Sustainable fishing, ethical farming and conscious cooking have transformed into serious lifestyle choices. From home cooks to chefs to entrepreneurs, a breed of food activists will change how we eat
Ganesh Nakhawa looks worried as he leads me through Mumbai's Sassoon Docks. Over the last few years, he has been campaigning aggressively for sustainable fishing, a practice that will pay off in the future but is less lucrative in the short term. "If we don't do it, climate change will ensure there aren't many fish, and eventually not many fisherfolk left," says the 31-year-old, who describes himself as the "last fisherman of Bombay".
There are other fish in the sea
A 2018 report (releasedlast year) by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute states that 50% of all the juvenile by-catch in Maharashtra is found off Mumbai due to the ecologically harmful bottom-trawling technique. Nakhawa is involving his community to avoid juvenile fishing through the use of large mesh nets, and educating them to go beyond the standard catch of pomfret, rawas (Indian salmon), surmai (seer fish) and prawns. "Ethical fishing may be the way forward, but it is challenging to enforce due to regulatory failures, and thanks to drastic weather conditions that are keeping fishermen away from the sea for longer," he says.
Nakhawa has also been part of awareness workshops for restaurants like The Bombay Canteen to promote lesser-known varieties of fish such as the Indian mackeral, cobia and barracuda. He now plans to connect with culinary schools to put the word out to aspiring chefs.
On the east coast in Chennai, marine conservationist Divya Karnad's In Season Fish, an online seafood eating guide, is trying to build a dialogue involving consumers, fishermen and chefs. Last year, they got restaurants Sea Salt in Chennai and Oi-Kitchen & Bar in Mumbai to adhere to their recommendations. She noticed that while urban markets were only asking for select species of fish—pomfret, rawas, Bombay duck—consuming a diverse range of seafood that changed with the season could make a difference in marine conservation. "Our 2020 agenda is to educate the seafood consumer to eat a new variety of fish at least once a month," she says, explaining the online guide has a list of 105 varieties with recommendations for every season.
Preserve the forgotten
In Nagaland, chef Joel Basumatari has sown the seeds of a movement that is now reaping the benefits. He has built model kitchen gardens to encourage indigenous communities to grow local grains and vegetables. As a member of the North East Slow Food & Agrobiodiversity Society, Basumatari is championing slow food as a means of preserving the culinary heritage of the state. "Cooking with local produce is a sign of our ancient civilization, but we rarely value them. It's time for mainstream chefs to focus on the diverse indigenous cuisines of the country and give it the exposure it deserves," says the Dimapur-based chef, who also led Nagaland to join Slow Food International, a global movement that focuses on eating fresh, local and indigenous food. He is also designing and promoting culinary tourism in the region.
Food Forward India (FFI), a similar movement steered by Mumbai-born, Bangkok-based chef Garima Arora, is beginning to see some action. The FFI was initiated last year to focus on preserving traditional culinary wisdom, championing indigenous produce, adopting sustainable means of production and reducing food wastage. The Mumbai chapter managed to establish a platform for the community, which included chefs, food writers and researchers, to engage and support each other. In the next few months, the FFI will go on explorative journeys around the country and connect with local communities to understand and promote the complexity of Indian food. "There's no doubt that these issues should be part of every ministry—from human resources, tourism, education to child and women welfare. It can only happen when we involve the government and the right policymakers," says the Michelin-star chef.
2020 will also beckon home cooks to revive traditional recipes and cook from scratch—practices that are fast disappearing from our kitchens. Dehradun-based nutrition consultant and author Sangeeta Khanna says: "Food in ancient civilizations followed a definite pattern of climate adaptive system. Eating seasonal and from your backyard not only ensures great taste and nourishment, it also helps reduce carbon footprint." Through her Instagram feed (@sangeetaamkhanna), Khanna almost nudges cooks to forage for greens, edible flowers and seeds. She says it inspires people to go beyond spinach and fenugreek and start valuing traditional greens such as roselle leaves, bathua (chenopodium) and khatti buti (wood sorrel). Khanna hopes to make "climate adaptive food" mainstream and fashionable.
Provenance of food
Until a couple of years ago, the Indian farmer had no role to play in the larger scheme of things. But provenance is now becoming key as consumers want to understand how their food is procured. Take coffee, for instance. In attending to each bush and selectively picking the cherries, the Adivasis of Araku Valley in Andhra Pradesh have contributed to the new wave of coffee culture; in the process, the Indian coffee farmer won recognition in Paris at the Prix Epicures OR 2018, a popular award in the French F&B space. "More than 90% of the farmers who have been working with us for over five years are now out of poverty," says Manoj Kumar, founder and CEO of the Naandi Foundation that works with 10,500 farmers in the region. In other words, when it came to a product with several steps of value addition, India's farmer crisis was being addressed.
It is this "bean to cup" story that is winning points with coffee aficionados. After a successful store in Paris, Araku will move beyond the online space to launch its first café in Bengaluru this year. Kumar says it will be an experience centre designed around Araku's vision of conscious consumption.
Similarly, Mumbai-based OOO Farms is rewriting the story of India's wild foods and indigenous grains. "When we saw the havoc that industrial farming had caused in the tribal regions of the Western Ghats, we decided to help villagers create their own seed bank," says co-founder Abhay Bhatia. The team travelled 45,000km in search of heirloom seeds, which were passed on to the villagers for free. Today, it is one of the leading indigenous rice and grain cultivators and retails 34 varieties of rice, simultaneously educating consumers to go beyond kolam and basmati. The change is evident. "We got a lot of flak when we started selling rice at ₹150 a kilogram. Today, consumers are fine buying it for even ₹570," says Bhatia. In 2020, OOO Farms will reach out to school students to create awareness and also work closely with farmers to restore forest land to try and mitigate climate change.
Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based writer.