Tendli, shevla, phodsi, kantola or potol — rarely do we see these desi vegetables on a restaurant menu. However, because of the current pandemic, locally grown vegetables are making a dashing debut. With international, and even national, supply chain networks collapsing under the lockdowns, procuring exotic ingredients has become increasingly difficult. As a result, chefs are exploring local markets to make the best of what is freshly available, thus learning more about indigenous produce, and finding inventive ways to showcase it.
According to Krishna Mckenzie, an Englishman who cultivates a farm settled in Auroville, near Puducherry, the lockdown not only spurred demand for local produce, but also gave him an opportunity to acquire a deeper understanding about vegetables and plants. “All this while I used bananas and its leaves for cooking. But during this lockdown, I learnt how to use banana stems and flowers in my dishes,” he says.
All the fresh produce that he needs in the kitchen comes from his six-acre farm where he grows over 150 varieties of vegetables, fruits and herbs. Every week, his farm sends out vegetable baskets to subscribers, who have steadily been increasing since lockdown began.
Farmers to the chefs
- Achintya Anand started Krishi Cress five years ago, to supply the freshest possible produce to chefs in Delhi-NCR, from his farms in Chhattarpur and Faridabad, be it different types of mustard, different colours in baby carrots, or microgreens. With the renewed interest in local farms, Achintya recently sold his entire 60-kilograms stock of Muzaffarpur shahi lychee despite lockdown. His most popular produce includes salad leaves from farmers in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and watermelon.
- With an aim to provide city dwellers with fresh crops within hours of harvest, Mumbai-based brothers Brian and Benjamin Zehr started Kisano in 2018. Located across 7,000 square feet in two locations near Mumbai, the farm uses hydroponic technology to grow over 50 crop varieties that include 15 types of lettuce and several herbs.
- Bengaluru-based Living Food Company was started by Akash Sajith when he started questioning the nutrition value of the food we consume. The company specialises in growing microgreens like sunflower, red cabbage, pink radish. They also grow supergreens such as curly kale, deer tongue lettuce and green butterhead lettuce.
“Eating local is healthy, both for the human body and the environment. When you order exotic food, it is packed, frozen, shipped and then delivered. Imagine the carbon footprint of that!” he adds.
At the ITC Grand Chola Chennai, Ajit Bangera, senior executive chef, discusses how the chefs are constantly innovating with dishes. He adds, “the present situation has made it all the more imperative to pivot and adapt. So depending on the fresh local produce, our menu changes every day”. The chef and his team at Chennai’s ITC Grand Chola have been catering for the 50 long-stay guests as well as the hotel’s takeaway orders.
“Before the pandemic, I used to craft a menu and after that I would go looking around for ingredients. But now I first visit the vegetable vendors, learn about the seasonal produce and then make a menu based on what is available,” says Jayesh Karande, executive chef at Visakhapatnam’s WelcomHotel Grandbay.
During the lockdown Jayesh accidentally discovered a Telugu variety of palm jaggery called tati bellam in one of the oldest markets in Visakhapatnam. “The jaggery is largely grown in and around Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh. It stands out because it has a hint of coffee flavour. It has now become our obvious choice for most of the desserts. Currently, I am using it generously in our watalappams, a Sri Lankan dessert made with coconut milk, eggs and nutmeg. Had it not been for the lockdown, I would have probably just sourced jaggery from Bengaluru or Hyderabad and never discovered it,” he adds.
When COVID-19 brought life to a standstill, Neelabh Sahay — executive chef of Novotel Kolkata — had no choice but to rely on locally available produce.
“We had to tweak ingredients in common exotic dishes,” says Neelabh. So sushi rice was replaced with Bengal’s gobindo bhog rice, while black beans — which are used extensively in Mexican cuisine — were replaced by Indian kidney beans (rajma). Also, the peppery Le Puy, a classic French preparation, is now made with local masoor chilka dal, instead of the traditional green speckled lentil.
At Bengaluru’s Novotel and Ibis, locally sourced basil leaves has made an entry into the exotic butternut squash ravioli. “Originally, this delicacy was served with fried sage. However due to lockdown, sage is unavailable. Apart from its aroma and flavour, basil also acts as an antioxidant to strengthen the immune system,” says Avijit Deb Sharma, executive chef, Novotel & ibis, Bengaluru.
Thomas Zacharia, executive chef and partner at The Bombay Canteen, has been advocating the use of indigenous produce ever since the opening of his restaurant almost five years ago. The restaurant made a conscious choice to have a menu that is centred around locally grown fruits and vegetables. “The aim — then and now — is to familiarise people with the taste of the land. As the availability of the vegetable changes due to seasons, so does our menu. We change our food every three months to serve the best of what is available in the local markets. We make dishes out of karela (bitter gourd) or lauki (bottle gourd) which are loved by our customers. Till date the restaurant has had 160 local vegetables on the menu,” he adds.
Sticking to indigenous produce is economical too, says Hussain Shahzad, executive chef at O Pedro, The Bombay Canteen’s sister entity. “When you buy seasonal produce, they are cheap as they are available in abundance,” he says. “Also, they are nutritious and fresh as they come from nearby farms.”
(With inputs from Sunalini Mathew)