GMO cotton and the Indian farmer

Cotton farmer Warangal district (source: Flickr user Jankie)

Cotton farmer Warangal district (source: Flickr user Jankie)

Cotton is a light and breathable fabric but it sure does get itself into some very contentious debates. It has been a central player in colonialism in India, in the American Civil War, in the practice of slavery, and now, in the GMO wars.

I remember my mother recounting some history from the British Raj days. Can you believe, she would tell me, we grow cotton in India, but we are not allowed to make cloth from it. They ship it to England, it comes back as cloth, and then we have to pay expensive rates to buy it from them. It’s our cotton!

Gandhi at his charkha

Gandhi at his charkha

Mahatma Gandhi championed this viewpoint more than anyone else. He promoted the use of the charkha, the spinning wheel from medieval times. This was his method of thumbing his nose at the Raj. He intended to have every Indian make their own cloth the tedious way, by hand, and thereby collapse England’s profits. He knew what he was doing. Weaving khadi cloth at home became a political act. (Interestingly, today khadi has become a fashion statement.)

One could argue the opposite side as well. As egregious as it seems, England’s business model made sense. The cotton plants (India’s genetic asset) and their growing and picking (India’s manual labor) were only part of the story. Who would pay for the intellectual asset — the invention of the cotton gin, the spinning jenny, and other such picturesquely named devices that made much finer quality cloth, more tightly woven, and many times faster? These are not devices to be sneezed at. These inventions and others like it powered the Industrial Revolution.

A similar debate now rages over genetically modified cotton. The quixotic Gandhi who stands in the way of Progress is Dr. Vandana Shiva. Gandhi spoke up for the imperfect, but diverse, home-weaving industry. Dr. Vandana Shiva speaks up for the unimproved, diverse strains of cotton that haven’t gotten any love from biotech companies like Monsanto.

Is she right? Was Gandhi right? I don’t know, but I want to explore. Let’s talk about Bt Cotton.


I wrote about Roundup Ready crops some time ago. Bt crops work in exactly the opposite way. Roundup Ready crops make it so that you can spray pesticide without concern for your crops — clearly, you can see how they might incentivize more spraying of pesticide. While Bt crops are not immune to pesticide, they come with pesticide in them. So you can see that theoretically they should not need any pesticide sprayed at all. The pest in this case, is the bollworm — the caterpillar of a certain moth.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear a statement like ‘your food contains insecticide’ I start to smell the wonderful aroma of the Flit product from my childhood. There couldn’t be a better way to ruin my appetite for good. Now here we are talking about a plant growing with insecticide in its cells? Are you serious?

It’s not as bad as that. Let me explain.

I adore insects. But one has to admit, sometimes they work at cross-purposes to us — whether it is cockroaches in the kitchen cupboard, mosquitoes buzzing on a summer evening, or bedbugs making lurid bloodstains all over the sheets. Humans have spent a considerable time time trying to control them.

But we are late entrants to the game. Plants have been indulging in their own battle with insect pests for half a billion years. Since they can’t get up and walk over to the store, they need to make their own. And they do. Plants fight pests silently (to us) but with astonishing vigor. No quarters given.

"Who, me, insecticide?!" the Neem tree, looking innocent (source: Wikimedia commons)

The Neem tree, looking innocent (source: Wikimedia commons)

You know those lovely daisies that little girls make daisy chains from and put them around their pretty little heads? They produce pyrethrum, a compound that attacks the insect’s nervous system. Jicama — that recent favorite of Californian foodies (of which I am one, I guess?) — the root that one cuts into sticks and puts in salad — the stems of jicama produce rotenone, a chemical that attacks the energy-production of cells. It is extremely toxic to insects and fish. The Neem tree is famously antisocial, by which I mean it is anti-fungal, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory. Neem’s special contribution is azadirachtin, a chemical that prevents insects from growing, and while they remain stunted, it makes them lose their appetite to the point of starvation. Diabolical. But they actually need to eat the plant tissue to get the poison, so insects that care only about the nectar and pollinate the plant are not affected.

