With a well-rounded model of local sourcing, responsible dining, and zero waste, movers and shakers of the Indian F&B industry are taking small but steady steps towards a sustainable future. By Rashima Nagpal & Sushmita Srivastav
A few years ago, phrases like ‘farm-to-fork’ and ‘nose-to-tail’ quietly entered the Indian culinary lexicon, picked their spots, and put down their roots. Sustainable gastronomy quickly became à la mode; the culinary glitterati picked up on the trend with haste and restaurants soon followed suit, sprinkling every course with a feel-good greenness. What was then a thin yet persistent buzz in the room has now blown up into a movement, ever since COVID-19 hit the industry.
Source It Right
India may be the second-largest food producer in the world, but it ranks 33rd among the 67 countries on the Food Sustainability Index 2018. The fact that urbanisation has been pushing farms further away from towns doesn’t help either. Then there’s the obsession with imported ingredients that not only increases the food’s carbon footprint but also forces Indian farmers to grow ‘exotic’ variants by overusing chemicals and pesticides. However, all is not lost yet.
A new league of farmers, chefs, and industry leaders are working on bringing local, seasonal, and organic ingredients back into the game, while some others have been advocating sustainable sourcing long before ‘go local’ became a trend. Multiple award-winning chef Sabyasachi Gorai (aka Chef Saby), for instance, comes from a family of farmers and has been conscious of the beneﬁts of sustainable sourcing for over 20 years now. “We have farms in Sunderbans and Dimapur, and I go back to West Bengal every year during the harvest season to handpick produce. It’s regional, it’s healthy, and it saves cost,” he explains.
Along with chefs Megha Kohli and Anahita Dhondy, Chef Saby is a part of Chefs’ Manifesto, an online community by SDG2 (Sustainable Development Goal 2) Advocacy Hub. This community has over 30 chefs from 38 countries who work in different ways towards the same goals: end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture by 2030.
The menus at Chef Radhika Khandelwal’s Delhi restaurants, Fig & Maple and Ivy & Bean, are always a bunch of loose sheets—they highlight hyper-seasonal ingredients, and the dishes are constantly changing. “We are an ingredient-focused space, which means that we do everything in our power to source and use local, seasonal, and lesser-known indigenous ingredients. For us, it is not enough that we only use what is in the season but also equally important to know where it is coming from,” says Khandelwal, who works directly with farmers, small scale producers, and specialist growers.
Meanwhile, a revolution is brewing in home kitchens too. Health-conscious millennials living in metropolitan cities are turning to local farmer markets and urban farms for groceries. One can also witness a segment of ‘elite farmers’ cropping up in India. Names like Tijara Organic Farm in Rajasthan, The Prodigal Farms in Noida, Krishi Cress in Delhi, and SRC Farms outside Kolkata come to mind. Delhi-based farming initiative Krishi Cress has become the go-to place to get locally grown exotic vegetables, microgreens, and edible flowers, for professional and home chefs alike. Founded by culinary graduate Achintya Anand in 2014, it works with 20 farmer groups across the country, and in tandem with brands like Foodhall, ITC Hotels, Olive Beach, The Park Group of Hotels, The Bombay Canteen, and Andaz Delhi. On the other hand, Hyperpure is a mainly B2B food vertical by Zomato that offers single-vendor supplies of local produce and eco-friendly packaging material.
The demand for gourmet dishes made from local ingredients may have spiked in India, but this wasn’t the case when brothers Prateeksh and Agnay Mehra started The Spotted Cow Fromagerie in Mumbai in 2014. There was still a lacuna for artisanal cheese in the Indian market. “India had almost become a dumping ground for mediocre and expired dairy products from abroad, and we wished to change the scenario. We knew that with the quality of milk here, we do not need to be dependent on imports for gourmet cheese,” Prateeksh Mehra says. Today, their creamery produces its own variants of 100 per cent vegetarian handmade cheeses in small batches and caters to over 60 restaurants across India.
While sourcing locally is a step in the right direction, the onus of choosing sustainable eateries is on the consumer. For restaurants that cater to hundreds of people on a daily basis, this consumer choice is a decisive factor. AnnaMaya at Andaz Delhi takes its agenda of sustainability seriously. At its heart is the philosophy, ‘Eat Mindful. Shop Artisanal. Raise Awareness’. “Everything we use in the restaurant is made in India and sourced from our numerous artisan partners including Darima Farms, Umang, Origin Table, Malabar Secret, etc. Like many European food halls, interesting artisanal produce and items are also available for sale at the restaurant,” shares Vikram Ganpule, the executive chef at the hotel.
