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When nature calls, they get set, grow



Fleshy green avocado for your Avo Toast. Delicate pink oyster mushrooms for your butter garlic stir fries, piquant, umami capers and crunchy, micro-greens with a bite to add that sass to any dish. South India is teeming with family-run businesses and small, local producers who are growing everything — from seedless Italian lemons to blooming mushrooms in terrace flats and raising rows of baby radish greens via hydroponics. And all these growers are finding a thriving market right here in the city — not just at restaurants, but even at homes.

While artisan sourdough bread, sparkling kombuchas, purple corn and gourmet cheeses have already been in circulation for a few years now, food entrepreneurs of Bengaluru are always looking to make our dinner tables, a little bit more exciting. And they are all consciously staying away from mass produced and processed goods. Most of their produce are an attempt at inching towards a farm to table or farm to fork experience and we are overjoyed. What a time to be alive!

Mushrooms with magic

Former lawyer Namrata Goenka was always passionate about food and wanted to understand how to grow it and where it comes from. Shifting base to Bengaluru from Delhi led to her moving into an apartment with a terrace where she started growing herbs and vegetable patches. After having a son, Goenka was reluctant to go back to her day job and started looking for business options, something she could do from home. She came across a course on mushroom cultivation being taught at ICAR – Indian Institute of Horticultural Research, Hesaraghatta, and enrolled herself. During the course she learnt that there were so many varieties of mushrooms beyond the usual button versions. Mushrooms are fuss-free and don’t require too much space to grow; and because they grow vertically so there is no pressure on the land. They grow on agricultural waste such as compost, paddy straw and sawdust. “For me, this seemed like a sustainable practice, growing something from waste into a healthy produce high in protein,” says Goenka.

She first started growing mushrooms on her terrace. Depending on Goenka’s harvest, you can expect mushrooms such as the elm oyster, pink oyster, king oyster and shiitake. Goenka also offers dried jackfruit, amlas, organically grown Bengal black rice, fragrant Gobindo Bhog rice and nolen gur (smokey palm jaggery).

Inspired by life

Living Food Company (LFC) co-founder and CEO Akash Sajith’s mother and father were both diagnosed with cancer in May 2014 and March 2018. He wondered how his non-smoking, vegetarian parents could get cancer. A deep dive into cancer research revealed that soil in India could be one of the major causes for this fatal disease because of ground water being polluted by carcinogenic substances. “In Karnataka, the cropping patterns have altered over the last 30 years to move away from Ragi and other millets that grow exceedingly well in dry, arid areas. Instead, the cultivation of water-intensive crops that deplete water resources as well as nutrients in soil has increased. For example, the area under sugarcane cultivation in Karnataka has increased by five times in the last 25 years. Research has shown that sugarcane has adverse effects on the nutrition profile of soil and contributes significantly to soil degradation. This coupled with indiscriminate and unregulated use of pesticides is severely affecting the ground water and soil contamination levels. During 2016-17, Indians consumed close to 57,000 MT of chemical pesticides through food, including those that have been banned in other countries (source: Ministry of Agriculture data),” says Akash.

Because of soil contamination issues, no local seeds have been used. Instead non-GMO kale seeds from the US, arugula from Europe, mizuna (Japanese mustard greens) from Japan, Chinese kai lan (Chinese broccoli) and 22 kinds of micro-greens comprise their inventory. Restaurants such as the Fatty Bao, Sly Granny, Sanchez and hotels like Shangri-La and Hilton have signed up as part of the B2B format.

The micro-greens and herbs are grown in climate-controlled rooms in hydroponic pods; instead of soil the seeds are grown on recycled choir mats on a base of water.

Avocados, lemons and more

Coffee plantation and eco retreat Kerehaklu is here to help with not one but seven kinds of avocado. Pranoy Thipaiah’s grandfather first started Kerehaklu, primarily a coffee plantation, in 1953. A 270-acre estate that also offers four eco cabins, the plantation grows alternative crops such as avocados, Italian lemons, litchis and mulberries. According to Thipaiah (who is managing partner along with his father and brother), the avocado season is between June and October and he harvests every two weeks. “The idea is to switch to a farm-to-table system as much as possible and to stop relying on imported stuff when we have excellent avocados (locally called butterfruit), oranges, and litchis of superior quality coming from Ooty, Chikmagalur and Kodaikanal,” says Thipaiah. To that end, he has been supplying to Bengaluru restaurants and individuals via orders on Whatsapp and Instagram for the last 18 months or so.

While an imported avocado at gourmet supermarkets can cost Rs 300 or more, Thipaiah says good local varieties are easily available at Malleswaram and Russell Market for less. Kerehaklu grows seven different kinds with origins in Guatemala and Mexico: Pinkerton, Hall, Reed, Zutano, Fuerte, Choquette and Gwen. The avocado trees were planted as shade trees, 40 years ago, by Thipaiah’s grandfather to provide shade to coffee bushes. Thipaiah realised that there was a demand for avocados in Bengaluru and he could supply his farm’s produce. Apart from avocados, the estate also grows seedless Italian lemons, Devanahalli pomelos (local name chakkota), and limited quantities of shahtoot mulberries. The pomelos come with a thick rind and a sweet and slightly bitter-sweet pink, juicy flesh — perfect for Thai salads than juicing. He is also experimenting with oyster mushrooms, mango ginger and fresh turmeric. To get your stash, look out for the harvest information on Kerehaklu’s Instagram page and order (on a first come first serve basis). Thipaiah drives down the produce himself to Bengaluru and you can pick it up from him or Dunzo it. Kerehaklu also does regular pop-ups around the city. Though Bengaluru restaurants and individuals are his main clientele, he also has supplied to restaurants in Delhi and Jaipur.

From the neighbouring state
Though not Bengaluru-based, Tamil Nadu’s Ishka Farms delivers capers cured in brine, in sea salt, caperberries in brine, Tuticorin sea salt, caper salt and shade-dried moringa leaves turned into moringa powder to the city regularly. Founded by KN Suryanarayan, whose legacy business is photographic equipment and office products in Cochin, Ishka farms, run by his son Srikant Suryanarayan (managing director) and wife Fiona Arakal (director) was an attempt to branch out into something different. The family invested in buying a tract of barren land in 2012 in Niravi Pudhupatti village in Tuticorin district, Tamil Nadu. “The area was drought prone and at that time there had been no monsoon for seven years,” says Arakal. “So we needed to zero in on a crop that would not be rain-fed and did not need a lot of water.”

The duo did not want to grow the usual tomatoes or gherkins which everyone else was doing at that time and wanted something that could grow with the Israeli method of drip irrigation (run water through drip lines instead of flooding land in water). In terms of creative marketplace, no one was growing capers, although in parts of India like Gujarat and Rajasthan they do grow wild and are also consumed widely. But those kinds are thorny and hard to grow and cultivate, points out Arakal. “Our capers are from the same plant family but are cultivable spineless, easier to harvest,” she says. Because the gastronomy choices in our country have begun to change, according to Arakal, there is a possibility for capers to become big because currently there aren’t even many organic certified caper farms in the world, forget India. Morocco, Yemen and Dubai can collectively account for the current caper supply to the world.

Having access to local, chemical free gourmet produce does away with those expensive trips to supermarkets. So ditch those expensive imported Thai pomelos, Peru avocados and Moroccan capers and embrace what is fresh and grown locally.

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