In the West, oysters are considered the ultimate luxury food - aphrodisiac, appetizer, star of happy hour - but in the Indian context, these bivalves rarely show up on dinner tables, even in the fanciest of places.
This two-part episode of Food Radio Project answers those all important questions: where are they found and why aren’t we eating them?
Launched by Amrita Gupta in May 2016, Food Radio Project focuses on the food system in India, from seed to landfill, asking questions that “examine the culture, politics, economics and environmental impact of the country’s food system”.
Listen to this episode on oyster culture, then head over to Food Radio Project to stream the others. We caught up with Amrita to chat about where her interests in food lie and her plans to keep podcasting in 2017.
Tell me a little bit about yourself
I’m a journalist, but I came to this profession in a roundabout way. I studied genetics, and somehow ended up on the food and drink beat. I was part of the team that launched Time Out magazine in Bangalore, and after five years with Time Out, I moved to Bombay. There was a short stint at Mint Lounge, and a longer one at BBC Good Food. By then, I’d been writing and editing stories about food for a while, but I needed to find new ways of approaching it. I could review the nigiri at the cool new Japanese restaurant, but I don’t think I was asking the right questions often enough – where was the seafood sourced? Was it fished sustainably? Why aren’t local alternatives sushi grade anyway? Which is what going back to school was about, for me. I completed my master’s in Food Studies from New York University last May. I know I still want to report on food in India, but now hopefully in a more informed, and informative way. That’s what I want to do with the Food Radio Project.
What led you to start this podcast?
I had never listened to a podcast until I moved to New York. An internship at Heritage Radio Network changed all that. It’s an indie, not-for-profit food radio station that broadcasts live out of two shipping containers at the back of a pizza place in Brooklyn. From there on out, I became a whole lot more interested in audio reporting – I worked on more stories, I took courses… and I began to think about starting a podcast of my own when I moved back home.
The pilot episodes currently up on the site were a test run of sorts, developed as part of my Food Studies master’s thesis. Most of those interviews were done long-distance over Skype – some of them at ridiculous hours to account for the time difference. Logistically at least, things are easier to coordinate now that I’m back in India. I can talk to a wider group of people, not just those with an internet connection.
In your podcast you're asking questions that people didn't even know they have about food. How do you decide what to talk about?
I think I’m asking questions people are curious about, but they might not think it’s directly related to food. Food journalism isn’t just about restaurants and chefs or communities and cultural cooking practices. It is about all those things, but it’s also about agriculture, the environment, trade, policy. Those are the intersections I’m interested in for the Food Radio Project. There are different ways to describe this: food systems, seed to landfill, farm to fork, but basically, everything that’s beyond the plate is on the table.
What is the process of putting together a podcast?
Putting a podcast together starts out a lot like any other piece of reporting would. I do a lot of research, decide who I want to reach out to, speak to as many people as I can. I make a list of too many questions, and invariably, a few more pop up during the interview. Then I go back and listen to the recorded audio tape – transcribing and time stamping is the least fun part of the process. Once I’ve selected the clips I want to use, I work on the script. Then it’s just me and the editing software for a while. I like to get an audio engineer to give everything a once over before it goes up.
Tell me about the three episodes up on the site so far.
The episode that’s received the most attention so far is about Sikkim becoming India’s first fully organic state. It took thirteen years for all of Sikkim’s 75,000 hectares of farmland to be certified free of chemical pesticides and fertilisers. The podcast is about how the state achieved this, and now that it has, what happens next? There are plenty of challenges ahead for the farmers, and there’s no precedent for them to follow.
In another episode, I looked at the issue of food waste. We have close to 800 million people in the world going hungry, and one third of the food that’s produced every year going to waste. The impact is massive. If global food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. So this one’s about where along the supply chain food is being wasted in India, and what we would need to change to fix it.
There’s also this episode on oysters. We have quite a few varieties of edible oysters in India, but apart from a few coastal communities, nobody seems to be eating them. I wanted to understand our cultural aversion to oysters, especially to eating them raw. We have a growing oyster farming industry in Kerala and Tamil Nadu – it’s a source of livelihood for women in the backwaters. It’s actually restorative for the environment. But none of that will matter if they can’t get people to buy what they’re selling.
What have been your biggest learnings since you started?
Definitely how to write for the ear. My background is in print, but you can’t just read out a magazine or newspaper piece and call it a podcast. It’s a completely different way of thinking, of structuring a story. There’s always plenty more to know on the technical side as well – recording, editing, adding music. I think I’m still learning, with every interview, every episode. I still have to figure out how to market the podcast and build a listener base – all of that is really new to me. On a more personal level, I think it would be learning how to put myself out there. I’ve wanted to do this for a long time, but I procrastinated for months. Was I ready? Would anyone want to listen? So I had to get past all of that and just start.
When can we expect new episodes?
I’ve got a few projects and collaborations coming up that I’m pretty excited about. I’m producing an A-Z-style set of food policy primers for a Bangalore-based audio network. That series will launch in March. I’ve also been working on getting Food Radio Project up on an international hosting platform, to reach out to listeners in other countries as well. Once that happens there’ll be a new episode out every fortnight. It’s going to be a busy year.
Amrita Gupta is a journalist based in Bangalore. Follow her on instagram at @sunshower123.