Murungai in your latte

R Jeganathan of Nalla Keerai in Pakkam village and Chef Malar Mannan of The Park hotel are joining hands to encourage consumers to ditch pesticide-laden produce and instead embrace a wide range of nutrient-rich, soil-friendly greens

It all begins with a ‘ murungai keera and thengai paal latte’.

The creamy latte made with drumstick leaves and coconut milk is accompanied by manathakkali (black nightshade) salad, aloe vera gel steak and risotto of black lentils and local rice. Chef Malar Mannan, of The Park Chennai, who is curating the hotel’s ‘Farm to Fork’ menu (currently on at the restaurant Six ‘O’ One till November 4) is clearly enamoured with fresh, local produce.

Which is how he met and collaborated with the legendary R Jeganathan, who has been running Nalla Keerai from Pakkam village for the past seven years, to create a uniquely contemporary menu made with local, traditional produce.

Return to roots

As we drive to the village on a sweltering morning, Chef Mannan talks about how this menu is really a return to his roots. “I grew up in Tiruverkadu, close to Pakkam. I am from a family of farmers. But when I became a chef, I looked up to the European kitchen,” he says. After 12 years of learning French technique, Italian cooking and using exotic imported ingredients, Chef Mannan decided to return to the farm. “When I tasted the keerai , gourds and vegetables of my childhood again, I began to wonder why we don’t use them more often in our hotel kitchens.”

A major reason is the fact that many indigenous vegetables are just not available any more. In response to market forces, only the most commercially viable fruits and vegetables survive, posing a threat to diversity. This is why Jeganathan’s mission is not just to inspire young people to turn to farming, but also encourage consumers to eat a wider variety of organic, responsibly-grown produce.

Moving away from the smog-choked city, we are welcomed into Pakkam by a kaleidoscope of butterflies. Chef Mannan delightedly scampers into Nalla Keerai’s robustly fertile farm, featuring beds crammed with a bewildering variety of herbs and greens. He plucks curry leaves, peppermint and lemon grass, crushing it in his palm to release an intense net of fragrances.

Bees buzz past busily and a cloud of dragonflies lazily swoops and circles around us. Standing between it all, Jeganathan looks contently at a slug feasting on a gongura leaf. “The pest is my guest,” he grins.

This relaxed, sensible approach to farming is what has made him a modern-day icon in Tamil Nadu. He points to a row of plants, their leaves ridden with holes. “These are for pests. We give them two or three varieties of plants they like to eat, so we can save the others.” This is also why he has bursts of bright orange marigolds punctuating the farm. The colour attracts pests and bees, which is why his next plan is to add hives to every farm.

Meanwhile, Chef Mannan has been scurrying around, picking peppermint and lemon basil leaves. We make our way to the Nalla Keerai office, where it is brewed into a delicious, punchy, dark tea sweetened with jaggery. Settling under a large poster of green crusader G Nammalvar, Jeganathan drinks his tea quietly and appreciatively. Right outside the office, employees are in the middle of a meditation session, sitting cross-legged with their eyes closed between bundles of freshly plucked greens. “We make the energy of this space more positive with meditation,” he says softly, closing the door so we don’t disturb them.

A college drop-out, Jeganathan decided to turn to farming after conducting an informal survey among the 240 families in his village, and finding that they spent about 60% of their annual income buying fertilisers, pesticides, medicines and alcohol. In 2011, he took a lease and began to grow greens, which he then sold in parks and apartment complexes. “We had no customer base then, today we have have 3,500 registered customers.”

They even have a subscription model where for Rs. 4,500 a year, they supply a variety of greens for 44 weeks. Every weekly delivery includes five varieties, including one medicinal and one relatively rare variety, to encourage people to widen their horizons. Discussing how eating healthy can reduce people’s dependency on pharmaceuticals, Jeganathan talks about the most powerful herbs in his arsenal. “ Thoothuvalai is good for respiratory problems, and you can use it in rasam . Mudakatran is helpful for people with arthritis and can be consumed as a chutney. Keelanelli is eaten when people have jaundice.”

Right now, Nalla Keerai has about 30 plots, each about a quarter of an acre in size. They plan to expand to 600 plots, by spreading their message and teaching their techniques to young farmers. The market is ready, according to Jeganathan. “Now is the time to expand. Chennai can consume about 10 lakh bundles of greens a day and the supply falls short. Also, people eat only three or four varieties because that is all you see in the supermarkets. We have 40 varieties of greens and are selling about 10,000 bundles a day.”

His pet project is education, for farmers, students and consumers. “We encourage the farmers to multicrop, go organic, and grow produce suitable for their topography.” The Nalla Keerai method is to plant seeds and saplings in an airy loam they formulate, then arrange them in the pattern of a forest, with the smallest at the bottom and largest on top, so sunlight and water are filtered naturally. “Where we used to put 100% effort we now put 20%,” says Jeganath, adding that this enables them to experiment with more variety.

“We now have 130 types of indigenous seeds. There are 20 varieties of brinjal alone,” he says, discussing the seed bank. “Our policy is never to sell seeds. We have an exchange programme instead,” he chuckles, “like when we were children.” Chef Mannan’s eyes light up and he says, “I remember. We used to stand on the road outside the farm and exchange produce.”

The green shopping list

  • Siru keerai

  • Mulai keerai

  • Arai keerai

  • Murungai keerai

  • Manathakkali

  • Nattu poongani

  • Pasalai keerai

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