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The palate and the planet: Indian restaurants doing right by Earth

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Most of India’s fancy restaurants don’t think of the Earth when they think of their menus. The salmon is Norwegian (or claims to be), the sea bass is Chilean, cured meats fly in from the Mediterranean, exotic vegetables are frozen for long periods. Meanwhile, restaurants all over the world are working out models that will reduce their carbon footprints from a mighty whomp on the planet to a light tiptoe.

Chefs Manu Chandra (top), (left to right) Radhika Khandelwal, Varun Totlani & Vanika Choudhary show how restaurants serve stylish, modern meals and still do right by the environment. (Samuel Rajkumar, Daniel D’Souza, Satish Bate/Hindustan Times, Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times)

Even the Michelin Guide, the holy grail of good eating, has been handing out “green stars” since 2020 to restaurants that use local and seasonal produce and have small environmental footprints, and are already featured in the guide.

(Top to bottom) Lupa’s plant-based pinwheel lasagna; Noon’s buckwheat tartlets with slow-roasted turnips, goat cream and black garlic; Masque’s star fruit kanji with kohlrabi and aam papad.
(Top to bottom) Lupa’s plant-based pinwheel lasagna; Noon’s buckwheat tartlets with slow-roasted turnips, goat cream and black garlic; Masque’s star fruit kanji with kohlrabi and aam papad.

India’s smaller restaurants have known for years how to make the best use of resources. They’ve had small, set menus, serving local and seasonal produce to diners within their communities. It’s not the kind of system that fits modern cuisines, boosts creativity or turns high profits. So city restaurants that want to do right by the environment have had to forge a different path. Some chefs have started to champion local produce, pushed their kitchens to waste less and innovate more, and are aiming to give diners a memorable meal without cutting corners.

The Pandan Negroni from Fig & Maple.
The Pandan Negroni from Fig & Maple.

What does the way forward look like? Four Indian restaurateurs show us.

What’s your waste size?Fig & Maple, Delhi and Goa

Radhika Khandelwal aims to eliminate waste entirely, using all parts of produce like in this sabudana risotto with jungle maas and black lime. (Daniel D’Souza)
Radhika Khandelwal aims to eliminate waste entirely, using all parts of produce like in this sabudana risotto with jungle maas and black lime. (Daniel D’Souza)

When Radhika Khandelwal, the chef and owner of Fig & Maple, opened the restaurant in 2016, she would weigh the food waste at the end of each day to see what more she could do to take her kitchen to zero-waste.

Today, the restaurant’s Delhi and Goa outposts serve dishes incorporating bits of produce that many people think are unusable. In Delhi, chips made from root vegetable skins are a bestseller. On the Goa menu, the khandvi prawns are served with a bisque made from prawn shells.

This root-to shoot, nose-to-tail approach makes flavours more intense and ensures that trash bins aren’t overflowing. “I believe there is no such thing as food waste,” says Khandelwal. “As long as it is edible, it is food.”

Khandelwal works closely with local farmers. When they have excess produce that can’t reach the market before it spoils, she buys it from them and preserves it through freezing or fermentation

Her idea of creating a sustainable business goes beyond the kitchen. In Goa, Fig & Maple collaborates with local artisans and craftsmen and the results are showcased in the restaurant. Doors and windows use Dokhra art as handles, signs use wooden toys from Sawantwadi and napkins are made with Kunbi sarees.

In Delhi, the sustainable fashion brand Ekaa makes table napkins for Fig & Maple from leftover fabric. “Sustainability has had a terrible marketing team but now is the time to change perceptions, ” says Khandelwal. “This is going to take time, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

The art of preservationNoon, Mumbai

Vanika Choudhary’s efforts to protect hyper-local, regional food leads her to create dishes like this khambir roti, thangthur, skotse, charred tiger prawns and umbok. (Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times)
Vanika Choudhary’s efforts to protect hyper-local, regional food leads her to create dishes like this khambir roti, thangthur, skotse, charred tiger prawns and umbok. (Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times)

Think of Vanika Choudhary, the chef and owner of the Mumbai fine dining restaurant Noon, as a fermentation fiend.