What one looks for in a ‘good’ insecticide is the following: it must not kill indiscriminately — in particular, it must not be toxic to mammals. It should only kill insects pests, not be poisonous to the pollinators, nor to the predators of the insect pests. It must not hang around in the soil for long, i.e. it must biodegrade, but while it is hanging around it must not slosh around and get everywhere.


Bacillus thuringiensis (source:

Bacillus thuringiensis (source:

In these ways, a certain bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis makes pretty much the ideal insecticide. This insecticide protein is called ‘Cry’ and that is probably what the insect does upon ingesting it. It works by perforating the insect gut walls full of holes. It can be very specific, as in, there are strains that will affect only beetles that chomp on some Bt, and others that will only affect moths. It is very, very safe for all other animals including us; this is because it cannot work in an acidic environment, which our bellies are, in general. Any Bt left over on leaves will simply degrade in the sun.

Bt has been known as an insecticide since the 1900’s. But no one understood why it killed only moth larvae sometimes and only beetle larvae other times. No one understood its mechanism. Only in the 1980’s, when consumers were souring on wide-spectrum synthetic poisons like DDT, did industry start to take a look at developing biological insecticides into products. Chemical companies across Europe and the US divided up the Bt strains between them — some focused on killing mosquitoes and flies, some on moths, and some on beetles.

Bt crops

Bt had been a sleeper in the insecticide world but its qualities made it a celebrity. Pretty soon scientists understood it down to the gene level, and at that point, given the advancements in gene modification, it was a matter of course to insert that gene into plants.

I mentioned above that Bt spray, when applied to plants, degrades in the sun or simply washes off. While that is one of its beautiful qualities (that it easily biodegrades), it does mean that one has to keep reapplying it. Wouldn’t it be great if the plant cells actually contained Bt inside, so it wouldn’t just disappear in the sun or wash off? Hello, Bt crops.

Bt Cotton in India — Seeds of Suicide?

Cotton with an inserted gene that produces Cry came into the Indian market in 2002. It protects cotton from its main predator, the bollworm. Before 2002, even though cotton was one of India’s main cash crops, the yield was one of the lowest in the world. Pests were a huge problem, and farmers spent more money on pesticide for cotton than for any other crop.

Bt cotton came with the promise of not needing pesticide at all, because it would inherently fight back the bollworm. Before the government approved it, Bt cotton had already created a buzz and seeds from Monsanto had been smuggled in to sell in the black market. After it was approved, by 2010, more than 90% of cotton growers in India used Bt cotton. But while Bt cotton was being widely adopted, activists raised the alarm. Dr. Vandana Shiva in particular called it the seeds of suicide.

Anyone (like your humble servant, The Odd Pantry) asking a simple question  — ‘so, how is it working out?’ — is immediately assaulted by a battery-pack of confusing assertions. Yields have gone up! No! Farmer suicides have gone up! Spraying of insecticide has reduced! No! The bollworm has developed resistance to Bt and aphids have attacked cotton! What is true? What is not? I did a lot of reading the past week to get answers to some basic questions. I may not find the Truth but I can certainly throw my lasso around some facts.

Q. Has Bt cotton improved yields overall? A. Yes. Overall, so far, from 2002 onward, yields have gone up a lot. Not all of the increase is due to genetically modified seeds — other factors have mattered too. But, 19% of the yield increase is because of Bt cotton.

Q. Has it cut down on the amount of insecticide that needs to be sprayed? A. Overall, yes, the use of Bt cotton reduced insecticide use by half in the ten years after it was introduced. This could change as the bollworm develops resistance to Bt or other insect pests start attacking cotton. But in the meantime, yes, insecticide use did go down. An added benefit here is that farmers have reported many fewer cases of pesticide poisoning.

