Saturday, February 27, 2016

National Permaculture Convergence by Aranya Agriculture Alternatives | my experiences as a speaker and as a participant

Few months ago I got a mail from Mr. Narsanna Koppula inviting me for speaking at the National Permaculture Convergence (NPC) his organization Aranya Agriculture Alternatives was hosting. I will be honest in admitting that I felt my presence in the whole scheme of things a bit misplaced initially.

NPC was going to be a convergence of hardcore activists and people who are working relentlessly in the field of organic ways of farming, wasteland reclamation and all the jazz associated with growing food ethically and sustainably, preserving germplasm and opposing GM crops for all the good reasons. I asked myself how would I be able to contribute to this cause. But people associated with NPC have been following this blog and my work elsewhere and they had better idea of what they wanted from me.

Mr. Narsanna himself trains people and organizations about Permaculture design and all the other eminent speakers would be talking about issues ranging from soil, waste management, pest management, water management to the principles of Permaculture design, Biodynamic farming and Food Forests. I was invited to speak about the correlation between soil quality, food and nutrition and native and uncultivated foods in 2 separate sessions. 

After a bit of hesitation when I gave it a thought I felt I could definitely add value in terms of talking about the end product of all the ethical farming practices. The food. The way food controls our lives and the ecology at large, the way we can make choices to nourish our own body and allow the ecosystem to support sustainable farming of food crops, the way food can come from uncultivated sources and how to make the best use of it. Human health translates to the health of the planet in many ways.
I am glad I went to this National Permaculture Convergence (NPC) and attended most sessions on all three days. I got to learn so much from other knowledgeable speakers, met many people and made great friends too. It was really awe inspiring to see people from all over the globe leaving a flourishing career to start farming in remote areas, people working on water management and energy management despite time and financial constraints. Over 50 speakers shared their expertise, number of total participants was 1180 of which 700 were farmers who came from rural Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and few other parts of the country. The event was managed by 100 plus very efficient volunteers who worked for 4 months to make this event a grand success. This is how it works when likeminded people work with all their passion.

The keynote address by Dr. Vandana Shiva was quite motivating; it was wonderful to hear her speak once again about her work and concerns. Among the sessions I attended, I loved the way Prof. Sultan Ismail demystified soil for everyone and explained why the ancient wisdom of keeping cows and livestock at the farms is a way to make farming self sustaining. He also emphasized the importance of microorganisms in living soil ecosystem where a symbiosis of several organisms helps the cause.

Clea Chandmal’s sessions on developing food forests and reclaiming the soil were quite educative and eye opening. She has done several experiments and has been successful in reclaiming soil and made it fit for agriculture. 

Rosie and Peter Harding spoke about how they revived a stretch of land in Goa and have created a thriving Food Forest that gives them loads of varied produce. 

Priya Ramasubban who is an acclaimed film maker has worked on resurrecting a lake in Bangalore despite several odds. She threw light on how the water bodies play an important role in urban landscape and what measures should be taken to revive them. 

Umesh Dutt from Kheti Virasat Mission spoke about how the farmers of Punjab are so detached with their own soil that they are ready to migrate to other countries any minute. He suggested solutions and his session was quite poetic and much applauded. The only session that was translated in 2 languages.

Uzramma spoke about the journey of cotton in India. She talked about how cotton was bred and genetically modified to suit the machinery after the Industrial revolution and how the GM cotton has destroyed farms and livelihoods. Her brand Malkha had a stall at the venue and I ended up buying a saree after over a decade. Hopefully I will do justice to the saree and wear it. 

Caitlin, Sukriti and Amol are co founders of the Academy for Earth Sustainability (AES) whose mission is to promote the transition to sustainable ways of living in India through collaborative, practical and hands on learning experience. They work a lot with schools and other local community organizations. Their session showcased the work and possibilities.

Vani Murthy and Uma Kandasarma work on solid waste management and conduct workshops on home composting and rooftop gardening. I missed their session and waiting for the recorded sessions to go live on youtube.

There were many other sessions by Rico zook, Bharat Mansata, Suresh Save from Kalpavriksha, Anjali and Kabir from Yarroway Farm, Claude Alvares, Ardhendu Shekhar Chatterji, Sajaya Kakaria etc that I could not attend because there were several sessions running parallel to each other. Hopefully I will get to see all the session soon as they upload the recordings.

