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Millennial India is slowly and steadily advocating sustainable dining


At Vrindavan Farm in Palghar — a couple of hours from Mumbai — a harvest of seasonal fruits and greens is ready, all set to be transported to owner Gaytri Bhatia’s home in Churchgate. From there it will be distributed to restaurants and bakeries, and picked up by individual clients. A newsletter, listing the week’s harvest, has already gone out to subscribers. It’s almost as if all of nature’s bounty has gathered in one place, with doodhi, moringa leaves, cashew apples, tomatillos and yams forming part of the harvest. The farmland is home to nearly 500 mango trees and, in season, these yield 3,000 to 7,000 kilos of the fruit.

Millennial India is slowly and steadily advocating sustainable dining

Bhatia, a former environmental analyst with the US Environmental Protection Agency in Boston, moved back to Palghar nearly six years back to manage her family land. Today, the farm supplies produce to restaurants such as Olive Bar and Kitchen, 212 All Good, Kala Ghoda Café and The Pantry. “We specialise in seasonal, heirloom and indigenous. For instance, the tribes here depended on the moringa leaf more than spinach as it is way more nutritious and is endemic to the area. We have brought it to the fine dining table. Farmers have information on what’s in season and what’s local. We need to take it to the chef, who brings it to the plates. Together, we form a tight ecosystem to spread the knowledge of quality local food,” she says.

Today, chefs and restaurateurs are working with producers such as Bhatia to further the cause of sustainable dining — a movement which started haltingly a couple of years ago, but is slowly gathering pace in India. Today, you find artisanal salts being sourced from Himalayan villages, tree-to-bar chocolates, honey produced by the Apis cerana, a bee species native to Uttarakhand, and farmer groups in West Bengal being tapped for black rice. According to an article on the website of the Food and Agriculture Organization, sustainable local procurement is the need of the hour. “The term means that in addition to food produced near its point of consumption, other sustainability themes are also considered, such as: food sovereignty, fair pricing and environmental conservation. At the heart of the local food movement, is the goal to establish healthy communities and sustainable regional agricultural economies,” it states.

Millennial India is slowly and steadily advocating sustainable dining

Thou Shalt Not Overfish
Given that the movement is still young, the definition of sustainable dining is still dependent on individual chef’s ethos and food philosophy. For Manu Chandra, chef-partner, Toast & Tonic, The Fatty Bao and Monkey Bar, it is about giving back to the planet. “Sustainability is not to be confused with organic.


Millennial India is slowly and steadily advocating sustainable dining

The ecosystem needs to keep replenishing itself. However, the way we are eating is allowing for anything but that. We are overfishing, over-foraging, over-farming,” he says. There is a constant attempt to bring certain foods in vogue and over-consume them. According to the Chandra, the biggest victims have been the fish. “Over fishing has led to a point of no return for a lot of species,” he says. It is for this reason that he works with vendors from Kochi, who fish only in certified waters.

Millennial India is slowly and steadily advocating sustainable dining

Chef Chandra of Toast & Tonic gets his catch from vendors who fish only in certified waters

According to Know Your Fish, a voluntary initiative that encourages consumers to eat seafood responsibly and adopt an ocean-friendly lifestyle, 90% of the world’s fisheries are now fully exploited or have collapsed. It is to remedy this that the ITC Hotels has become India’s first participant in World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Choose Wisely programme aimed at promoting informed choices on fish consumption.

WWF has designed visual indicators — red (endangered), orange (declining) and green (healthy)— to help customers. The ITC Hotels has taken this a step further by eliminating the red species from its kitchen.

Millennial India is slowly and steadily advocating sustainable dining

Smoked Cochin Mackerel at Chandra’s Toast & Tonic

Know Your Fish has come up with an ocean-sensitive seafood calendar for India’s west coast, which has caught the eye of many chefs. A team of researchers has listed the months best to eat fish and the ones to avoid. The team requests consumers to spare the fish during the breeding season and when they are young. For instance, according to available literature, most of the breeding for king fish takes place between October and November, so it is suggested that one avoid eating it in these two months.