Q. Has the Bollworm developed resistance to Bt cotton? A. Yes, indeed, it has, in some places. It has been 10 years of Bt cotton use in India and considering that 95% of the cotton grown now has the Bt gene, the bollworm has a big fat bull’s eye to evolutionarily aim at — the target being resistance to Bt, and the enormous benefit being that it doesn’t die. In 2010, Monsanto admitted that they had found bollworms in Gujarat that were resistant to the first generation of Bt cotton crops.

Q. Have other pests attacked Bt cotton? A. Nature seeks balance. If Bt cotton crops have become pretenaturally safe from bollworms, other insects will surely be emboldened to attack it. Have they? Yes. In recent years a new pest of cotton called the mirid bug, rejoicing in the absence of the bollworm, has been feasting on cotton (story from China). This did not happen directly because of Bt cotton, but because the farmers had massively cut down on spraying general insecticides on their crop. The rise of the mirid bug is eroding some of the benefits of Bt cotton by forcing them to run out and purchase insecticides anyway.

Q. Did sheep die after grazing on Bt cotton? A. Starting in 2005 shepherds in Andhra Pradesh reported that sheep that grazed on the remains of Bt cotton for 3-4 days seemed to pick up a disease and die. Surprisingly, no one seems to have gotten to the bottom of this claim; was Bt cotton to blame or not?

Activists claim that this is obviously GMO poisoning, but the case is not as clear-cut as that. There were cases of pneumonia mixed in with the sheep that seem to have been poisoned, which makes it hard to separate. And, some investigations found pesticide on the leaves, so it could have been that.

The authorities on the other hand, claim that this is just hearsay, that the sheep simply could not have died from any Bt cotton toxicity, and the tests they have done prove it. But, there actually haven’t been any tests done on sheep (there have been tests on buffaloes, goats, chickens and cows). Also none of the tests involved fresh plant material, they just involved cotton seed meal. It is also possible that the toxin came from the non-Bt parts of Bt cotton. So far, it seems like the authorities in India have failed to get to the bottom of this.

This article is very detailed but is a good account of the sheep deaths.

Q. Have farmer suicides shot up due to Bt cotton? A. Now we come to the most incendiary claim — that the use of GM crops have led to growing numbers of farmers taking their own lives. There is no way to discuss this that isn’t going to sound callous. But let’s try.

There are two ways to look at this — as statistics, or as anecdotes. This paper looks at the question statistically. They chose to use statistics from the crime bureau rather than the ones collected by the state governments, because the ones from the crime bureau are more accurate (and higher). What they found is that farmer suicides have not increased, overall, since the introduction of Bt cotton, although they found local variation.

This paper on the other hand, looks at the question anecdotally, although it doesn’t choose to word it that way. I don’t say this to knock it. Anecdotal accounts may bring tragedies to light that get elided into a blip on a curve when you look at it as a statistic. It seems clear that some farmers did face GM crop failures; and for some of those it meant digging deeper into debt. People in wealthier countries where one can declare bankruptcy might wonder why unpayable debt is a reason to take one’s own life. In India, among the poor, this can be a disaster. They mostly do not have good, regulated microcredit available. I’ve known loan sharks to send hoodlums out to their delinquents for beatings; having their meager possessions auctioned off is a regular occurrence.

If it was indebtedness, can it be blamed on GMO? Well, perhaps it wasn’t the Bt toxin itself. But the GMO seeds they obtained come with a context — a high price, marketing, regulations followed and not followed. I will explore that in the next section.

GMO in the Indian Context

Look, after my week of reading everything I could lay my cursor on, I think I am free to make a qualified claim: so far, overall, Bt cotton has helped Indian farmers. It has helped them, overall, get better yields and make more money. But, it has not been a uniform success. The Indian context in particular has had a bit of a culture clash with the more modern economy that Monsanto usually operates in. When Indian farmers have crop failures, this is often a life-destroying event.

What kind of culture clash? The rural population in India has high rates of illiteracy. Many farm workers cannot read or write, let alone get on the internet to look up seed laws. In this environment, hearsay will always have more influence than the latest official dispatch. Instructions from Monsanto about planting buffer areas with non-Bt cotton were not well understood, or, the farmers didn’t have the luxury to ‘do things right’, leading to some places where the bollworm developed resistance to it. In Andhra Pradesh, some farmers didn’t understand that they did not need to spray insecticide anymore, therefore cutting into the profit they might have had.