The best part was that I got to see how such a huge event could be managed without any plastic waste generated. They had installed many demonstration units to show grey water management, energy efficient stoves, mulching on farms, food forests, native ways of seed saving, controlled irrigation using earthen pots and many more. I could see a few children had come to attend the convergence with their parents and they were also interacting with people with all their natural curiosity. 

The food served for speakers and participants was local cuisine cooked in healthy ways. All organic food was cooked the Andhra and Telangana way and we got to taste some local delicacies. The snacks served in speakers' lounge were all made from millets and local produce.

Above 700 Farmers attended the convergence as I mentioned and there were special arrangements for translating the speakers’ lectures for them. In fact a few participants volunteered to translate a few sessions whenever the farmers demanded so. We get to see such easy camaraderie and smooth flow of ideas on very rare occasions. NPC was a great success in connecting people effortlessly.

Coming to my own sessions, my fist session was along with Dr. Laxmi Nadendla and we talked about how soil has been abused over the years and we must start choosing the right kind of foods so the demand and supply principles start working from the root level. Once we understand how the polluted soil affects food quality we will automatically start making better choices. We also talked about the ways to get optimal nutrition from everyday foods, why local and seasonal produce is better and what factors affect the nutrient availability. Both Laxmi and me emphasized on choosing real foods and discussed a few facts about chemical laden packaged food that has hijacked the sense of taste and satiety in modern world. I was extremely happy with the questions that came from the audience. I was able to ignite interest in fermented foods and people kept on asking how it works.

In my second session I wanted to make everyone think about local native produce being valued in true sense. Wild and uncultivated produce will get it's due only when we value our own produce.

It is not just important to choose local and seasonal produce for home cooking but we must be aware of the long term consequences when we travel too. As tourists when we travel to beautiful and calm, remote locations to find some peace and rejuvenate our mind, we often end up demanding aerated drinks, packaged snacks and multicuisine a la carte foods. My question has always been why we can’t enjoy the local food options available in those remote places in the mountains, forest reserves or sea side. Why we don’t enjoy the stinging nettle, local vegetables and cheeses in Sikkim, gahat and bhatt ki daal in Utttarakhand, shepu wadi and rajma in Himachal, plain sambar rice pachadi in Andhra and why do we demand only our kind of food everywhere we go? If we like a tourist destination we must respect and value the native cuisine and produce of the place as well. Else we don’t deserve to be on that land.
What I personally do is that I always visit local markets and talk to the people who cook in the kitchens of places we are staying wherever we go. Ask about what food of their own is being cooked and appreciate the food and produce. I never had a bad food experience while eating local, we have enough options everywhere to suit our needs.

Not demanding a burger, pizza or pasta in remote travel destinations is a great service, not buying packaged produce and bottled aerated drinks is a great move towards letting the place stay serene and not demanding our own home cuisine in those regional kitchens is the way to respect the place we are visiting. In my session on wild, uncultivated and native foods I emphasized on how we can make the locals feel proud of the food they grow and eat, so they don’t feel compelled to adopt the packaged foods in a bid to feel Sanskritised.
I have experienced there is a lot of snobbery related to food habits and we keep judging people and communities by what they cook and eat. It leads to all regional cultures who start adopting a singular way of eating packaged and 'contemporary' foods which is sadly accepted and promoted by all urban cultures and villagers feel it is more desirable.

My experience of Uttarakhand Amaranthfarmers eating Maggi in their fields is a glaring example of the same forces of Sankritisation working, fueled by market economy of course. Making the native, local foods desirable is the aim. Making them fashionable will be wonderful.
I am fortunate that this session on native, wild and uncultivated foods got a great response and the hall was full of very focused people who kept asking relevant questions. The session went on for 2 hours even though the allotted time was 1.5 hours, and the audience wanted more. I am grateful to the audience too to reinforce my belief into the cause, they connected with me so well that I am hopeful about more people thinking the same way. 

Both these sessions and other sessions by prominent speakers 
will be available on youtube soon. I shall share the links whenever available and will appreciate any feedback from you all. 

Many thanks to the team NPC, Madhu Reddy, Praveen Abhishetty, Sneha Shetty, Faiyaz, Narsana Koppula and Padma Koppula for hosting and organizing such a wonderful convergence of great minds. 

All pictures are taken from NPC social media shares after mandatory permission.  

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

dinner soups : black carrot soup with walnuts and feta , making the most of the season

black carrot soup with walnuts and feta

I absolutely believe in the theory of demand and supply. Although the market has now started manipulating the demand by creating a fake demand for marketing some cheap and faux foods, the faux foods are made desirable using the medium of advertising, sponsored research and peer reviewing.