Her kitchen stores over 40 fermented foods, including miso, shoyu, tamari, amino sauces, meads and vinegars that highlight local, seasonal and foraged produce, as well as Indian preservation techniques.

“In an urban setting it’s not entirely possible to go zero waste, but we constantly try to minimise it,” says Choudhary. Noon makes a pumpkin kasundi using the peels of the vegetable with wild mustard and wild garlic, both sourced from Ladakh. The restaurant also collaborates with social enterprises and farmers’ collectives across India, most of which work towards empowering women, to source indigenous ingredients.

Noon is not Choudhury’s first environmentally conscious restaurant. Seven years ago, when she opened Sequel in Mumbai, she partnered with Offerings Farm in Pune to bring fresh organic and seasonal vegetable from farm to table. Sequel was also one of the first restaurants to ditch plastic and use compostable packaging.

Sustainability models are a challenge to scale, so the restaurant has hired reinforcements. London-based fermenter and food anthropologist Eleni Michael serves as Noon’s head of operations, research and development to good ideas can spread further.

Mis-consciousMasque, Mumbai

Varun Totlani sticks to local ingredients to create dishes like the seaweed and ponkh. (Satish Bate/Hindustan Times)
Varun Totlani sticks to local ingredients to create dishes like the seaweed and ponkh. (Satish Bate/Hindustan Times)

When Masque opened in Mumbai in 2016, it stuck to hyper local ingredients and seasonal menus.

Seven years on, the restaurant continues to source ingredients from small-scale farmers and vegetable sellers. It’s made a difference to the menu. “When I travelled to Rajasthan, I came across a vegetable called kachri at a local bhajiwala in Jodhpur,” says chef Varun Totlani. “We exchanged numbers and he now sends the vegetable to Mumbai in a bus every time it’s in season.”

The system is not short on challenges. “Once I had to throw away 20-25 kilos of sea urchins that I was carrying from a village in Tamil Nadu because neither the airline nor the railway let me carry it with me.”

In the kitchen, Totlani ensures that all food waste is used in one way or the other. The parts of vegetables that don’t go into the dishes are converted into stock; vegetable trimmings are converted into the chips served at the bar; fish trimmings are fermented and made into fish sauce; and any kitchen waste that cannot be cooked is composted and used to feed the plants at Masque and the surrounding area inside its mill compound location.

Masque is also big on fermentation, especially miso. During their 10-day break last July, the leftover food from the last service was turned into different kinds of miso and then used in a pop-up meal.

Local heroLupa Bengaluru

Manu Chandra champions local, seasonal produce. His Hot Brie uses in-house cheese, fig jam, walnuts, smoked honey, herbs, garlic & chilli crumble with toasted sourdough bread. (Samuel Rajkumar)
Manu Chandra champions local, seasonal produce. His Hot Brie uses in-house cheese, fig jam, walnuts, smoked honey, herbs, garlic & chilli crumble with toasted sourdough bread. (Samuel Rajkumar)

For chef Manu Chandra, sustainability means running an establishment that conserves resources at multiple levels, the kitchen being just one of them.

Chandra is founder-partner of Manu Chandra Ventures, which owns the Bengaluru restaurant, Lupa, and the bespoke catering company Single Thread. At Lupa, the decor is derived from upcycled objects, terracotta and marble. The giant air coolers in the open-air sections of the restaurant are designed to use less power. The gelato machine, sourced from Italy, is an upcycled original design.

On the menu, local and seasonal produce are the stars. Croquettes made with local baby jackfruit and served with a dip made with doddapatre (ajwain) leaves. “When something is easily accessible and aligns with your menu and your restaurant positioning, then embracing it makes sense,” he says. “Customers appreciate it more when good food is presented naturally rather than being shoved down their throats as an intellectual thought.”

With Lupa, Chandra is working with small-time food producers who grow top-quality produce and also care about their lands, rather than push for higher yields. “Indian food needs to be more about sustainability and understanding what is wrong with our food systems than deconstructed dishes and the Noma model,” Chandra believes.

From HT Brunch, March 25, 2023

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