They are not jaded with years of marketing-speak and haven’t learnt to discount it. Farmers believed the most inflated talk about yields that they could expect from Bt cotton, and probably did not have the cynicism needed to know that this was advertisement. They might have taken more risk than they ought to have given the high cost of the seeds based on this marketing-speak.

The concept of intellectual property is not well understood either — I know this first-hand, because when I was in India we pirated software with abandon, not really understanding that there was something wrong with this. When we bought grain in bulk, some of the small-time vendors adulterated it with stones. Piracy, the black market, adulteration, these are ubiquitous, specially for poorer farmers who are price-conscious and have no consumer representation. There are several cases of unauthorized Bt cotton being sold in the black market, which is usually adulterated with cheaper conventional cotton. Clearly this crop is not going to be as resistant to the bollworm as the pure variety.

The practice of buying seed from a catalog for each new season, very familiar for American farmers, is a bit of a culture shock to Indian farmers. Monsanto’s seeds lose their vigor after single growing season; farmers who have become trained in the practice of growing GM crop have a high dependence on the private sector and are subject to their price whims.

It also seems like Monsanto and their Indian collaborators have not always chosen the best varieties of cotton for the Indian situation. Some of the initial hybrids they chose were not drought-tolerant; this is fine for modern societies where irrigation is a given, but in India, most farmers are still heavily dependent on the monsoon. Some of the GM crop failures in Andhra Pradesh were because of this. Other times, the hybrids they chose grew fine but had a shorter staple length and did not bring in as much profit as the farmers had counted on.

The Good, the Bad

On the plus side, Bt cotton has the potential to drastically cut down the use of pesticides. Not only is this a health benefit for farm workers (they can’t afford safety equipment like masks while spraying, or really, even shoes, so some exposure is guaranteed), it is also good for the environment. Recently, natural predators of insect pests have had their numbers increase. Also, if cash crops are less prone to be eaten by pests, this is a benefit in and of itself.

Let’s talk about the bad. With an engineer’s hat on, the problem of a pest on a cash crop has a simple solution: find a good insecticide and have the plant produce it. Done.

With an ecological hat on, one wonders about the system one is tampering with. The simple solution starts to look like a silver bullet. In general the scientists believe that a GM crop like this comes with a natural life until the target pests develop resistance to it. I’m not smart enough to think through this very well, but here is a question. We know that Bacillus thuringiensis produces insecticide, but we don’t quite understand its role in the ecology. What happens when these creatures develop a resistance to it out in the wild — what does that do in the environment? What balance does it wreck? I don’t think anybody understands.

But it doesn’t really matter anyway, because these ineffable concerns will never trump the immediate need for profit and predictability, and that might just be the story of industrial farming.

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15 Ways that Indians and Americans Eat Differently

I think about food a lot. I don’t have a huge appetite, and I wish I could grow it so I could think about food even more. But I do spend a lot of time thinking about food anyway.

So you can imagine that out of the first 24 years of my life, which I spent in India, and the next — well, many years — that I have spent and am spending in the United States, a good part of that was spent thinking about food. The flavors; the ingredients; the cultural differences.

So my point is — there is not much I can claim expertise on, but this is probably it. It’s inconsequential, it’s fluff, but I’m an expert in it. How do eating styles differ between India and America? Sorry — I meant to say that in a more catchy way. The 15 Ways that Indians and Americans Eat Differently. Looky here, BuzzFeed!

1. Carnivorous v/s herbivorous:

This is no secret but Americans are more carnivorous than Indians. Way more. Way, way more. Ten times more, as a matter of fact, per person.