In such a situation we as consumers have a bigger responsibility in ensuring the food and ingredients we get are real if not organically grown. We must start asking for foods and ingredients that we want and not fall for what is available, the market responds.

My experience is that when I started asking my neighborhood subziwalas to bring chane ka saag (chickpea shoots) they slowly started bringing and now I see many of them bring it more frequently. Likewise happened for many other greens, heirloom varieties of lime, cucumbers and many more native vegetables. Similar has happened to black carrots too and I am so glad to see them in abundance this year more than ever. That needs to be celebrated and I have been cooking with black carrots a lot this season.

black carrots

And black carrots are cheaper than the last few years this time, almost half the price I must add. Good news.

And when I want to use a lot of one particular vegetable I normally soup it up. Imagine you consume about 300 gm black carrots in one meal. So much antioxidants and flavonoids in one meal and I do take care to supplement it with enough proteins and fats so the meal is balanced, nutrient absorption is taken care of.

black carrot soup with walnuts and feta

(2 large, meal servings or 6 soup servings for a multi course meal)

500-600 gm black carrots cleaned and diced in irregular pieces
150 gm red shallots or baby onions quartered (use less or skip if you don't like their sweetness)
6-8 pods of garlic chopped roughly
few springs of marjoram or any herb you like (celery works or ad coriander greens)
2 tsp mustard or olive oil, I have been using more mustard oil lately
1 tbsp tahini or roasted sesame paste
2-3 tbsp thick cultured yogurt (whisked)
about 10 walnuts halves
some feta cheese, more the merrier
salt to taste
pepper to taste

black carrot soup with walnuts and feta

Heat the oil in a pressure cooker pan or a deep pan and tip in the garlic, onion and diced black carrots. Add salt and pepper and toss and stir till it all looks glazed and slightly browned at the edges.

black carrot soup with walnuts and feta

Add marjoram or whatever herbs you are using, toss a little and add about 100 ml water. Fix the lid and cook till the first whistle blows. Take off the heat and let the cooker cool. I normally do this in the morning when I cook my breakfast and lunch and leave the pressure cooker undisturbed till required for the dinner.

If coking in a stock pot you need a little more water, cook covered till softened.

Now blend the contents when the soup needs to be served. Transfer the contents of the cooker to a blender along with tahini, yogurt and a little water if required. Blend till smooth.

Transfer to the pot and simmer, adjust seasoning and serve topped with broken walnuts and chunks of feta cheese.

black carrot soup with walnuts and feta

This has been a satisfying delicious soup this season. We normally didn't need any breads with it but you can serve some garlic bread with it and make the meal even more interesting.

We keep some broken walnuts and feta chunks on the side for this soup and keep adding as we go. It does add a lot of texture and flavor to this thick and creamy soup.

Do try soon and let me know if you like. The soup can be made with beet root too but I think the flavours may need some fine tuning as black carrots and beets have very different flavour profile. If you use half red carrots and half beets it might be a better idea.

I crave for my soup dinners when I am traveling trust me. Just back from a long trip to Hyderabad where I was attending the National Permaculture Convergence and even presented 2 sessions about 'health, nutrition and it's correlation with soil' and another on 'native and wild foods'. More on that later, enjoy black carrot soup with walnuts and feta till then.

food at Pluck, the modern day eatery bringing nature on the plate at Pullman New Delhi Aerocity

I like it when high end eateries combine ethics with avant-garde ideas. Posh luxury hotels and restaurants bringing in the concept of local seasonal foods and farm to fork meals is a great trend we are witnessing now. It is a pleasure to see a bed of cabbages and lettuce, mustard and spinach, assorted herbs and flowers in the middle of a sprawling five star hotel that caters to the globetrotter populace and gives them a taste of nature served on elegant plates.

Pluck at Pullman

When I got to know Pullman Aerocity has an in house farm I was immensely curious to see how they work. How much they grow on this farm and what is their philosophy on food as I see many hotels having farms in the outskirts of the city but a farm within the hotel is a novelty. Much welcome, much appreciated I must add.

Pluck at Pullman

Chef Ajay Anand, Director of Culinary at Pullman Novotel Aerocity New Delhi, told that they have a contract with an organic farmer in Himachal Pradesh and get all the seasonal produce that they cannot grow at their in house farm. Serving seasonal produce is their focus and they serve it in style.

The decor is modern chic, elements of nature can be seen in patterns of flower petals, extensive woodwork and vibrant colours.

