Dr. N. Sai Bhaskar Reddy (saibhaskar) wrote,
Dr. N. Sai Bhaskar Reddy
saibhaskar

ACCESS TO FIRE

ACCESS TO FIRE
Dr. N. Sai Bhaskar Reddy, GEOSPIRIT, saibhaskarnakka@gmail.com

Fire one of the sources of energy is the manifestation of universe. Human beings are the only species on earth that embraced fire as a source of survival, strength and thriving. Almost all other life on earth has fear of fire. uncontrolled flame.jpg
Fire from biomass is a source for cooking food since prehistoric times. Humans are the only species that cook their food. Homo erectus emerged about two million years ago as a result of this unique trait. Cooking had profound evolutionary effect because it increased food efficiency which allowed human ancestors to spend less time foraging, chewing, and digesting. H. erectus developed via a smaller, more efficient digestive tract which freed up energy to enable larger brain growth. Cooked food, by contrast, is mostly digested by the time it enters the colon; for the same amount of calories ingested, the body gets roughly 30 percent more energy from cooked oat, wheat or potato starch as compared to raw, and as much as 78 percent from the protein in an egg. Cooking allowed hominids to expand their diets. Many tubers are poisonous unless cooked, so cooking opened up new food sources.
In essence, cooking—including not only heat but also mechanical processes such as chopping and grinding—outsources some of the body’s work of digestion so that more energy is extracted from food and less expended in processing it. Cooking breaks down collagen, the connective tissue in meat, and softens the cell walls of plants to release their stores of starch and fat.
Cooking food is a culture and tradition developed through the use of biomass stoves over centuries. Modern means of cooking do not achieve the same taste, flavour and nutrient value as cooking on biomass stoves. Some of the common ways of high temperature cooking used today are: LPG stoves, microwave ovens, electric stoves, induction stoves, etc. High pressure and temperature cooking is done by using pressure cookers. In real-life conditions, high-power cooking is not preferable as the taste and the value of the food cooked is not as good compared to normal cooking. During high power cooking, metal pots made of aluminum and steel transfer excessive heat to the food, and not uniformly so.  The food cooked in earthen pots is more tasty and nutritious, due to the slow and low transfer of heat to the food that they facilitate. However, this is not the preferred mode of cooking now-a-days.  New cooking methods have to adapt to modern sources of fire / heat.
Since it is mostly women who engage in cooking, they have to bear a brunt of the conditions in the kitchen. Cooking three-course meals (as is typically done in India, with rotis, rice, curry, pulses, etc.) is not an easy job at all.  It becomes even more difficult—at times hazardous- if they don’t have access to a good stove.
Human beings have stepped on the moon, and explored the solar system and planets many light years away. However, we still have not been able to provide efficient cooking systems for millions of people living on this Earth.
In parts of India, the stove is believed to embody Goddess Laxmi – the Goddess of money and prosperity. This kind of respect means that traditional stoves - made up of clay, dung and bricks - are regularly maintained. Cleaning around the stove and maintaining it is of utmost importance before a festival.  In groups, women go to termite mounds and bring back the mud from them.  It is mixed with cow dung and ash to form a paste that is used for plastering stoves.
Further, women decorate their stoves with ‘Rangolis,’ or design patterns made by applying colour or-powders over the mud-dung-ash plaster. This practice illustrates the value accorded to the stove by traditional customs and lifestyles.  People believe that the state of the stove reflects whether a household is happy / prosperous, or not.  For example, when a cat or dog is found sleeping in a stove, it must belong to a poor household, for it means that this family has not cooked any food for some time. 
Although cooking food is a crucial part of human life, the principles of fire, cooking, etc., are rarely taught as part of formal education. It is common for parents to keep young children away from fire, warning them of its dangers. Schools should make sure that the children have some basic training in operating stoves, as well as some knowledge of efficient stoves. Schools should make sure that the children have some basic training in operating stoves, as well as some knowledge of efficient stoves.
Metal pots that transfer a large proportion of the heat received to their contents, do not do so uniformly. When stoves run at high power, the food is not cooked well. The flavour, taste and aroma of the food also depends on the temperature at which it is cooked. The temperature range 300-600 degrees centigrade is ideal.  Cooking is also a means for releasing the nutrients of the food, in order to maximize its value to the consumer. At higher temperatures, the aromatic ingredients of the food are also lost as volatiles. 
Many people say that biomass cook stoves should be banned altogether. However, all the elements of sanctity and sanitation can be found in them:  Fire, Smoke, Charcoal and Ash. Cooking on biomass stoves is also a way of engaging with and respecting the elements of nature. Fire is highly respected even by the most primitive of communities. Fire is considered auspicious by many spiritual beliefs-systems / religions / societies. Some of them even worship it as a deity. In many religions, praying rooms are attached with kitchens. Considering smoke to be harmful does not fit with the culture of using incense sticks for worship, common to many religions.
The stove also signifies the cultural connection of the community with fire. As mentioned above, fire is widely regarded as a deity and biomass stoves adorn kitchens also used as prayer rooms. It is the medium through which offerings are made to the Gods as a plea for common good such as rains, good harvest, peace and harmony. In India, this is evident in ceremonies like Yagnas, Homas and Agnihotras (or Holy Altar). Cooking on biomass stoves, thus, represents this cultural respect for fire.
In rural areas, where poor people use fuel wood to cook, there is always some smoke. Smoke from biomass stoves protects them from a variety of pests. In many countries, termites are a major cause of economic losses. In many rural communities, seeds collected for sowing in the next season are commonly stored in the kitchen. Smoke protects thatched huts from pests such as termites and wood-borers. It is very common in such places for people to use smoke as a means to repel mosquitoes and prevent diseases like malaria. On the other hand, cockroaches and insects are common in kitchens using Liquefied Petroleum Gas.
Charcoal and ash are two other important by-products of the biomass stove. Many poor communities use charcoal for cleaning teeth, and the ash for cleaning utensils. Ash from holy altars is used as a vermillion to apply on the forehead and other body parts. At times in small quantities, it is also recommended as medicine by faith healers. In agriculture, the charcoal is used as biochar for improving soil-health and fertility. Ash is an important additive for acidic soils and an important source of potash and phosphate.
As per the understanding on the importance and need for fire as a source of cooking, community kitchens and open source fire places are required to facilitate the poor and for conservation of energy.
References
Understanding Stoves http://goodstove.com
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catching_Fire:_How_Cooking_Made_Us_Human
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-fire-makes-us-human-72989884/?no-ist
http://shkrobius.livejournal.com/64991.html
Tags: cooking, fire, food
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