All the best stories begin like this: the discovery of an old book.
When Akash Muralidharan moved back home to Chennai, after spending years abroad studying food design, he began cleaning up his house. Among the bric a brac, he found a lot of stuff belonging to his grandmother, who passed away in 2006. “There were 3 volumes of a cookbook, ‘Cook and See’ [published in 1951 by Meenakshi Ammal]. It was one of my grandmother’s wedding gifts,” says Akash. He got curious and started reading them only to realise something surprising: he couldn’t recognise a lot of the vegetables mentioned. He had some memories of eating some of them as a child, but he wasn’t used to seeing them around in shops and restaurants, let alone eating them recently. “I started talking with my mom, my friends, everyone. Some of them had nostalgic memories. But no one had a clear idea on why those vegetables had disappeared from India.”
The inspiration to do something came to him from a peculiar place: the blog, book and movie Julie&Julia. The girl who cooked a recipe of Julia Child every day for a year inspired Akash to start a campaign on Instagram to remind people of the existence of the forgotten vegetables and raise awareness about their disappearance. He started with a list of 25 vegetables, and set himself the challenge to cook one each day. Slowly, as he proceeded, there were so many friends and Instagram followers from India who reached out with names of vegetables they thought had been forgotten. After the end of the first month, they had the names of 80 vegetables.
Photo courtesy of Akash Muralidharan
“For example, the Thummatikkai, or ‘country cucumber’ in English. This vegetable was very difficult to source. I could not find it in the city, but the dried version of it was available in rural markets. An eye opening fact was that there were so many vegetables actually growing around us in the city,” says Akash. “Now I know I have a mango, a moringa and a papaya tree just outside my house. I had the same attitude as everyone: fruits and vegetables have to come from a supermarket. But urban foraging is a true possibility everywhere in India.”
According to Akash, chefs have a major role in bringing back those vegetables, in showing people they can be tasty, and maybe in making them ‘fashionable’ again. “Seed banks are great, but who’s gonna use them? Who’s gonna recognise them and know how to cook with them?” he asks.
One chef who is doing an amazing job in celebrating India’s extraordinary biodiversity is Thomas Zacharias of Bombay Canteen. His major epiphany happened at Osteria Francescana: “I was a single diner. Massimo [Bottura] came out to talk with us guests. I expected him to talk about some fancy techniques and instead he started talking about… his grandmother, his regional cuisine,” he says. “And so I realised I had done nothing to learn about Indian food. The food you normally get at a Indian restaurant is a bastardised and standardised version of the food you eat at home. Most Indians eat not more than maybe a dozen or two in their entire life, and they don’t eat seasonally.” In the past few years Zacharias managed to rediscover some 150 vegetables - not including spices or fruits or greens. “Every time I go to the market I’m blown away. There’s something I don’t know. Like the badami aloo, potatoes the shape of almonds, from Assam. Or the gondhoraj Lebu, an aromatic lime from West Bengal. Or the kodampuli, smoke-dried fruit used in seafood curries in Kerala.”
Image courtesy of Akash Muralidharan
Another Indian biodiversity pioneer is Prabhakar Rao, founder of Hariyalee Seeds, a farm that curates species of endangered and heirloom seeds. He collected them from all over India and he managed to stabilise them genetically and environmentally. “I think I saved around 260 varieties of vegetables. Unfortunately, not all of them were able to grow - and some were impossible to find. They can be bought from my website so people can grow them, ” he says, adding that his battle to save endangered species of vegetables could also help in the perspective of a worsening of the climate change.
“We need much more diversity and that genetic pool to save food. Indigenous seeds have the capacity of survival. Those hybrid GMO seeds aren’t bred in tough conditions: they always have the perfect light, the perfect temperature,” he says. But sustainability isn’t the only reason. Cultural motivations are as important as environmental ones. Rao mentions ‘Cook And See’ as well: “We are losing a cultural heritage. We are losing a part of us. That’s why I’m trying to find some of those vegetables listed in the book.”
Photo courtesy of Thomas Zacharias
Thomas Zacharias created the hashtag #IndianFoodMovement to help people exchange ideas about new ingredients, also taking inspiration from the wild food consumed by tribal communities all across India But as Akash points out, it’s important to change the way Indians consume. “To me, the main cause of the disappearing [ingredients] is globalisation. Every supermarket has the same vegetables. It’s a vicious cycle. People say they don’t buy them because they can’t find them. Supermarket owners say farmers don’t grow them anymore. Farmers say they don’t have any demand for those vegetables. Maybe they were difficult to cultivate? Maybe they were difficult to cook?” He pauses and then bursts out laughing. “I realised I’m saying vegetables a lot.”
A firm believer of the ‘to know your future you have to know your past’ motto, Akash is working with The Center of Genomic Gastronomy and he’s hoping to proceed in his quest: “Those vegetables represent the culinary diversity of India. They represent our rich and complex history, and I’m sure there are so many I still have to discover. I want to become the story teller of Indian biodiversity.”