Pluck at Pullman

Each piece of crockery is unique just like elements of nature, some in the shape of flower petals or leaves, some of them are shaped like rock beds. The thoughtfully served food adds beauty to it.

The amuse bouche came in the form of sweet sun dried tomato soaked up quickly in herbed water that was very refreshing in one shot.

Pluck at Pullman

The butter was served coated with green and black olive dust, very beautifully presented along with fresh crusty bread and soft bread rolls. Then came Mulligutawny soup poured over roasted black rice, a tadka dust (made with flavored coconut oil) and flower petals. I loved the use of black wild rice and the soup was wonderfully flavored and smooth.

Main course was roasted Cod served over Puy lentils and mashed potato, topped with tender pea shoots. Wonderfully tender fish dotted with candied orange peel was a great flavor combination. Mashed potato quite smooth and creamy, puy lentils perfectly done. My friend had chosen lamb served over beans and mushrooms and that was very nice too.

The dessert was a piece of art on a white plate. Matcha green tea custard served with Lychee puree and Jasmine sorbet was served beautifully dotted with flower petals and dark chocolate bark.

Pluck at Pullman

The flavors were nice, presentation took the cake. Literally.

Bringing the real freshness of nature on the plate is something that needs to brought into trend. If such star hotels take the initiative it is a great start as the food industry always needs new trends to keep innovating so why not natural real food be the new trend. There wouldn't be any dearth of ideas once nature takes it's course.

Thanks to Chef Ajay Anand for a wonderful experience and for creating a menu inspired from nature and seasons.

Mister Chai, the new Tea room at Shangri-La's-Eros Hotel New Delhi

The city needs a few more tea rooms with some Indian snacks menu. I say Indian snacks as the sandwiches and pastries or cake pops served at coffee houses or cafes are so pathetic that one feels cheated. Desi food is a good way to stay away from junk.

Almost all Indian snacks are prepared fresh on the spot and do not come assembled from a central kitchen in all street food joints and if it is a star hotel you can be assured of the quality. Although I have always been apprehensive of how Indian street food looses steam once prepared in five star hotel kitchens. Of course I had to be proven wrong.

Mister Chai is the new Tea Room that holds promise. It is a buzzing place but still gives you some room to stay in privacy if you want to work on a table or hold a meeting with someone. The Cafeterias and Tea rooms are great places to hold informal meetings and I always feel there should be more of these. But these places need to have good real food options too.

Mister Chai review

The tea and coffee and the snacks variety at Mister Chai is impressive and enough choice for everyone. The Bombay sandwich, the Vada Pao and Indian style Fish and chips sandwich at Mister Chai was so good and authentic in taste that it can be a place for a foodie date too.

Note that these Indian style sandwiches don't use any synthetic mayonnaise or margarine. Real freshly made food is the best bet when eating out. It is okay if you keep away from the Indian sweets and desserts or find some really good ones like Mishti doi or Sondesh.

Chef Neeraj Tyagi has done a great job with replicating the flavors and making the food so well presented. The detailing and finesse in unmistakable.

The masala chai was nice but I liked the Kashmiri Kehva more.

The Namkeen ka dabba that pairs so aptly with masala chai is a reminder of good old times, rains and chitchat with friends while munching on Indian savories. The Jhal mudi comes in a miniature bucket and hits the spot beautifully.

The innovation in the ubiquitous Samosa is the stuffing of butter chicken and that is selling like hot cakes I hear. I liked it but my favorite will remain the normal alu samosa though in small doses, the crisp outer shell of the samosa at Mister Chai was a surprise I will be honest.

Eat samosa when in doubt and you need to choose between a burger or a sandwich and samosa. You will be saved of crappy mayonnaise and margarine, samosa is lesser devil even if you mind your fats and fried foods.

Oh and Mister Chai serves Bikini sandwiches for the diet conscious. Portion controlled and dainty, flavorful so one gets the satiety as Chef Neeraj informed.

We tasted some of the soft drinks and liked them too.

Mister Chai review

It was a tasting menu that we experienced and could eat small bites from all these options, else one of these dishes is enough for two people meeting for tea or masala chai.

I think I have found a place to hold informal meetings and meet friends in the evening over chai and that occasional samosa. Or may be just that light jhalmuri that is made with roasted rice flakes and is such a flavor bomb.

They have some quiches, some macaroons too but I wont care about them. I will check the chocolates next time as I saw some really good ones with fruity center or peppermint flavor too, all made of good quality chocolate.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

recipe of pickled radish and making paratha meals healthier | radish leaves stir fry on the side

Pickled vegetables may be the way you can include more vegetables in your everyday diet with much ease possibly. This is for those who hate eating vegetables normally.

