Behind India’s only caper farm

In an arid corner of Tamil Nadu is a farm growing capers that leading chefs now prefer to most imported varieties

September 02, 2022 11:39 am | Updated 05:59 pm IST

Tarts topped with caper berries.

Tarts topped with caper berries. | Photo Credit: Ishka Farms

As flights to Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, descend to the airport, passengers by the window seat may get a glimpse of a farm with rows of glistening silver sheets. On land, the journey to the farm is through acres of arid land that in the height of summer cracks into deep fissures. But it is this hostile environment that is perfect for raising capers, the little flower buds that have long garnished Mediterranean and Italian cuisine.

For Srikant Suryanarayan and Fiona Arakal, this harsh landscape is home to Ishka Renewable Farms which they started in 2012. A parcel of 365 acres of fallow land is now producing organic capers that are not just being exported but are on the racks of high-end department stores and in the kitchens of world-class restaurants. They began selling their produce in batches in 2018.

Women at work at Ishka Renewable Farms in Thoothukudi.

Women at work at Ishka Renewable Farms in Thoothukudi. | Photo Credit: N. Rajesh

ALSO READ | Finding capers in Thoothukudi

It was no mean task for the couple. An initial investment of more than ₹5 crore was used to buy the land outright and to clean it. A thick cover of the all-pervasive seemai karuvelam or Prosopis juliflora had to be removed and the earth ploughed.

All the way from Argentina

“My idea of a lush green farm with a gurgling stream was shattered when I first saw this land,” laughs Arakal. The couple, through sheer grit, turned the landscape into the only caper farm in India that is organic and also adheres to good agricultural and manufacturing practices.

Fiona Arakal, founder of Ishka Farms.

Fiona Arakal, founder of Ishka Farms. | Photo Credit: Ishka Farms

Various varieties of trees, both flowering and non-flowering, act as boundaries to the farm. In some portions, agathi keerai (a kind of greens) is being grown, and in some, moringa trees. And now in the midst of trees and shrubs are rows of hardy caper shrubs. The mulch films help in curbing weeds and also in conserving water: drip irrigation is practised here. Though a native version of this plant, known as kher, thrives in the harsh climes of Rajasthan, at Ishka farms, the first batch of capers came all the way from Argentina and Australia after a long tangle with red tape.

Propagated through tissue culture, all parts of this hardy shrub have uses. The tightly packed buds are filled with a piquant flavour that seeps out when brined. Left to grow, these buds burst into dainty white flowers sprouting many stamens and a long single stigma, which eventually bears the caperberry. The leaves and flowers also release a sharp flavour when cured. The roots are believed to have medicinal properties, which in Siddha medicine are used to cure liver disease.

Counting goats

The flowering trees lining the farm’s boundaries help combat pest attacks. They are home to various birds and insects that control pests. The farm has some 8,000 trees and Arakal hopes they would eventually help the microclimate. Why a patch of agathi keerai? That, she says, is used by villagers as fodder for their goats; in return, they get manure for the farm.

The thorny caper flower.

The thorny caper flower. | Photo Credit: Ishka Farms

Suryanarayan and Arakal, who have made this place their home, wanted to sustain the community living in villages in the vicinity. All their employees are from Thoothukudi district.

A large number of women work here. I see women on two-wheelers making their way to the farm. Ramya, who has done her M.Sc. in microbiology, works in the little lab on the farm. She is happy as the place is safe for women and she gets a good salary. No woman who comes asking for a job here is turned away. When trained in harvesting, they are here at 8 a.m., and with gloved hands, pick the buds and drop them into cloth bags hanging from their shoulders.

Those untrained slice caper berries. In time, the duo hopes to encourage villagers with small land holdings to go in for caper cultivation.

In your buttermilk

From February until the beginning of the monsoon, the crop is harvested. During the rains, the plants, which can live up to 80 years, are sheared for the next season.

“We knew we had made it when we exported the first batch of our products to the U.S. in 2020,” says Suryanarayan.

Ishka caper buds brined in sea salt sourced from Thoothukudi, are audaciously salty with a tartness that is startling and unique. The caper berries could replace an olive garnish in a dry Martini for the discerning tongue, and closer home, you can give the humble buttermilk a punch with the zest of a caper pepper sprinkle. They are used in breads, dips and sauces.

It was not the farming but the marketing that kept Arakal on her toes. From 2014, armed with bottles of brined capers, she doggedly knocked on the doors of restaurants in Mumbai and Goa. There were days she waited for hours to meet chefs and persuade them to try her capers. The then executive chef at Hunger Inc. and founder of The Locavore (an online platform dedicated to building a community around food) Thomas Zacharias, helped her break into the close-knit community of chefs.

Buratta topped with caper buds.

Buratta topped with caper buds. | Photo Credit: Ishka Farms

When Prateek Sadhu, an alumnus of the Culinary Institute of America, with a stint at The French Laundry, asked for a bottle of brined caper, Arakal knew they were on the right track. In 2017, chef Divesh Aswani, owner of Commis Station, helped her journey. “Capers of Ishka Farms have a better texture and hold their shape in brine for a longer period. Even the grading in the farm is done well. The tiny buds are great as garnishes in salads while the larger ones add complexity to stews and pastas,” he says.

Ishka capers are great conversation starters, especially in restaurants catering to people from abroad, says Aswani. The fact that it is homegrown produce and much superior to imported varieties is a great selling point, he adds. These capers are now used in restaurants around the country, including Soufflé S’il Vous Plaît in Mumbai and Larder + Folk in Goa.

A plan for patents

The couple is now hoping to capitalise on the capers’ antioxidant properties. Caper is the richest known natural source of quercetin, the most consumed dietary flavonoid (antioxidants). Ishka has signed an MoU with The Central Institute of Fisheries Technology for an analysis of the plant, and the journey to file patents has also begun. Plans are afoot to start a unit on the farm and transport caper extracts to pharmaceutical companies. This will have a far-reaching impact in the sphere of nutraceuticals and life sciences, says Suryanarayan, overseeing consignments ready to be despatched abroad.

But Ishka Farms is still young. “There is much to do. Now, our revenue from the farm is being pumped back into it as we hope to expand,” says Arakal as she cradles a fresh batch of caper berries dancing in a bottle filled with brine.

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