Global meat consumption per capita

Clearly the fact that India is not as economically developed as the United States is big a factor, and all experts agree, meat consumption in India will go up with GDP. But not as much as you would naively expect. You see, there were these guys some time ago — you might have heard of them, or might not — by whose influence Indians gave up meat almost altogether. One’s name was Siddharth, he was a prince, but you might know him better by his other title: The Buddha. The other was an emperor. His name was Ashoka, but most people know him better by his symbol, the wheel in the middle of the Indian flag. And then there was another prince, Mahavir by title, who created the Jain religion, about the strictest in the world in its edicts to cause no harm to other creatures.

2. Sugar and spice:

Another non-secret is that Americans consume a lot more sugar than Indians.

Global sugar consumption per person

A typical breakfast for an American might include pancakes, maple syrup, jam, or muffins. A typical breakfast for an Indian might include a number of different things depending on the region, but would include chutney or chilies. Indian desserts are very sweet indeed, but one has less of it, and not with every meal.

3. Industrial grease v/s elbow grease:

Good old fashioned American ingenuity extends to food: Americans eat way more processed food than most other countries. I had never heard of recipes that included Campbell’s chicken soup and Dorito chips as ingredients before I came to America. Factory-made cheeses in America must by law be called ‘cheese food‘ to distinguish them from the real thing.

4. Ingredient List Length:

In America a typical ingredient list is about four items long. This includes the main item — say fish. The four ingredients might be, fish, salt, pepper and olive oil. The typical Indian ingredient list for say, fish, to compare apples to apples, is about 15 items long. About half or more items might be spices.

5. Time Spent Cooking:

Because of the above, in America dinner is ‘prepared’ or ‘fixed’: doesn’t that give a sense of some pieces being put together? The fish is dressed simply and put under the broiler; meanwhile the bag of green beans is snipped at the corner and nuked; the dinner rolls are wrapped in a napkin and stuck in a still warm oven. Stuff is brought to the table. In India, food preparation starts in the kitchen at least an hour before the meal, possibly the night before, with the soaking of beans. I’ve often spent two hours before dinner chopping, sauteing, stirring.

Life is harder in India, but somehow we have more leisure time; a lot of that is spent in the kitchen over the minimal two-burner stove. In America, kitchens are palatial and magnificent and six-burner stoves are a maintstay of the foodie (we have a four burners ourselves), along with two ovens and a microwave, but we don’t seem to have much time to spend in food preparation. This is true especially for lunch, which in America always seems to be a quick meal. In India, there is hardly any distinction between lunch and dinner — both are equally elaborate.

6. Who does the cooking:

In India: mothers, grandmothers, the Brahmin family cook, or maids. In America: sometimes mothers and sometimes fathers. And sometimes no one.

7. Doneness:

Steak doneness chart

Steak doneness chart

This is a concept that I learned only after coming to America. People are such connoissuers of meat here, and meals are simple so that each ingredient matters more, so there is a lot of stress on when exactly food is considered ‘done’. Ten seconds too early, and it might be too rare and could kill you. Ten seconds too late, and the meal is rubber. Finicky, finicky. I never used the thermometer while cooking until I came to America.
In India, warmth is felt on the wrist; steaks are never eaten, so the question of rare or medium doesn’t arise; most other meat is prepared in the pressure cooker with spicy gravies around it; and it is ‘done’ when you hear two whistles. Possibly three, or four.

8. The Sandwich:

The American sandwich

The American sandwich

The Indian sandwich

The Indian sandwich

The American sandwich is the Incredible Hulk while the Indian sandwich is Tintin. It’s no wonder that sandwiches are a staple lunch food in America, while they are considered a snack in India.

9. The Salad:

This is another area where the typical American ingredient list is way longer than the Indian one. Americans have taken salad to a high art; can we say, also a high-calorie art? The variety in dressings alone is enormous. About fifteen types of premixed dressing are available on any typical grocery shelf; another fifty can be concocted at home. The variety in greens has exploded to include reds (radicchio) and bitters (endives). The American salad welcomes any type ingredient, be it chicken or bread or beans.