You do consume a bit of salt along with pickled vegetables but you can adjust the salt at the time of serving by adding a few elements to balance.

Normally pickled vegetables shouldn't make the staple vegetable intake but since pickling in certain ways causes fermentation and makes the pickle probiotic by lacto-fermentation, it is worth adding some pickled vegetables as a side dish or even in salads to bring some punch.

What is more interesting to know that this way you get cheap home cultured probiotics and once you use some fresh vegetables and whole grains in the meal you feed some prebiotics to your gut flora too. A healthy gut flora is the key to good health.

Moreover, you can pickle almost all vegetables you get in any season and pickling can be an all year activity on your kitchen counter. Each season has something delicious to pickle. I will definitely keep posting more recipes of probiotic pickles for you all.

Right now the winter months bring these gorgeous red radishes and I love pickling them in so many ways. The mustard pickled radish is one of the favorite way to pickle the mature radishes, the tender ones go into this brined pickle that I love heaping my plate with.

You know this way one can balance the meals. I usually make methi paratha using millet flours (mostly a mix of sorghum, amaranth and barley flour) or I add some whole chickpeas flour to the mix sometimes. The paratha is always made in ghee and is served with some full fat home cultured yogurt.

See how in this platter I have combined the paratha meal with a roasted tomato and coriander leaves chutney, some yogurt, some amla subzi (recipe will be shared soon) and loads of pickled radish.

Paratha is anyways healthy if served rightly, but this millet paratha meal has so much vegetables and fiber from whole grains packed into one meal that it makes the meal low glycemic and safe even for those who want to manage diabetes or weight related goals.

Don't worry about the apparent lack of proteins in this meal as sorghum, amaranth and chickpeas are quite a good source of proteins for normal people. Yogurt of course fills in.

Recipe of red radish brined pickle 


3 large radishes (preferably red) almost 600 gm
500-700 ml water (quantity of water used depends upon how you chop the radishes and how packed they are in the jar)
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp whole peppercorns


Clean, wash and chop the radishes in batons. The batons can be according to the size of the jar you want to stack them into. Or slice them if you like. Stack the batons into clean sterilized glass jars.

Heat the water with the rest of the ingredients till it boils for a couple of minutes. Cool down to room temperature and pour over the radish batons stacked in jars. You may need more water if the batons are packed loosely.

Cover the lid and let the radishes pickle on your kitchen platform for at least 24 hours before serving. The taste and texture stays crisp for about 2 days but it depends on the temperature so refrigerate as soon as the radish batons start getting too soggy. It will still be edible when it gets soggy though.

Serve this radish pickle on the side of an Indian meal or with burgers if you like or inside sandwiches or any which way you like. You might end up munching on them as is.

A great way to consume this radish pickle is to add it to some salad. The pickling liquid will serve as a nice dressing too is mixed with some olive oil etc.

The leaves of the radish make wonderful stir fry that we love as stuffing to our parathas or chapati rolls. The recipe of the radish leaves stir fry is simple.

Recipe of radish leaves stir fry 

Just heat some mustard oil (or use any other oil you wish) and tip in some ajwain seeds (Omum seeds), broken dry red chillies and chopped garlic to it. Let them sizzle and then add the chopped leaves of radish. Add salt, mix, cover and cook till the volume is reduced. Then stir and cook for a couple of minutes till the stir fry gets a little dry. 

Add everything to taste, the mustard oil brings much flavour to this stir fry we call mooli ki bhurji. The best taste of this bhurji comes when you use red radish leaves but any radish leaves are good. Add some bits of radish too if you want more of this bhurji to savour.

All such leafy greens are great prebiotic foods and if consumed with whole grains and some proteins they make balanced meals.

You see when such parathas are made using alternative flours they can be a meal in itself. And when these paratha meals are served along with some of these probiotic pickles, some full fat yogurt and may be some more vegetables or chutneys or dips on the side they make a satiating and filling meal that keeps you full till the next meal and you don't end up snacking on nonsense things in between.

Oh and the leftover parathas once quartered and reheated on the griddle make nice tea time snack if you wish. eating healthy is not much of an effort if you plan ahead and keep the ingredients clean and simple.

So make your paratha meals healthier with these probiotic salads of the season. Add more vegetable in every meal and see how your body thanks you in return. Say yes to a big paratha meal any day.