At Fig & Maple, all recipes are born out of a conscious practise of using every part of the produce. “The Skinny Chippin’ is a bar snack that is chips made of peels of most vegetables. We use watermelon rind as a relish on all our burgers and jackfruit seeds for hummus. The odds and ends of vegetables go in making our master stock,” Khandelwal explains. Some of these innovations have even made it to the bestsellers list of the restaurant.
Bikash Parik’s entrepreneurial venture in Bengaluru, Green Theory, is a nine-year-old vegetarian restaurant that is as popular for its eco-friendly architecture as for its food. It has been designed by Made in Earth, a Bengaluru-based architecture studio that promotes elemental, sustainable design. “We restored a colonial bungalow using natural ingredients. It’s a small space, but we’ve made it as green as possible—it has 800-plus plants around it. Twenty to 30 per cent of the energy comes from solar power. One of our ceilings has 100 LED bulbs, but each amounts to only 0.5 watts, so it is aesthetic and sustainable at the same time,” reveals Parik.
Whatever the trend that was previously bubbling, it didn’t matter much after March 2020. The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns upended the table. While conventional dine-in methods have suffered, concepts such as takeaways, home deliveries, and cloud kitchens are at an advantage. But even in such times, sustainability must be factored in. On one hand, the energy consumption of a cloud kitchen is much lower than a full-fledged restaurant.
On the other hand, each meal delivery comes with a large carbon footprint. Chef Amninder Sandhu, who shot to fame with Arth, the first gas-free restaurant in India, launched a cloud kitchen, Iktara, in February. With the unprecedented lockdown, it turned out to be a serendipitous move. Aware of the fact that sending food on a motorbike doesn’t fit into the sustainability mould, Sandhu tries to compensate with other healthy practices. “We have a farm, where we grow some of our vegetables. Our packaging is biodegradable—we use cornstarch containers. In my tandoor, I use bio-charcoal, and my menu is around seasonal produce,” she tells us. Moreover, with a delivery-based model, she doesn’t have to deal with food wastage, which brings us to our final hurdle.
The Road To Zero
According to the Global Hunger Index 2019, India’s situation is grim, standing at rank 102 out of 117 qualifying countries. As millions sleep on an empty stomach, food worth thousands of crores goes to waste every year.
Non-profit organisations like Zomato Feeding India and The Robin Hood Army are trying to weed out both food wastage and hunger at once, with the help of restaurants and a vast network of volunteers. Aarushi Batra, who co-founded The Robin Hood Army with Neel Ghose, started off small, distributing 150 food packets in Delhi late one night in 2014. Today, the volunteers or ‘robins’ of the zero-profit organisation distribute 3,00,000 meals per week across 180 cities in 10 countries. They feed around 35,000 people in India daily and have fed over 36 million people around the world since they started. “It feels amazing when you step out to help the community and people join you without expecting anything in return. Over 58,000 robins have been running different city chapters and driving campaigns. We have served seven million people during COVID-19 with just one-tenth of our strength,” Batra says proudly. RHA is all set to launch its #Mission30M campaign that seeks to serve 30 million people over a month, starting in July.
The government, too, is doing its bit. In 2018, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) came up with an initiative, Repurpose Used Cooking Oil aka RUCO, to collect used cooking oil from eateries and use it to produce biodiesel. FSSAI aims at utilising 220 crore litres of this to produce eco-friendly fuel by 2022.
On the other hand, many regional brands are now coming up with a circular economy model. Kocoatrait is the world’s first zero-waste, eco-friendly, and vegan chocolate brand. Launched by L Nitin Chordia last year, it not only offers business opportunities to local organic-cocoa farmers in South India but also ensures sustainable usage of each ingredient. “Our zero-waste packaging, with no paper or plastic, is made up of upcycled material that we collect from cotton garment factories and mix with the husk of the cocoa bean after roasting. Plus, we opt for screen-printing, which is a zero electricity-consumption process and is done at an institute that employs physically disabled people. For us, inclusiveness is a great part of sustainability,” says Chordia. Since its launch, the bean-to-bar chocolate brand has prevented 50 kilograms of single-use chocolate wrappers from polluting landfills.
Sustainability isn’t the easiest fight to take on, especially in a world broken by a pandemic. But it might just be our most significant one.