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Features

How to cook with peels and reduce kitchen waste

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There’s a new ingredient in restaurant kitchens. Once considered wasteful, vegetable and fruit peels are now pushing the boundaries of culinary ingenuity.

Till 2018, foraging for new ingredients in unexplored regions of India was the chef’s mantra. This year, the pursuit of innovative dishes involves looking inwards, into the kitchen as well, in a bid to be more sustainable. Cooking with peels is one such quest that’s adding colour to the culinary canvas. Instead of throwing away potato peels, find out if they can be turned into chips, explore if onion peel can enhance taste, and experiment with fruits and vegetables that can be cooked with their skin intact. With modernist techniques in restaurant kitchens, food peels are being powdered or turned into syrups, transforming them into potent flavouring agents.

Peels have always been an integral part of the Indian culinary landscape. Mumbai-based chef, food show host and author Ranveer Brar says: “Peels are fortified with micronutrients and widely used in home kitchens across the country. In most parts of northern and western India, due to high temperatures during summers, peels can be sun-dried. They make churans, a digestive concocted using dried peels of pomegranate and mango. Tribal communities of Baner and Jaisalmer incorporate water-dense watermelon peels in their cooking because water is scarce in those areas. Murraba, a sweetened preserve, is made with either carrot or turnip peels.” He points out that raw banana peels are used in south India as chips and thorans, while chayote squash peels often appear in east Indian food. In Bengali kitchens, bottle gourd peels are stir-fried and eaten with dal. In the North-East, banana peels are roasted and powdered to extract an alkaline ingredient called khar, popular in Assamese and Garo dishes. Cooking with peels has a humbler iteration in households which cannot afford ingredients like tomatoes and onions as curry thickeners.

The zero-waste movement is a relatively recent import from the West, but Brar firmly believes that Indian kitchens have always abided by this philosophy. Therefore, Indian restaurants can look within for inspiration as they attempt to be environmentally conscious.

Mixologist Vedant Mehra, 25, who is currently moving cities, found such inspiration in his neighbourhood. “I was working at Bootlegger in Bengaluru, known for its craft cocktails. A stone’s throw away from the bar was a pakoda vendor who made chips with banana peels. At Bootlegger, our banana pudding and cake were popular with guests. This meant banana peels formed the bulk of our waste and I started to think of ways to use them,” he says over the phone. He began experimenting to develop a cocktail with the inner lining of banana peels, which has a lot of flavour and sweetness. It was extracted and boiled with water and sugar to make a reduction. The outer part of the peel was crisp-roasted. The reduction was mixed with gold rum, bitters, sweet vermouth and garnished with banana peel crisps. This cocktail, called Limitless, secured him the top spot at the nationwide Bacardi Legacy Cocktail Competition earlier this year. He was lauded for his “sustainable” approach.

A handful of upscale restaurants utilize fruit and vegetable peels in in-house syrups, bitters, vermouth and cordials in an attempt to check kitchen waste.

Earlier this month, Delhi-based Anahita Dhondy, chef partner at SodaBottleOpenerWala CyberHub, represented India at the Worlds of Flavor International Conference & Festival organized by The Culinary Institute of America’s Napa Valley campus. She presented an “upcycled” chaat of onion and potato fritters with sweet potato skins. The magic ingredient was salt, flavoured with onion and ginger peels. “I didn’t throw away onion peels. They were thoroughly washed and put out to dry during the day. When we wrapped up in the evening, I placed them in the oven for roasting overnight. The following morning, I blitzed them in a mixer and in seconds they turned into a fine powder. It was mixed with plain salt and the result was a sublime umami flavour. This process was replicated for ginger peels,” she says. Dhondy roasted the roots and stems of the onions, which are usually discarded, and used them as décor accents for her food stall.

The 29-year-old shares a quick pickle recipe with carrot peels: “Add sliced chillies, star anise, salt and a little water. This will pickle carrot peels in 3 hours.”

In March, a freestyle restaurant called Together At 12th opened in Gurugram. One of the key aspects of its cuisine-agnostic culinary quest is being conscious about generating waste. Ash derived from onion peels is sprinkled in its kitchen garden to avoid pests, while crushed egg shells find a new lease of life as a vital soil nutrient. The bar boasts of an up-cycled lemonade concocted with citrus peel cordial. The kitchen is helmed by co-founder and chef Vanshika Bhatia, 26, who earned her culinary stripes while working in Michelin-starred restaurants like Gaggan, Noma and Junoon. “Our kombuchas are made with peels of vegetables such as beetroot and carrot, because they are naturally fortified with yeast. Apples and potatoes are served with the skin intact, unless a guest wants to avoid them. Leftover apple peels are dried and powdered for garnishing our desserts, or any dish for that matter. One of our most loved creations is the banana peel chutney served with raw banana chips. The chutney is flavoured with coriander, green chillies and lemon juice. The upcycled agnolotti, from the main course segment of our menu, uses every part of the vegetable that goes into the stuffing. We have an ingredient-specific philosophy,” she says.

Delhi’s Italian fine-dining restaurant Diva is running a special menu at the Italian embassy cultural centre till 24 November to mark the World Week of Italian Cuisine. This year, the theme is zero-waste cooking. “The star dish of the festival is a communal pot of risotto made using cauliflower stems and pea skins. We are roasting some root vegetable peels along with crumbled goat cheese in our pizza oven. One of the more unexpected preparations that emerged serendipitously was candied pumpkin skin. It has a lovely texture and sweet, nutty flavour,” says Ritu Dalmia, founder, Diva Restaurants, Delhi, Goa and Milan.

These chefs understand that kitchen waste imbued with creativity or necessity can be transformed into an ingredient. It is a valuable lesson as they shift to an environmentally conscious ideology.

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