The fascinating journey of soya chunks into India, via Gandhi, USAID, Methodist Church & Soya Production and Research Association!

We had a side dish made of soya chunks last night. As vegetarians, we started with assuming that we may not like soya chunks (many years ago), given the association with soya chunks’ texture to chicken/meat, but have warmed up to it over the years. We quite enjoy it these days and make it often enough at home.

Since Ruchi Soya is in the news very often these days (see: Patanjali objects to lenders decision to award Ruchi Soya to Adani Wilmar), I casually asked my wife which brand of soya chunks we buy these days (recalling the iconic Nutrela brand from Ruchi Soya). She said, “the usual – mealmaker”. After dinner, I made it a point to look at the pack of soya chunks. It was a local brand, from a departmental store called ‘Plus Point’ (in-house brand, very common these days). But the label said, ‘Plus Point Meal Maker’!

I got curious about this word ‘mealmaker’. ‘Nutrela’ at least sounds like a brand name, but mealmaker, at best, sounds like a euphemism for a housewife! And ‘mealmaker’ is such a generic name, which doesn’t even signify anything remotely connected with soya or soya chunks!

All this led me to down to a rabbit’s hole to find out who exactly owns the word/brand name ‘mealmaker’. It’s all the more important if you Googled the word/phrase (as ‘meal maker’ or ‘mealmaker’), you’d notice that almost every recipe featuring soya chunks, the reference is also to ‘meal maker’. There are places where people say that ‘meal maker is the trade name for soya chunks (or TVP – Textured vegetable protein)! For such a common and widely used/assumed word, there was precious little in terms of who coined that word and who owns it!

I finally struck gold with Google Books! The two people behind ‘Soy Info Center‘, perhaps the most comprehensive website and research center about soya, are William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi. They have written several research papers on how soya entered many different countries. Here’s a detailed account of soya entry into India (across 2 lengthy pages – page 1| page 2!) – it includes a fascinating account of the kind of people (both from the US and in India) who were instrumental in bringing soya into Indian mainstream, in different forms. Some fascinating nuggets (pun unintended) from the larger story:

  • In 1882 soybeans sent from Hong Kong were grown on the Saidapet Experimental Farm in Madras, but the yield was small.
  • In 1932 a new round of variety trials started at Agricultural Experiment Stations in Madras, Poona, Sakkar, and Coimbatore. But the first sign of a really strong interest in soybeans and soyfoods in India came in 1933 in Baroda State, just north of Bombay, where Mr. F.S. Kale, in charge of the Food Survey Department for the state, interested the Maharaja Gaekwar of Baroda in the many virtues and values of the soybean. In November 1933 the Maharaja became the first Indian leader or ruler to promote soybeans, when he held a royal soybean planting ceremony, much as the emperors of early China are said to have done. In the following years, the Maharajah, who understood India’s protein problems, gave many lectures of the soybean’s dietary and industrial importance and supported Kale’s experiments with soybeans at the Baroda experimental farm. Leading newspapers and magazines from all over the country spoke in glowing terms of these dishes.
  • Meanwhile, starting in 1935, Mahatma (Mohandas) Gandhi became interested in soybeans as a source of low-cost, high-quality protein in the vegetarian diet he advocated. He had learned of soy from Shri Narhar Bhave of Baroda (father of his famous nonviolent co-worker Vinoba Bhave) who was eating 6 ounces of cooked soybeans daily, and reported that they greatly improved his health. Starting in October 1935 Gandhi began serving whole soybeans (steamed for 2 hours) to all members of his community at Maganwadi; they were eaten with chapati or bhakari for breakfast and with rice for dinner, seasoned with a little salt and oil. In late 1935 Gandhi wrote several articles about soybeans and soyfoods and published information provided by the Baroda State Food Survey Office in his popular magazine Harijan. The fact that Gandhi’s community began growing their own soybeans, and that he praised the soybean’s nutritional value and encouraged wider consumption aroused a good deal of interest in soyfoods in India.
  • In January 1936 in Baroda, Kale published India’s first book on soyfoods. Entitled Soya Bean; Its Value in Dietetics, Cultivation and Uses , it contained 375 pages of excellent information including 300 Indian, European, and East Asian soyfoods recipes. There was also a long chapter on soymilk (he fed his own child on soymilk for its first 3 months of life and put a smiling baby picture in his book) plus many recipes for making and using soymilk, tofu, soy sprouts, and other East Asian soyfoods. His many Indian soyfoods recipes were divided into seven regional cooking styles: Hindustani, Moglai, Gujarati, Maharashtrian, Bengali, Goan, and Tanjore dishes.
  • During the 1940s, as World War II drove up rice prices and brought huge famines to parts of India, research on soyfoods continued. In 1941 to further elucidate the position, the Indian Research Fund Association set up a special Soya Bean Sub-committee to carefully investigate the nutritive value of soybeans. The IRFA’s 35-page Report on the Soya Bean (1945), containing some 75 nutritional references, basically came to the same conclusion as the 1937 reports; the soybean had no nutritional advantage over common Indian pulses (especially Bengal gram) in terms of biological value or for supplementing rice diets. Thus the committee found no good reason to “advocate immediately the encouragement of the production of soya bean on a wide scale in India for use as a substitute for Indian pulses.”
  • Two factors set the stage for potential interest in soybeans in India in the 1960s. First, in about 1965 new “Green Revolution” varieties of high-response Mexican dwarf wheat was introduced to India. Wheat acreage expanded dramatically and greatly improved India’s capacity for meeting the people’s needs for food calories. This clearly demonstrated how improved seeds combined with an internationally-funded agricultural and extension program could quickly and substantially improve output of a food crop. Second, awareness of India’s “protein gap” was increasing. Dr. H.A.B. Parpia, director of CFTRI in Mysore, estimated that 80% of India’s young children suffered from various degrees of protein malnutrition. Moreover as high yielding wheat acreage expanded, often taking the place of less profitable pulses, both Indian nutritionists and USAID personnel became concerned about protein deficiencies that might result. So interest turned to the soybean as a plant which might allow farmers to compete with the high-yielding varieties of wheat, and later rice. At the same time they recommended the introduction of soy-fortified foods such as Bal-Amul and Bal-Ahar.
  • During the late 1960s, most of the soybean crop was being used as seed to expand production. But soon the question of developing food uses arose, and was stimulated by interest from USAID and the Illinois team. Attempts were made to encourage large Indian and US food companies to start making soyfoods, but after studying the matter they decided the risks were too great. In 1967 Steinkraus, van Veen and Thiebeau from Cornell University published the first research on the use of soybeans in traditional Indian fermented foods. They substantially improved the protein content of idli, a sort of wheat-free sourdough bread, by using soybeans instead of black gram together with the rice. During the 1970s additional research was published on using soybeans in dosa and dhokla, other fermented foods, as detailed in Chapter 25. Unfortunately, as of 1982, little practical application had been made of these promising ideas, in part because soybeans and soy flour were not yet widely available in Indian markets.