Besides adhering to such guidelines, there are certain internal checks that chefs follow when choosing the right kind of producers. They visit the facilities often and examine the soil, seeds and growing practices. Manish Sharma, executive chef, The Oberoi, Gurgaon, makes sure that they “choose crops well-suited for their local growing conditions, minimise use of synthetic pesticides, and avoid groundwater for irrigation”. Sharma is drawn to passionate first-generation entrepreneurs and small farms who are innovative.

Millennial India is slowly and steadily advocating sustainable dining

ITC Hotels is part of Choose Wisely programme that promotes informed fish consumption

His key vendors include First Agro from Karnataka for lettuce, tomatoes and vegetables; butternut squash from Offering Farms in Pune, mushrooms from Swadeshi Mushrooms, Delhi, quail and chicken from French Farms, Gurgaon, and cheese from Spotted Cow in Mumbai.

Tree-to-Bar Chocolate
Karthikeyan Palaniswamy of Regal Chocolates claims to be India’s first tree-to-bar chocolate maker. “Bean-to-bar is a huge trend in the US. As part of that, chocolate makers source their beans from a separate farm. We breed our own trees, hence are completely in control of the chocolate-making process, from the growing to the fermentation of beans and the tempering of the chocolate bar,” he says. This single-origin chocolate is made in a group of farms spread across 220 acres, nestled at the foothills of the Annamalai range, where sustainable practices of permaculture and aquaculture are followed. Only indigenous breeds of cattle, zebu, are used to manage the land.

Millennial India is slowly and steadily advocating sustainable dining

Palaniswamy, together with his brother-inlaw Manoj, came up with this idea nearly three years ago. The duo visited cacao farms in Vietnam and Cambodia, and with bean-to-bar chocolate makers in the US, to get a better understanding of the processes and finally set up a fermentation facility. “It has taken us 18 to 20 months to put everything together. We came up with baking bars, Regal, last year and then in February this year, we launched edible bars called Soklet,” he says. The brand has added another laurel to its hat. At the International Chocolate Awards 2017, Dubai-based chocolate brand, Mirzam, won a silver medal for its single-origin 62% bar made using Regal’s beans. “This is the first time that an Indian bean has won such an accolade,” says Palaniswamy. Today, he works with Toast & Tonic, The Fatty Bao, Olive Beach as well as bakeries such as Bliss in Delhi, besides supplying beans to bean-to-bar makers in the US and the Middle East.

Amaranth Beats Quinoa
Yet another key player in the sustainable food movement is Delhi-based Original Indian Table, cofounded by Puneet Jhajharia and Ishira Mehta, which gets indigenous ingredients straight from farmers to restaurants. A former venture capitalist, Jhajharia started in 2013 by visiting farmers in 20 states to help them market their produce efficiently, and thereby raise their incomes. “We realised that farmers were consuming sustainable food such as millets and amaranth, but there was hardly any market out there,” he says.

Millennial India is slowly and steadily advocating sustainable dining

Regal brings out tree-to-bar chocolates from its 220-acre cocoa orchard

However, the past two to three years have brought about a change in consumer behaviour. With an epidemic of lifestyle diseases, people want to eat healthy and are looking for the right options. “We are trying to bridge that gap between farmers and consumers. We work with 20 farmer groups from Ladakh, Uttarakhand, West Bengal and Kerala and more to supply to restaurants such as AnnaMaya at Andaz in Delhi’s Aerocity, ITC Hotels, Olive Beach, the Park Group, The Bombay Canteen and the Leela. We also retail in spaces such as Foodhall,” says Jhajharia. The hope is that as the business scales up, it will have a direct impact on the number of farmers growing these varieties and they will get the price they deserve. In the past couple of years, he has seen demand for black rice from Bengal shoot up, so much so that they ran out of stock last year. “Amaranth has also seen a gradual pick-up, as it is more nutritious than quinoa. Another interesting product is timur, which is akin to Sichuan pepper and grows in Uttarakhand. Chef Alex Moser uses it beautifully in a lamb dish at AnnaMaya,” he says.

Moser (in pic below) has carved out a name for himself for creating AnnaMaya, a European food hall that inspires guests to “Eat Mindful. Shop Artisanal. Raise Awareness”.

