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VOGUE FEATURE: Indigenous Indian produce is dying, and this is how we're to blame

Forget organic foods, ingredients from our own backyards can promote a far more sustainable and healthier way of eating. But commercial agriculture and our own obsession with the next cool superfood pose a threat to a category of produce that is almost nearly extinct

Featured in Vogue India, 1 Sept 2019 
by Sonal Ved

© Shutterstock

We hit the organic food market in the hood as soon as we need to replenish veggies. Fortunately in the last few years, the availability of organic produce has become simpler, with one popping up in every neighbourhood, at least in Mumbai, almost every Sunday.

In our utopian world, eating organic fruits, veggies, grains, flours and spices should solve everything, including bigger world problems like climate change. After all, the concept is more accessible and easier to grasp than the wonderful complexity of indigenous Indian ingredients. In a recent experiment conducted in a tribal school in Maharashtra’s Mokhara village, the students were given three paper plates—one to draw out what their grandfathers’ ate, one to draw out what their fathers’ ate and the third one to sketch what they ate. The children filled their own plates with a mix of potatoes, capsicum, cabbage and cauliflower, making their plate starkly different from their forefathers’, which had a healthy combination of over 56 ingredients, some of which don’t even grow in the region anymore. So what exactly are moras, kantola and shevla? Where do you even find them, and why should you be eating them anyway?

Conservation efforts

Sailesh Awade, co-founder of OOO Farms, which works extensively to conserve indigenous varieties of edibles, says, “Some of this wisdom is lost forever; we don’t know what these species were!” Awade, who started off as an avid trekker, has observed changes in the landscape over the years while walking into thick Maharashtrian hills and forests. “We discovered that agriculture was one of the reasons for deforestation, and you can’t stop agriculture. We felt the urge to understand why the tribals were investing their time and land in rearing paddy fields. This was a development in the last 15 years,” he says. This was probably the first time in history, that tribals were growing and selling rice, thereby remarkably changing the biodiversity of the land and they own diets.

Echoing his sentiments, Aruna Tirkey, founder of Ajam Emba, a restaurant in Jharkhand that predominantly works with indigenous ingredients, says, “Tribal food is going out from our lives; the rural dwellers themselves have no access to it.” She agrees that if there is no effort to conserve in a few years, a lot more species of plants and edibles will go extinct. The words ajam emba translate to ‘delicious food’ for the Oraom tribe of Jharkhand, but Tirkey’s aim is to not just make delicious food. It is also to educate the diner about their medicinal and micro nutrient value.

Around one million animal and plant species are now threatened to go extinct, according to a landmark UN report that came out in May 2019. Holistic health practitioner Sumitra Daswani, founder of Born From The Earth, aims to get the word out. She extensively works with women from rural Tamil Nadu to ethically forage and sustainably produce herbal products using indigenous plants in order to conserve traditional knowledge. “The rise of the superfood trend means that lesser-known species are vanishing quickly due to over-cultivation of popular crops, monoculture farming and habitat loss. We also stand to lose out on ancient, human culture, as the recipes and rituals that go along with them slowly become extinct too,” she says.

Daswani is working to develop uses for crops such as spade flower, bakula, which helps expel parasites and cools off; and nannari root, which is known for its strengthening and detoxifying properties. Tirkey has also conserved a type of indigenous rice called gondli, along with ragi millet, ghangra, a type of dal called chakod, seasonal monsoon greens and brahmi, a leaf commonly used in Ayurveda till now. Whereas Awade and his co-founders have revived at least 14 varieties of local rice, such as akole kalbhat and raibhoj and greens and vegetables like gharbande, fatangadi and akar ghode—which, if left to urban farmers, might have gone extinct. He has also been distributing chemical-free and native seeds, promoting the greens at local farmers market in Dadar via food trucks, and creating offline awareness with pop-ups at restaurants and club kitchens in the city.

Making indigenous Indian ingredients popular

Just the way Bollywood plays a big role in popularising everything from ripped jeans to golden hoops, getting indigenous ingredients to mainstream restaurants is the most obvious ways to appropriate it. One such attempt was made by The Bombay Canteen via a pop-up called ‘A Taste of the Wild festival’, showcasing wild foods from rural Maharashtra.

One talk from Canteen Class, a series of monthly talks that TBC conducts on trending subjects in food like seafood sustainability, the role of the honey bees, plant-forward alternatives for the future and so on, focused on the importance of indigenous ingredients. Helmed by Triple O Farms, this one had speakers discussing the conservation of wild ingredients from the Western Ghats, followed by a market where visitors could buy these ingredients. The restaurant even threw their kitchen open to villagers from Akole and Jawhar (Harishchandragad forest reserve), so they could cook dishes using these ingredients. “They mostly sauté veggies in garlic and onion. And these included tera leaves, chaicha deth or wild asparagus, akalghoda, teuda, mohua,” says chef Thomas Zacharia, who followed this community-style meal with a series of dishes curated by him and his team. The Bombay Canteen has been promoting ingredients like phodshi or mulshi by turning it into a salad of peanuts, dressed in red chili and kasundi dressing, moras (sea purslane) rolled into falafel bullets; shevla (dragon stalk yam) crusted with peanuts and served with caramelised kakad murabba and so on.

A similar endeavour was also undertaken by The St Regis Mumbai, who recently hosted the ‘Naga Heritage’ at Seven Kitchens, a food festival showcasing ingredients such as wild pepper, roselle, a tropical plant called napa, and a variety of wild lemon basil and tree tomatoes—making indigenous Indian ingredients the talk of the town.

In a bid to eat healthy and on trend, we may be consuming superfood powders, veggies and fruits that may be loaded with vitamins and antioxidants, but have taken over a few months to get to us, and have massive carbon footprints. It is important to question if that’s what we really need, or are these humble and often neglected ingredients from our own backyards the more sensible choice.

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