The Indian salad on the other hand may be a few leaves of lettuce or some sticks of cucumber. There you go, there’s your salad. If you get lime juice on it you’re lucky. Remember to spit out the stems!

10. Attitude towards chili heat:

Another quirk of Americans is to get into a bit of chest-thumping over being able to eat hot chilies. This may be a misconception on my part (I am a furriner after all) but it seems like in America the hotter the food you can stomach, the more macho you are. While in India I have seen old, frail grandmothers chomp on fresh green chilies straight with only raw onion as an occasional crutch. In my family it is the women who can eat hotter food (in fact, they need heat, without which they can taste nothing); and the men who shy away. Without feeling like their machismo has been questioned.

11. The Convenience Racket:

Have you ever opened a coconut to pry the flesh out? I had occasion to do this yesterday. This is not easy. Breaking it requires a hammer and a hard floor. While prying the flesh out I feared gouging my palm several times. When it splits, if you haven’t had the presence of mind to sip out the water, which by the way needs a screw-driver, you have a wet mess on your hands. Meanwhile, the counter is covered with brown coconut fibers, and the floor needs sweeping too.

Now think about how things would be different if the coconut was an American fruit. They would have engineered a shell that came with a zipper that neatly opened. The shell would be shiny smooth, there would certainly be no fibers — they would have been harvested for cattle feed already. The flesh would peel out in neat portion-sized strips by a mere touch of a finger.

Do you get my gist? Somehow Americans manage to genetically or otherwise engineer food to be incredibly convenient. Rough edges are smoothed out. Fruits like custard-apple (cherimoya) or pomegranate that serve a hefty dose of seeds with each bite don’t catch on.

Dirt — dirt is washed out at the farm. When we purchased lotus root at home, there was no mistaking the fact that someone had to wade into a muddy pond to get it. Garlic cloves were so small that you needed to peel about a hundred for a meal.

What is the problem with convenience, you ask? Nothing! If you had asked me yesterday, when I was struggling over my coconut, I would have said, I love it, bring on the magic zippered coconut! If you ask me on the days when I desperately miss the starchy, small-grained Indian corn that one roasts over coals to a char; or when I miss the crunch of seeds when I bite into watermelon: I say, perhaps we lose something in the Convenience Racket?

12. The Squeamishness Differential:

Americans are squeamish about fruits and vegetables they have never heard of; spices; textures of food. Pulpy — no good. Slimy — no good. Too mixed up together, ingredients not separate enough — no good.

Indians, on the other hand (including me), are squeamish about pungent cheeses, and meats that are prepared too plainly.

13. Health advice fads:

Food and health, of course, are intimately related; there have always been dozens of oughts and ought nots thrown around in any culture. Health advice also tends to run in fads. One year beans are a hit, another year they are the worst thing you can eat, filled with toxins. I tend to like Michael Pollan’s advice on this, to eat real food, mostly plants, and not too much.

But then the giant health food industry would grind to a halt, and we can’t have that, can we! In my years in America I have seen two sea-changes in health advice: from low-fat to low-carb; and innumerable other food-villains have been first villified and then, reluctantly, brought back to the plate. Eggs are one. Butter is another. I think gluten will return too, or perhaps that is my love for bread talking.

In America these health fads have proper names, and often have books, videos, or meal plans associated with them. I’m thinking Weight Watchers; Atkins; Paleo. I don’t doubt that each one is a profit-making machine in its own right.

India has its health advice fads too, but here is the difference — these fads are mostly hundreds of years old. They never seem to go away. One is the fad of ‘heating’ and ‘cooling’ foods from Ayurveda. This is almost like gender — each food is assigned to be either ‘heating’ or ‘cooling’ by the ancients. Too much of the heating type and you come out in pimples, sort of like a volcano, I guess? Too much of the cooling type and you might have aching bones. Forgive me, this gendering of food has no basis in science as far as I know, and is necessarily vague.

Another is to do with food combinations. One is never supposed to have milk with fish. Or water after eating cucumbers. My mother warned me that if I broke these rules I would get ‘vaaee’.