Millennial India is slowly and steadily advocating sustainable dining

“While sourcing a product, I go by the AnnaMaya ideology of Made in India as all products have to be produced in the country, must have a socially inspiring story behind the business execution and their current business module must be socially relevant in order to help communities and their respective environments,” says Moser. His producers range from Artisan Palate for flavoured, natural Himalayan Pink Salt, Devbhumi for Himalayan honey, Original Indian Table for timur, bhangjeera salt, bamboo rice and amaranth flour, Luvin Paryani for bean-to-bar chocolate, and more. “I go according to the suppliers’ produce, what is grown by them at what time and the quantity of their production. My menu is designed and redone according to seasonal deliveries,” says Moser.

This is a philosophy that is followed by chef Paul Kinny of 212 All Good in Mumbai and Gresham Fernandes, culinary director of Riyaaz Amlani’s Impresario Handmade Restaurants as well. Both try to look for local alternatives of high quality, if and when possible. For instance, for adzuki beans and miso, Kinny taps the small Japanese community in Uttarakhand, which produces these. Fernandes even makes his balsamic vinegar from scratch using local produce such as beetroot juice and local port wine. “In Mumbai, we try and source everything from Bandra, except for fish, which we get from seafood specialist Off The Hook. Our cheese comes from Kodaikanal,” he says. Kinny works closely with Bhatia of Vrindavan Farm for moringa leaves and tendli. “People usually get pickled gherkins from France. But in Mumbai, we get the tendli, which has a similar texture. Why not look inwards?” he asks.

Bhatia is all praise for the team at 212 All Good for presenting sustainable produce in a fun way. The team has even sourced ingredients such as hibiscus, green pepper and gentian roots from her to make their bitters inhouse. “We grow local mulberry, which is smaller than the one available in the market, and then dehydrate it. So, when Tanai Shirali, mixologist from 212, comes to me and says let me make gin with it, it’s quite exciting. We can offer the produce and knowledge, but chefs need to present that to the consumers in a fun and innovative way,” she says.

Some hotels and restaurants are taking the sustainability movement beyond the produce as well. For instance, ITC is the only hotel chain to introduce at its establishments zero-miletravelled water in glass bottles to reduce plastic waste. At 11 of its hotels, leftover oils from the kitchens are shared with companies engaged in generating biofuels through oil. Fernandes too is looking at eliminating plastic — cups, takeaway packets — from his restaurants by year-end and is looking at working with bamboo and banana alternatives.

Millennial India is slowly and steadily advocating sustainable dining

Tossed garden vegetables at AnnaMaya

Of course, these endeavours come with their share of challenges. “At this point of time, I don’t think restaurants can work entirely with sustainable produce. There are organic suppliers in the market, but one doesn’t know how reliable the certification process is, unlike in the US where this space is more regulated,” says Gauri Devidayal, cofounder of the Colaba restaurant The Table. So she gets produce from her own farm in Alibaug as she knows the seeds and soil. “It’s heartening to see that restaurants are trying to bring about a positive change, but consumers are still a bit hesitant in paying a premium price for the food. Logistics are still an issue as cold storage transportation is next to nonexistent,” she says. Her thoughts are echoed by Fernandes, who feels that customers want standardised products. “Now apple and celery vinegar made from local produce in Mumbai would taste very different from the one in Delhi because of the difference in bloom and terroir, but people want standardisation. Hence, this can be done for standalone restaurants, but is difficult to replicate for chains,” he says.

Millennial India is slowly and steadily advocating sustainable dining

Chef Kinny of 2121 All Good

Price parity is not applicable in most cases where sustainable dining is concerned. The output is far superior, from a qualitative perspective, but is a fraction of industrial produce from a quantitative point of view.

Millennial India is slowly and steadily advocating sustainable dining

Adzuki bean from a small Japanese community in Uttarakhand

It is this scenario of high demand and low supply that leads to most people opting for massproduced goods. Sustainable practices are difficult simply because there are just so many mouths to feed. “But this is not a hollow pipe dream,” says Chandra. “We are not a 100% sustainable restaurant yet, but now there are suppliers who are bringing about a change and are happy to be supplying to establishments.”

Source: Economic Times

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