Think Before You Eat
Many might argue that the West is generally superior in terms of food sustainability, having successfully developed plant-based alternatives to offset centuries of damage from their over-dependence on the meat and dairy industries. Megha Kohli who, until very recently, was the executive chef at Lavaash by Saby in Delhi — the sole Armenian dining establishment in the country — contends that India is only second to Bangladesh on the list of countries that consume the least amount of meat; many Indians save it for special occasions and even give it up on certain days of the week for religious purposes — which significantly reduces the country’s overall contribution to climate change from the food industry. We are on a video call to discuss the tenets of accountability, when it comes to the production as well as the consumption of food, and I’m in a lockdown-induced daze which is hampering my productivity, but her words quickly rouse me from my stupor. The 30-year-old, who was barely 17 when she first entered the kitchen as a nervous entremetier, is one of the country’s youngest chef-advocates for responsible eating. “If I were to name a few primary ethical food practices, they would include producing food closer to its point of consumption so that it allows communities to control the way it is traded and produced, pricing food fairly to help foster healthy communities and agricultural economies on a regional level, and using non-polluting processes that conserve exhaustible resources,” she offers helpfully, when I ask her what it means to “eat consciously”.
Kohli has a demonstrably welcoming demeanour; she is obligingly patient with me as she explains the nitty-gritty of the culinary world, despite the weak Wi-Fi connection cutting our conversation short every few minutes. I apologise for making her repeat herself but she brushes me off, explaining that she prides herself on her people skills. “While I was at Lavaash,” she says, “there wasn’t a single day that I didn’t meet people at their tables. After a point, I became so close to some guests that they would personally call me in order to make reservations.”
“I’ve also had diners order a particular dish only so that I can tell them about its origins,” she recalls. “Often, managers and servers aren’t able to satisfy the diners’ curiosity about how a certain dish was conceived because they couldn’t explain it as well as the person who made it could.”
As a kid, when Shraddha Bhansali was asked what she wanted to be when she was older, she would answer resoundingly: “Restaurateur!” Growing up in a Jain family, the 27-year-old became accustomed to a vegetarian way of life, but after moving to Boston for further studies and eating at restaurants there, she felt that vegetables weren’t getting their due back home. She has now joined the video call and chimes in. “Whenever I used to go out to eat with my friends in India, they would end up ordering lavish non-vegetarian dishes and give me their leafy sides to munch on. I either had to have something oily and rich or something completely dry — there was no in-between,” she says. Bhansali discusses the way she attempted to change certain trends when she launched Candy & Green, the clean-eating, vegetarian, ingredients-based restaurant in Mumbai. “I wanted vegetarians to have more options when they eat out, not only in terms of novel ingredients but also in terms of how they are combined. I always felt there was something lacking in vegetarian meals in the urban food scene, because I’d heard of meat being cooked a certain way and marinated overnight with great care, but vegetables are things we eat on autopilot. My aim was to go beyond the cliched paneer and introduce people to new flavours and textures — those that even non-vegetarians could appreciate — since that’s what they seemed to miss in the greens.”
A 2018 study published by the University of Oxford states that the planet may not be able to sustain its population by the year 2050 unless countries individually reduce the amount of livestock that is raised and consumed. The case for veganism has been presenting the same argument for some time now, making converts out of hardcore meat-eaters and winning over eco-warriors.
Bhansali’s decision to go vegan was bolstered after she watched the documentary The Game Changers, about UFC fighter James Wilks’ search for the optimal diet for human performance and health. Spoiler alert: he finds it in plant-based food. “I feel like my new diet has caused a spike in my energy levels, and I’m able to train for longer periods in the gym now. I can also focus better,” claims the restaurateur, who switched her diet six months ago. Extolling the benefits of plant-based protein in the documentary are Hollywood personalities James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan, as well as world-renowned athletes and purportedly reliable ambassadors including Novak Djokovic, Lewis Hamilton and Chris Paul, all of who are vegans themselves (and are incidentally credited as the film’s executive producers). Could Bhansali have been the victim of a placebo effect?
I checked the documentary out myself and concluded that I was on the fence about this enthusiastic celebrity endorsement. Subverting the “real men eat meat” narrative that has long been used as a marketing tool, the documentary instead shows muscular athletes who break records and work like machines — waxing eloquent about switching to a plant-based diet. To me, it seemed a little too contrived. Sure, veganism has its advantages, but no diet that promotes the elimination of entire food groups could be without its faults. I came across like-minded people while doing further research online — personal trainers who had slammed The Game Changers as a “one-sided, agenda-driven narrative of cherry-picked science” and questioned the documentary’s claim about peanut butter being superior to eggs as a source of protein. I also suspect that my inherent misgivings are the result of being a voracious carnivore.