  • In 1970 Mrs. Rajeshwari Singh, as part of a team of ten Indian housewives from different parts of India, working together at G.B. Pant University in Pantnagar wrote Soyahar: Indian Recipes of Soybean . Containing 216 pages and 221 Indian soyfoods recipes, it was one of the most imaginative, complete, and valuable soyfoods cookbooks published in any country. Also in 1970 Ms. S. Kanthamani, a home science extension specialist, wrote the 100-page Tasty Recipes from Soybean . Like the 1969 cookbook from Mysore, these two books used no meat. They drew on the long tradition of Indian lacto-vegetarian cuisine, one of the country’s most advanced and refined cuisines, since the richest and most educated class, the Brahmins, are vegetarians.
  • SPRA (Soya Production and Research Association) was founded by Robert W. Nave, an American who was born and raised in India and worked there as a missionary since the late 1950s. His interest in improving the well-being and economic status of low-income people in India led him to establish the Nave Technical Institute (NTI), a Methodist missionary foundation and school at Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh. In 1968 Nave and co-worker Peter Chowfin visited Dick Matsuura, director of the soy program at Pantnagar. Matsuura encouraged them to consider a church-sponsored program for producing soyfoods–since no private businesses were willing to take the risk and the work was clearly of real importance. In 1970 Nave founded a nonprofit, charitable organization called NTI Soya Products. Joe Wenger and his Wenger Manufacturing Company, old friends of Nave’s parents, donated a Wenger X-25 extrusion cooker to the new organization to help in setting up a pilot project in India making textured soy protein foods. Soon additional funding was obtained from the USAID, Pant University, Bread for the World of West Germany, the Methodist Church, and Nave Technical Institute. Nave started building a factory at Bareilly, an industrial center 50 miles northwest of Shahjahanpur, in March 1971.
  • In the fall of 1972 SPRA started to make its first commercial product, an extruded/textured soy flour (TVP). Recipes were developed and the product was marketed at a low price in inexpensive packaging for the poor. But they wouldn’t take it even when it was given to them. So SPRA took a new approach, marketing the product for the rich to reach the poor. The company chose a catchy name (Nutri Nugget), developed a fancy box written entirely in English for snob appeal, and introduced the product only in the finest stores, with demonstrations at colleges and for upper-income women’s groups. After much hard work, the product caught on. Its success was assured when Sikhs started using it at their wedding dinners to satisfy both vegetarian and nonvegetarian guests. Soon all TVP came to be referred to by the public as Nutri Nugget (or Soy Nugget or Nugget).
  • In late 1971 India and Pakistan had a small war. President Nixon, who had had personal differences with Indira Gandhi years before, now tilted in favor of Pakistan and supported sending Pakistan US arms. Because of this foreign policy conflict, the government of India asked AID to close out most of the technical assistance programs to Indian agricultural universities by the end of September 1972, except for five advisors at Pantnagar and one each at Ludhiana and Poona. This cut off most US involvement in the soybean program.
  • First made in India in 1972 by SPRA, TVP (extruded/textured soy flour) was India’s most popular soyfood from the outset, and by 1981 five companies were making an estimated 4,000 tonnes a year. SPRA made about 50% of the total, followed by Ganesh Flour Mills in Delhi, Ruchi (owned by General Foods of Indore), and Mysore Snack Foods. All products were marketed (following SPRA’s lead) in roughly the same way, not as a meat extender or substitute, but as a food in its own right, suggested for use in meatless curries, pilau (pilaf), and the like. It was generally sold as granules or chunks to de-emphasize its similarity to meat and some brands were advertised as “100% vegetarian.” The potential market for this product is generally considered to be huge.
  • Since at least the 1950s and probably since much earlier, tofu has been made in Chinese communities in India and served at Chinese restaurants. But it was not marketed outside the Chinese community. Julie Sahni (personal communication 1983), an Indian expert on Indian vegetarian cooking, has stated that by about 1962-63 many Indian women in urban homes (Calcutta, Bombay, Delhi) began to make tofu at home. They may have learned from Japanese, as there were no known Indian methods describing the process available at that early date. The earliest non-Chinese tofu shop in India was started in February 1978 by Westerners near Auroville, a large spiritual community in Tamil Nadu. Called Hannes Bakery, by 1980 it was making 120 cakes of tofu daily. A second shop was started in April 1982 at Dalhousie, H.P. at 7,000 feet up in India’s western Himalayas, again by Westerners.

The duo has also written several research notes on the topic, including “History of Modern Soy Protein Ingredients“, “History of Soybeans and Soyfoods in South Asia / Indian Subcontinent” and “History of Uncommon Fermented Soyfoods (379 AD To 2012)“.

The history of soya in those books extend the story even deeper, including the beginning of Ruchi’s soya factory (see: Business Standard story capturing some of the history)! Click on each picture to read the larger version.

And finally, about ‘mealmaker’! Here’s box of the product. Manufactured by Mysore Snack Foods Limited! Marketed by Voltas Limited! Price: Rs.7.20!!

So… at last… Voltas owns (or owned) the trademark for ‘Mealmaker’, and we have all been using it as a generic term to denote soya chunks all this while. At least according to this website, the trademark was valid till June 26, 2018!!

So, is there an opportunity to register the trademark afresh and own it?

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