remove antinutrients and enhance bioavailability of nutrients (Andersen). Finally and very interesting, KV Peter observes specific aspects of food preparation that reduce nutrient loss like cutting and cooking without adding water at low heat levels. 






Tim Williams University of Georgia, United States of America
Tim Williams

This topic needs to be clarified.  

What defines a traditional food preparation/process? I suggest that we consider processes that modify a major component of the diet, so storage of a grain would not but fermentation would, constitute a traditional food preparation.

Another question to focus the discussion is a definition of at what stage does a process cease to be traditional: since Pasteur canning has been a traditional presservation/preparation process, it is now a traditional practise that is still applied today at the industrial scale. As such it does not need special measures to preserve the knowledge.

Do we expanded the topic to include 'traditional' methods of preserving foods since food preservation is a critical part of achieving food security.

Do we consider preparations/process that influence the toxicological profile of a food? There are processes that either remove toxins from the ingredient - (rendering them a safe source of nutrition) or increase the contamination (particularly in the case of the mycotoxins). 


Pitam Chandra ICAR, India
Pitam Chandra

It is a great idea to bring the traditional food processing knowledge in focus. While some of the traditional practices could be rejected right away on the basis of the current science, there are several others that prove to be beneficial. It must also be appreciated that one practce considered good at location 'A' might not prove to be good at location 'B' on account of agro-climatic conditions and/or work profile of consumers. For brevity, I am not quoting any examples, but there is a considerable scope to harness the traditional wisdome and practices in food preparation world over for integration with the contemporary knowledge. Today, families are getting smaller and working hours are getting longer with the result that healthy and wholesome food for this class of population is a big concern. Food processing industry today needs to reprioritize their goal from just producing tasty food to tasty and healthy food for targeted groups.

Pitam Chandra

Kuruppacharil V.Peter World Noni Research Foundation, India
Kuruppacharil V.Peter

There are several well-known Grandmas tips for cooking with zero loss of minerals, vitamins, antioxidants and energy. Always wash well fruits and vegetables before cutting into pieces and leaf vegetables cooked without adding water. Cover the cooking pan to avoid loss of nutrients. Keep always flame low to minimise energy use and slow cooking. Never use heated or used oil for further cooking. Sauces and ketchups mask the original taste and be avoided to the extent possible. Pot herbs like mint, thyme, celery etc can be sprinkled over cooked items to provide natural appeal and flavour. Highly salted pickles are not desirable for people suffering hyper tension. Many such Grandmas tips are in practice which need to be documented.

Dr K V Peter

Peter Andersen Dept. Geography, Univ. Bergen, Norway
Peter Andersen

I want to stress the importance of one simple but important "indigenous practice", namely the soaking and/or sprouting of grains, especially pulse grains, before cooking. It used to be common practice in many countries, but with the advent of pressure cookers and commercialisation of split grains, vast numbers of people leave out this step in cooking preparations. It is well documented that soaking and sprouting reduces the content of antinutrients such as phytic acid, and thereby increases the bioavailability of important elements, for instance iron, zinc and calcium. In addition, soaking will reduce the content of oligosaccharides and enzyme inhibitors, reducing the irritation many grains can have on the intestinals. In some cases, it will reduce toxic compunds. And finally, the initial sprouting processes will normally increase the content of important vitamins and reduce the cooking time required. A very win-win situation which only requires a bit of planning ahead.

Although these issues are old established facts, I meet surprisingly many people who find this surprising, and I have very rarely seen any nutrition campaigns that even mention the issue.

Gill Shepherd IUCN, United Kingdom
Gill Shepherd

Just a few extra thoughts. Some traditional foods have much symbolical suginficance, and even though they are time-consuming to prepare, the knowledge of how to cook them remains, because they cooked at special times of year - maybe Christmas among christians, and certainly throughout the month of Ramadan among muslims. So it is important to keep those traditions alive.

I think what is really at risk of being lost - knowledge which may become important again if climate change adaptation becomes of especial importance in the future - is knowledge of wild foods and of famine foods, and of food which grows in semi-arid environments. This kind of knowledge probably needs to be recorded in cheap reference guide-books, with drawing or photos of the relevant plants, the kind of habitat where they may be found, and the method of gathering and preparation.

We also need to be aware of the high diversity of land-races (locally bred food varieties) at risk of being lost. I read a PhD some years ago which recorded biodiversity on the farms of wealthier and poorer farmers around Mount Kenya. Poorer farmers kept a much wider range of land-races going than did richer farmers (sub-varieties adapted to particular conditions in particular bits of the farm). Richer farmers tended to buy standard seeds from the market and to grow more commercial crops and fewer subsistence varieties.  These land-races are traditional foods very much under threat from Monsanto et al.

Dr. Syed Md. Zainul Abedin, Bangladesh
Syed Md.

I appreciate that indigenous methods of food preparation has been chosen for discussion.This is really a very important area which needs to be investigated in depth to study the impact on food security and nutrition.

I am very confident that this discussion will bring only a fragment of the existing indigenous methods of food preparation in various communities and cultures across the world.I don't think it can draw any valid conclusion  on the aspects of food security and nutrition unless appropriate systematic studies  are undertaken.

However,this discussion may be a great starting point for a worldwide study in this regard.

I congratulate all contributors for their valuable contributions.