Hm. I have broken these rules a number of times now, so I guess I am now cursed with the mysterious ‘vaaee’…looking at my situation in life I take it that ‘vaaee’ gives you slowly graying hair and weight in unwanted places.

14. The Vegetarianism Differential:

Vegetarianism is relatively new in America; and tends to be chosen by people who care about health, animal welfare or the environment. More power to them, I say. The braver among them might choose to go vegan and avoid all animal products entirely (including leather).

In India though, vegetarianism is thousands of years old and is often demanded by religion, if not, by culture. Entire families and castes might never touch meat. But here’s the difference — no matter how ‘pure’ the vegetarian family is, veganism is pretty much unknown. In fact, cow slaughter is forbidden partly because we obtain milk from the cow and that makes it a somewhat maternal animal. The pure vegetarians, on the other hand, might avoid onions and garlic.

15. The Backlash!

Americans spent the fifties discovering processed food. Feminism swept over the land at the same time; none of it was inevitable, but the two movements colluded with each other to take people out of their kitchens into the aisles of corporations.

But now — now is a wonderful time to be a foodie in America. All those years of convenience and gradually deteriorating food quality have led to a backlash. America taught me to honor my ingredients like I never did before. There is a huge amount of respect for the craft of cooking as well.

I often get anxious about my home country’s trajectory in this arc. My peers are already cooking less than families did when I was a child. Options for eating out have exploded. Women are working out of the home in larger numbers, but men have not turned to the kitchen in equal numbers. Is the simple act of rolling a roti destined to become an exotic craft? I hope not. Time will tell.


This reflects my own experience and your mileage may vary. Please tell me in comments, agree or disagree! Did something strike a chord? Make you mad? Extrapolating from your own experience is always dangerous. But, extrapolate we must.

‘Extrapolating’ — from xkcd

Avocado Relish

There are some Westerners who go to India and fall in love with being Indian. They make all sorts of claims about their souls being Indian, or having been Indian in some previous life time; and, if you think about it, there couldn’t be a better proof of feeling Indian than throwing around claims about previous life times. Some start to wear rudraksha beads and saffron robes. The more extreme among them might take on a Hindu name.

We have all met at least a couple such people; if not, visit your nearest ISKCON and you will. But today I will introduce you to one such friend of mine — the avocado.

This fruit with buttery green flesh is native to Mexico. To me, the taste of the avocado has always been reminiscent of the flesh of young coconut: the kind you stick a straw in first to drink up the water and then the coconut-wallah scrapes the flesh off from the inside and hands it to you, using the shell as a bowl.

But stick it in a saffron robe and you would think this fruit was born and raised in India. It takes well to a number of Indian preparations. Mix it with yogurt to make a raita. Stick in a paratha. Spice it up to make chutneys. As I experiment I will be blogging about various Indian treatments for the avocado. But today, I will make that quintessential fresh accompaniment to rich and heavily spiced food — the kachumber.

Kachumbers are little salads or relishes that emphasize freshness and coolness. A bite of this is supposed to freshen your mouth during the meal. It usually consists some combination of onion, tomato, cucumber with lime juice. Try it with avocado, as below; it brings the taste of kachumber up to lusciousness.

This makes enough as a dinner side for two.

Avocado Kachumber


  • Half an avocado, large, diced
  • Quarter cup finely diced red onion
  • Quarter cup finely diced tomato
  • One third cup finely diced cucumber
  • 1 green chili, serrano or jalapeno, finely diced
  • 1-2 teaspoon minced cilantro
  • Juice of one lime or lemon
  • Half a teaspoon salt


Couldn’t be simpler. Mix it all up! We had this as a side to fish and rice.


Post script: Although I first tasted the avocado only after I came to California, where it grows easily even in home gardens, it turns out that avocado grows in India as well, under the guise of butter fruit. It seems to be known mostly in the south, and is only available during August and September. It also has trouble hitting that right moment of ripening — sometimes the fruit rots before getting there. But if you see it, do purchase it!