NEW DELHI // As India plans its first manned space launch, one of the biggest issues that emerged was what astronauts would eat: northern or southern food.
How do you send the right curry or veg biriyani into the void?
"The idea is to present the astronauts with that feeling of home-cooked food," said Dr K Radhakrishna, a director at the Defence Food Research Laboratory (DFRL) in the southern city of Mysore. "Western food does not suit our palate. It is bland and it contains beef."
But the unique character of Indian cuisine - and the diversity between north and south - has made the work of the lab difficult.
"We have to make sure there is no irritation to the bowels," said Dr Radhakrishna. "We are removing products that cause flatulence in Indian food, including beans and some seeds used for seasoning the curries."
By removing many of the gas-producing ingredients that can cause discomfort, Dr Radhakrishna and his colleagues have developed a number of selections suitable for the astronauts who may spend up to a few weeks in the hermetically sealed environs of a space capsule.
"We have developed a full Indian menu with pukka [proper] Indian flavour," he said.
The menu includes dishes with the tomato-based gravies synonymous with north India, as well as southern Indian food, which contains coconut and curry leaves. The food can be either microwaved or reconstituted with water.
Dr Radhakrishna said it was important that the scientists encompassed all of India's major regional cuisines.
There are biriyanis with chicken or fish from the north and lemon rice and curd rice from the south. For the yogurt in curd rice (a South Indian speciality made with yogurt, rice and spiced with chillies and curry leaves), the team has developed freeze-dried yogurt powder, which is reconstituted with water.
The DFRL was established in 1961 to create food for the Indian military, especially those who serve in hostile weather conditions along the Indo-China and Indo-Pakistan borders, as well as in the Himalayas.
"Dealing with astronauts is entirely different from dealing with the military. They [astronauts] lack strenuous activity and there is a different calorific count requirement," said Dr Radhakrishna.
The first efforts were minimal. In 1984, when Rakesh Sharma left with the first Indian-Soviet space mission, scientists were only able to provide him with fruit juice, dried fruit and "fermented nans" or bite-sized pieces of Indian unleavened bread.
"Bread is a problem because of the crumbling. You cannot have bits wandering off and clogging the electronics," said Dr Radhakrishna.
Foods must also be nutritious, easily digestible, and palatable. It also needs to be light, well packaged, quick to serve, and easy to clean up.
India is not alone in devoting time and money to ensure astronauts can get a meal that reminds them of home. The US is famous for creating freeze-dried ice cream. The Russians sent borscht with their first cosmonaut. The Japanese sent sushi. Korea spent three years and millions of dollars developing a space version of kimchi, the spicy and flatulence-inducing fermented cabbage dish that is flavoured with red pepper paste.
The time and effort India has put into creating space-friendly food may make Indian astronauts the envy of their foreign colleagues. Scientists have found that astronauts crave spicy food. And spicy food counters some of the bizarre side effects of a weightless life in space, including chronic congestion and a dulled sense of taste and smell.
Not all of the DFRL's efforts have been successful. They are still working on creating a space-worthy dosa, the perennial favourite of the south Indians. The savoury crepe is made of fermented batter made from rice and black lentils, which is then cooked on a griddle and sometimes stuffed with spiced potatoes.
"You cannot take a tawa [griddle] to space," said Dr Radhakrishna. "After all, you cannot spend more time in the preparation of food than what you have actually been sent out to do."