Urban Harvest 2019: Organic, exotic food on a platter

India’s exotic harvest

Ishka Farms, Tuticorin  

Ingredients like red quinoa, crunchy hara channa, avocado, mesclun and Genovese basil are starring more often in handmade salads at our office — reminiscent of the superfood bowls Jamie Oliver, one of the pioneers of the farm-to-table concept, posts on Instagram (@jamieoliver). And much like the British celebrity chef’s, our ingredients are sourced from just a few kilometres away.

Increasingly, the imported aisle at the supermarket is not the only recourse for those who want to experiment with their meals — inspired by pop-ups by Michelin star chefs (like the recent one by Heston Blumenthal in Mumbai and Delhi), shows like Chef’s Table and MasterChef. Subscription boxes are bringing organic produce to our doorsteps, microgreen kits are helping us harvest superfoods in our kitchens, and urban farmers, growing exotics like avocado and black carrots locally, are helping us bypass the bane of ‘food miles’.

Carbon footprint and sustainability are not just buzzwords, says restaurateur Gauri Devidayal, insisting that we must be cognizant of the issues impacting climate change. This summer, the garden at her Mumbai restaurant, The Table, is blooming with kohlrabi, butterhead lettuce and passion fruit. “Changing how and where we shop can go a long way in supporting our farmers,” she adds. Continuing their tryst with the farm-to-table trend, the menu this season uses ingredients like pink lemons, black walnuts, capers and pumpkin seeds. “Many farm owners are now directly reaching out to consumers to supply produce for home consumption.”

Thinking local

Urban farmers growing seasonal produce is on the rise today. Chennai-based Sriram Gopal started Future Farms — a start-up that promotes hydroponics technology — in 2014 to make clean food available to all, not just those who can afford it. Five years later, he notes that youngsters (in the 22-35 age group), from sectors like aviation, entertainment and IT, are taking to farming. “Most come from well-heeled families and have land parcels they wish to utilise to grow exotic produce such as microgreens and zucchini. Since this segment requires low volume, high quality and investment, it’s a sweet spot for urban farmers who wish to tap into the niche market of conscious eaters.” Gopal now exports microgreens to Sri Lanka and Mauritius.

These farmers are also becoming the backbone of top hotel chains. Like Fiona Arakal of Ishka Farms in Thoothukudi, who left her job in hospitality to grow capers and now supplies to over 10 top hotels in five cities in the country, or Akash Sajith’s Living Foods Company in Bengaluru, which is sought-after by Shangri-La, The Hilton and ITC for his fermented kombucha and mizuna (Japanese mustard).

Passion fruit at Planter’s Treasure, Kerala

Passion fruit at Planter’s Treasure, Kerala  

“When you use seasonal ingredients, your food tastes better and costs less,” says Floyd Cardoz, culinary director of Mumbai’s The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro, who recently partnered with award-winning New York catering house, Neuman’s Kitchen. He’s upset to see restaurants using imported produce such as zucchini and yellow squash. “We have an amazing variety of squashes in India: lauki, turi, tinda. How many restaurants champion vegetables like green channa, ponkh (a super grain in the West), mugri or arbi (colocasia root)?” asks the chef, whose Arbi Tuk is the most popular dish at The Bombay Canteen.

For Cardoz, who recently partnered with award-winning catering house Neuman’s Kitchen, it isn’t about what’s fashionable, but what’s healthy. And this is a message he pushed at both his restaurants here. Growing up, lal math was his father’s favourite green and was always made at home. “Today, everyone wants to eat kale simply because it’s fashionable. My grandmother’s protein-rich Goan pork curry with jackfruit seeds was made every time I visited her as a child. This inspired me to use the seeds at O Pedro, but no one else uses them,” he says.

In the following stories, meet some of the farmers from around the country who are making sure we get to nurture our experimental palate with hardly any of the (carbon footprint) side effects:

Where to buy local Indian mangoes

Saving India’s heirloom seeds

Why we need family farmers


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Printable version | Aug 3, 2021 2:55:31 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/meet-the-urban-farmers-of-india-who-are-helping-us-eat-clean-fresh-and-local/article26956300.ece

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