But what Kohli says next restores my journalistic impartiality. “I do believe that going completely vegan might do more harm than good since we might be faced with an over-population of cattle and would then have to resort to putting them down to create more habitable land. People who were born and bred in the industry, like farmers and butchers, might suddenly find themselves out of jobs with no way to fend for themselves. But there are ways to eat meat responsibly. For example, goat meat is actually more sustainable than chicken: goats feed on grass instead of crops; they don’t require as much fodder, and don’t emit as much methane as other animals do. It’s all about balance. If I’m preparing a meat dish, I’ll offset it with an equal amount of plant-based ingredients. So, if I’m serving a lamb chop to my guests, I’ll pair it with barley or millet khichdi.”
According to a new Reuters report, the demand for plant-based protein foods is surging in Asia as suspicions over possible links between wild animal meat and the novel coronavirus are driving people to rethink their diets. This changing mindset has already prompted leading US players like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods to expand operations into other countries, and I wonder whether India will find itself reeled in as well. Kohli disagrees with me. “The Impossible Meat Burger is basically designed to replicate a beef burger, and since that isn’t an option in India, we will mostly stick to eating chicken and lamb burgers. Fast food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King have so many vegetarian options here as compared to the US and the UK — where meatless options are almost non-existent — so adding another plant-based ‘meat’ burger to the menu wouldn’t be viable for them. In fact, just last year, Burger King announced that it would not launch the Impossible Whopper in India because half their menu is already completely vegetarian. Consider this: even a hardcore meat-eater like myself craves an aloo tikki burger very frequently. Why would I need a plant-based meat burger if I can substitute it with an equally tempting vegetarian one?”
They may not entirely agree on the benefits of veganism, but Kohli and Bhansali unanimously begin singing the praises of local and seasonal produce before I’ve even broached the subject. From March 2012 to December 2013, prior to joining Lavaash by Saby, Kohli worked at Olive Bar & Kitchen, Delhi, a restaurant frequented by celebrities for its hearty Mediterranean cuisine and laidback blue-and-white Santorini-inspired interiors. She admits that despite getting her big break as the chef de partie at Olive, she was unable to feel at home in its kitchen. “I could never bond with the fancy ingredients I cooked with because everything was imported. I had been reading up on local ingredients and sustainable cooking practices and how they helped support indigenous communities and reduced carbon emissions. I wondered why we weren’t tapping into the potential of our own primary crops to better represent our cuisine, since we are known internationally primarily for our naan and butter chicken. Italians are really proud of their tomatoes, Spain swears by the quality of their pork, but no single ingredient comes to mind when you think of India.”
Kohli talks about her experience working with Sabyasachi Gorai, ex-culinary director at Olive, who was her mentor there. “We discovered that we were kindred spirits when it came to promoting and using regional produce in our dishes. So, when he quit Olive to start Lavaash by Saby — a restaurant that combined Armenian and Bengali cuisines — I didn’t think twice before following him. At Lavaash, we worked towards educating people about the produce found in our homeland, reducing our carbon emissions and supporting our local talent. We found a cheese-maker in Kolkata who was about to shut shop and was in possession of a 100-year-old recipe that the Portuguese had bequeathed to his family. We signed him on as our supplier, and he managed to revive his business. To this day, he reserves his best batch of cheese for us.”
I mull over Kohli’s point about our country not having cultural monopoly over a particular ingredient and wonder if that is an unfortunately ironic by-product of India’s rich crop diversity. But before I have the time to pursue that train of thought, Bhansali cuts in: “We positioned Candy & Green as a vegetarian restaurant, but we didn’t want to serve more than two or three paneer dishes. In the beginning, a lot of people would come in, glare at the menu and walk right out because they couldn’t grasp the concept of a vegetarian eating joint that didn’t worship cottage cheese. Then came the obsession with Western superfoods like kale, quinoa and edamame, which was frustrating because our very own moringa is equally capable of fighting bacterial diseases and making our bones stronger. If the West is imbibing their food culture from us — like “golden milk” or haldi doodh for instance — isn’t it time we had a little more faith in the power of our own sustenance heritage?”
Bhansali has echoed my sentiments regarding the now-ubiquitous Dalgona coffee, which unassumingly emerged from South Korea’s cafes as the “drink of the moment”. While people all around the world commit themselves to whipping their coffee to perfection, many Indians have taken to social media to point out that this new kid on the block is merely a rebranded version of “phenti hui coffee”, a beverage that has been loved and perfected in desi households for decades. Interestingly, the South Indian filter kaapi, despite being globally renowned, never rose to the ranks of its South Korean cousin. This could be attributed to the fact that the section of our population that is most active on social media (and therefore capable of influencing trends) is too occidental in its tastes. I am yet to see an Indian teenager aspire to perfect the tadka of their dal and document their frenzied efforts on Instagram.
