Geographies in Depth

How ancient ingredients and revamped recipes are rewriting India's food future

How can we diversify our dinner plates to create a resilient and sustainable food system? Image: Triv.rao/Wikimedia Commons

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Just 12 crops of the 30,000 edible plants found in nature and five animal species account for more than 80% of our calorie intake today. This alarming narrowing of choice is why we at Food Forever advocate for more diversity on our dinner plates.

On 4 October 2019, an international audience will gather in Delhi for a sneak preview into the future of sustainable food. The Food Forever Initiative is organizing a side-event at the World Economic Forum’s India Economic Summit focused on one of the event’s four themes, “The New Ecological System: Food, Environment and Climate Change”. Three trailblazing chefs – Megha Kohli, Radhika Khandelwal and Vanshika Bhatia – will set the table at the 30-minute session, while a fourth, Anahita Dhondy, will guide participants through the menus of the future.

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All are part of the 2020 for 2020 movement, a collaboration between the Food Forever Initiative and the Chef’s Manifesto that calls on chefs from around the world to broaden our palates as a contribution to Sustainable Development Goal Target 2.5 and maintaining the genetic diversity of our crops and livestock.

The jackfruit joker

The specialities in the limelight this week aren’t futuristic fancies, nor are they obscure superfoods outside of the culinary mainstream; in some form or the other, they have always been in the Indian pantry. Radhika Khandelwal, Chef-Partner at Radish Hospitality, knows this well and is a champion of the versatile jackfruit, which goes as well in curry as it does in ice cream. “For the first 12 years of my life my vegetarian parents successfully conned me into believing that I was eating meat biryani when they were actually serving me jackfruit biryani,” she recalls.

A farmer holding lemons sits in front of a stall selling jackfruits at a wholesale vegetable market on the outskirts of the eastern Indian city of Kolkata June 21, 2008.The rising prices of food and imported fuel are pushing inflation in many parts of Asia to their highest in a decade, weakening trade and budget balances and complicating monetary policy. REUTERS/Parth Sanyal  (INDIA) - GM1E46L1MBC01
A farmer holding lemons sits in front of a stall selling jackfruits on the outskirts of Kolkata Image: REUTERS/Parth Sanyal

This giant fruit, which grows in thick clusters on thin-limbed trees, has long been a favourite of rural people for whom it is a cheap and tasty plant-based alternative to meat. It’s easy to grow, drought and pest resistant, and extremely nutritious, with high potassium, calcium and iron content. Khandelwal sources jackfruit from a small-scale farmer in South India, and rigorously implements a zero-waste policy in her kitchen, whose jackfruit burgers are a hit. She’s just heard that you can make a caffeine-free drink out of jackfruit seeds, so look out for a “jaffee” soon.

Hemp heaven

The association between hemp and its more unruly cousin marijuana has sullied the reputation of the former as a foodstuff, at least in some quarters. However, this ancient Ayurvedic dietary tradition may be due for a revival. The nutty and buttery seeds of the industrial hemp plant – the same plant used to make textiles and rope – have much lower concentrations of the psychotropic agent THC and high levels of omega-3 and six fatty acids, fibre, protein and iron.

Megha Kohli is Head Chef at Lavaash by Saby, one of the only Armenian restaurants in India, and is determined to revive near-extinct dishes that include hemp seed. During a campaign run by her restaurant last month, she was delighted to hear people talking nostalgically about the hemp seed dishes they used to eat as children. As a chef, she recognizes the power she has to reverse such trends by sourcing hemp seed from local farmers in Uttarakhand (North India), promoting old dishes and creating entirely new ones. Kohli’s favourite is lentil and hemp seed vegan meatballs in a hemp seed and yellow chilli curry.

Millet for Millennials

“Millennials are keen on exotic crops,” muses Anahita Dhondy, Chef-Partner at SodaBottleOpenerWala. “It’s not cool anymore to be eating millet.” But this staple crop has been around for, yes, millennia and, as Anahita explains, there are many types – foxtail, kodo, finger, pearl, barnyard – all different, all nutritious, all delicious.

A farmer works in his millet farm in Kanati village, near Ahmedabad September 16, 2009. REUTERS/Amit Dave (INDIA AGRICULTURE EMPLOYMENT BUSINESS) - GM1E59G1NAK01
A farmer works in his millet farm in Kanati village, near Ahmedabad Image: REUTERS/Amit Dave

It’s Dhondy’s mission to make it easy for young people to tap the heritage that millets represent: “Many people think millet takes a long time to cook, so I do a lot of recipes online where I showcase how it can be used. My favourite dish is probably an upcycled, warm millet salad, where I just toss together what’s in season and what’s in my fridge.” Old doesn’t have to mean uncool.

Beyond dal

Lentils are far from neglected in Indian cuisine – but no one could call the generic dal soup that dominates online recipe sites exciting. Lentils are too often associated with bland nutrition rather than taste. But this need not be the case, according to Chef Vanshika Bhatia, who runs Together at 12th – lentils come in all sizes and colours, not to mention tastes.

One of Bhatia’s signature dishes is a navrangi dal (a motley mix of nine lentils and beans), cooked simply with onion, tomato, cumin and coriander. But lentils, with their smooth, malleable textures, work equally well in desserts. Moong dal, for instance, makes an excellent halwa-like pudding.


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Bhatia says she is eager to elevate lentils from side-kick to hero. But farmers around the world already know their super-powers. Their ability to draw down atmospheric nitrogen into the soil allows crop rotation with cereals without the need to add chemical fertilizers.

New plating for a new era

With every new food we create for plates and palates or old food we welcome back, we weave one more strand in the tapestry of a resilient and sustainable food system. These four “old-new” products, championed by four exciting young chefs, give us a sense of a food future that reaches deep into the past. Food Forever’s event at the World Economic Forum’s India Economic Summit aims to inspire us all to reconsider how we live on and with this planet and how we approach perhaps the most fundamental human activity of all – cooking.

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Geographies in DepthFood and WaterIndustries in Depth
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