I chanced upon a delightful fact while researching Candy & Green, Bhansali’s labour of love. The restaurant houses a 750-square-foot vertical farm on its terrace, from which the chefs source ingredients for the kitchens below. “I actually got the idea from a farmer who specialises in micro-greens. I had met him to explore the possibility of signing him on as my supplier. While I was showing him around the place, he happened to glance at the empty tank area above the rooftop and asked if I had considered transforming it into a farm. I had always thought that farming required space and was initially skeptical, but the achievement of turning a dead space into something brimming with life fills me with so much positive energy!” declares Bhansali, with barely concealed pride.
She continues, saying, “The farm helps me breathe life into many of Candy & Green’s philosophies. Since organic produce doesn’t last as long as regular produce, we would have had to go to the farms — which are on the outskirts of the city — every day. That would have increased our fuel consumption and set us back on our sustainability goals. I like to work with my suppliers in order to identify seasonal ingredients and change up our menu accordingly so that we don’t have to refrigerate ingredients and thus increase our carbon footprint. Besides that, I also let the farm dictate the menu. Peppermint grows really well in winter months, so we add many dishes, particularly desserts, which have peppermint in them. Similarly, mango and avocado thrive in the summer, so I try to incorporate them into my menu during those months instead of year-round.”
While Kohli was trying to source meat locally for Lavaash’s kitchen when they were just getting started, she felt something similar to Bhansali’s vexation at customers who refuse to budge from their fixation with paneer, “A Hungarian man whose family had been living in Kolkata for generations supplied us with sausages. It was tough to scout him out, but we had been adamant about finding someone from India, even if it was for a food item so obviously influenced by the West,” says Kohli. “But when people would ask where we got our pork and ham from, they’d look stricken after finding out it was from New Delhi instead of New Zealand. Inane fears about the meat being unhygienic would follow. They’d argue that India wasn’t known for its meat, and I’d put on my most accusatory face and say, ‘Well, whose fault is that?’
“At the same time, they relish their home-made mutton curries with meat supplied by the local butcher. What is it that changes so much when we eat out? Initially, we lost a few customers thanks to this prejudice, but the same people now leave comments on Facebook and Instagram saying that Lavaash has the best kebabs, mutton curry and lamb chops,” Kohli observes.
Both Kohli and Bhansali attribute a large chunk of their culinary awakenings to their attentiveness while travelling. During her visit to the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy in Kolkata, the students told Kohli about the Armenians’ predilection for stuffed fruits and vegetables and that onions packed with prawns were a treasured delicacy. As a vegetarian holidaying in China, Bhansali was particularly concerned about her meals and had filled her suitcase with an ample supply of theplas and farsan to ensure she was adequately fed, if not gastronomically fulfilled. She soon came to realise that her fears were unfounded when her tour guide — who doubled up as her translator — introduced her to a few joints that were run by Buddhists, effectively relegating the aforementioned Indian snacks to the bottom of her luggage.
We are about to wrap up our call and it seems almost callous, and perhaps a little presumptuous, to ask the duo about their plans, considering that the pandemic has seemingly set us back economically by decades, making the possibility of future travel a bleak prospect. Instead, I ask what they’re passionate about when it comes to their jobs. “I carried out an exercise with my junior chefs, where I tasked them with naming a dish that was indigenous to a particular state or region,” Kohli states. “When I asked them about North East India, they said it was momos. For Bihar, it was litti chokha, whereas it was vada pav for Bombay and vindaloo for Goa. They could only name one food item from each state and let’s not even get into how clueless they looked when I mentioned Madhya Pradesh and Odisha.”
Kohli says that’s when she realised how food can also be culturally stereotyped. “My staff at Lavaash hailed from different parts of the country, so I started using their culinary habits as research material to understand how they ate at home, instead of concentrating on the restaurants in those states. That’s how the Thali Festival at Lavaash also began; I started with a Bihari thali which had 18 items served as a home-style meal — our diners enjoyed it so much that we sold 700 thalis in a month. I’m not allowed to divulge much, but I’m working on a similar project at the moment, which will showcase regional cuisine in a very different way. It goes without saying that it will be seasonal and sustainable.”
Bhansali, on her part, was in the process of introducing vegan liquid eggs to restaurants and cafes across Mumbai through EVO, her company that specialises in developing plant-based alternatives to animal products. “It’s a new egg replacement that essentially does everything an egg is supposed to do — it binds, leavens, provides structure and emulsifies. I look forward to getting back to it once the lockdown ends, because I do think we are entering a brave new world where people are becoming more conscious of every little choice they make — food being one of the most important ones. For a long time, nature has taken care of us; I hope that in the times to come, we’ll take care of her.”