Talking About the Harvest

A chef, a blogger, a grower and a food scientist weigh in on what the harvest means to them, the influence of seasons in farming, and the challenge of meeting the nation’s nutritional needs.
Anirban Dasgupta is the Executive Chef at Hilton Bangalore Embassy Gold Links. Walk into his restaurant, Ministry of Food, and one will find trays of fresh micro-greens laid out, along with big rolls of cheese, and carefully chosen serving ware. There is a story, one soon realises, behind this choice of display. Chef Dasgupta is a big believer in sustainability and eating glocal (creating global dishes with local produce). He has personal relationships with every supplier, which says a lot about his in-depth involvement in food from the ground to the plate.

Says Anirban:
Urban India is yet to get into the rhythm of using seasonal produce, in the way that Europe, for example, has for the past many years. Ancient Indian eating habits were all tied to the seasons but it has been lost with time, especially in the cities. However, this trend is coming back, if slowly. I firmly believe in certain food rules – no cauliflower in the summer, no broccoli during the monsoon, and so on. When I recommend this approach to food to my diners, most are happy to choose seasonal alternatives.

My restaurant celebrates sustainability and we try not to go beyond a 100 mile radius to procure anything. However, the supply chain in india is not that well developed and we have to make some exceptions. I am thankful to producers in and around Bangalore due to whom we now have access to organic eggs, micro-greens, artisanal cheeses and more. While on this topic, I would like to make a special mention of the fresh produce harvested by a farmer friend that I regularly use in my dish, the Cafe salad. This is presented in a unique way, with edible flowers.

Harvest festivals are celebrated across the country. From my childhood in Bengal, I remember this as a time for making many ‘mithais’ as well as for many other rituals that we have steadily lost touch with. It is good to get back to it, to celebrate and relate to it, so that those traditions are not lost and we understand the importance of farming practices in our urban lives.
I would love to explore the idea of doing a menu around harvests – allowing old dishes to be revived and preserved for future generations.

By profession, Anita Tikoo is a Landscape Architect and Ecological Planner. The firm she runs with her husband specialises in green and responsible building design and landscape planning. She also writes an engaging food blog, Mad Tea party, which is known for its recipes of authentic Kashmiri dishes as well as for seasonal pickles and jams. The blog also reflects Tikoo’s environmental philosophy applied to everyday food and living.

Says Anita:
In Northern India, we are more attuned to seasons because the year is fairly well divided into four seasons. Vegetables are harvested at specific times, although this has changed in the last ten years, and I do see cauliflower available round the year. I personally do not use winter vegetables in the summer. I tend to freeze or pickle the vegetables in season and make jams from seasonal fruit. One of my blog readers summed it up best: “you bottle up your winter in your pickles”.

Bhindi is typically a summer vegetable in the North, but that is not true everywhere in India. This goes to show how harvesting patterns and availability vary across different parts of the country. In the North, the market is flooded with Indian apples in the month of October, as they are typically plucked before snowfall. But now with imported apples flooding our markets, you see them around the year. Other fruits such as cherries and stone fruits such as plums and Nashpati,ripen in the summer and become available in the months of June-July in our part of the country.

Kashmiris traditionally celebrate Shivratri and for us, it heralds the end of winter. We use up our stock of walnuts by soaking them in water and a doon-pooja is performed during this festival (doon/dun = walnut in Kashmiri). The walnuts are then peeled and the sweet flesh is either eaten as is or with sugar or rice roti. Such rituals are closely linked to the seasons and harvest patterns. With the onset of summer, nuts are likely to turn rancid and so it is a good idea to finish one’s existing stock and replace it with the almonds to be harvested after spring. Almond blossoms season is also celebrated in Kashmir. We do try and buy seasonal and observe some of these ancient and meaningful harvest rituals, but urban living sometimes gets in the way of this.

After leaving his full-time job as a pilot and flying instructor in 2011, Nameet and his brothers – Naveen MV and KN Prasad – came together to pursue their passion for healthy and fresh produce. They believe in blending traditional farming values with contemporary technology in order to grow toxin and pesticide free produce.
Says Nameet:
Bangalore seems to have skipped spring this year and since we move with the seasons, we will also jump straight into summer planting. Summer means sixteen varieties of tomatoes, followed by the cucumber season. This will be followed by root crops and then by leafy vegetables. I don’t believe in growing a particular kind of produce around the year. There is a certain rationale to growing a particular crop at a certain time of the year and we try to stick to that. Herbs like thyme and oregano and the like develop the best essential oils in the hot months. Hot peppers, of which there are over 40 odd varieties, will also be harvested in late summer. Rabi Kharif seasons are more relevant when the crops are rain fed. Organic vegetable farming which is drip irrigation fed, follows a different pattern.

We don’t grow tomatoes in the monsoon as it is likely to develop fungus under high humidity and in the absence of fungicides and pesticides. Traditionally, Indian homes avoided tomatoes during the rainy season. Similarly, Bhindi is best grown in summers and so I prefer not to grow it in winters even if there is demand for it.

Sankranti is a celebration of the harvest. Fresh rice is used and decisions are taken on how long it needs to be aged. The next harvest of the monsoon planting happens during Dussehra-Diwali, which is again a time for celebrations. I enjoy working with chefs who respect the soil and seasons. We cannot expect it to be spring and abundance all the time and I truly believe that food must be grown and harvested as per the seasons. The fact that ripe mangoes are sold in February worries me a great deal.

As communicated to Nandita Iyer, a food writer and nutritionist based in Bangalore.

The National Institution of Nutrition is a premier research institute working under the aegis of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) in the Department of Health Research (DHR), a part of the Government of India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. It aims to enable food and nutrition security and increase
productivity through dedicated research in multi-disciplinary areas that are aligned with the goals set by the Government in the national nutrition policy.

Says Dr. Kumar:
Across the country and the world, harvest festivals are used to celebrate and acknowledge the food that we have been given. But, as consumers and growers, we also need more information on the nutritional makeup of what is harvested – both from a macro and micro perspective.

That is part of what we are focused on within our institution. Our food analysis and pre-market safety evaluation efforts cover a wide range of agricultural products which include GM, non-GM, organic, innovator crops, and foods, products developed by recombinant technology, fortified foods and more. The investigational results conducted for the first time in a public centre institute demonstrate premarket safety for GM Brinjal, okra, cotton and transgenic mustard, contrary to widely held theories and beliefs. In addition, nutritional and non-nutritional components for these crops were similar to non-GM crops. Their allergenicity potential was also not recorded. It may be important to know that organic farming is dependent mainly on manure, compost, biological pest control and strict limits of pesticide use.

In our field studies, we look closely at the demographic and socioeconomic particulars of households when it comes to nutrition. Data from nutritional anthropometry, dietary assessment, and a clinical examination of their nutritional deficiencies and history of morbidity is updated frequently. Our strategy to counter nutritional deficiencies is innovative. Nutrient-rich familiar foods are further fortified with micronutrients (e.g. Iron, Zinc, Iodine, and Vitamin A are added to wheat flour), yielding significant results. Our recent studies on dal fortified with iron have shown good bio-availability and safety at a pre-clinical level. Our studies on traditiona millets such as Sorghum and Bajra indicate that they are good sources of fibre and protein in addition to having a low glycemic index and can be used to enhance the nutritional quality of our diets. Efforts are now on across the world to develop ‘designer’ foods such Omega-3 eggs and golden rice enriched with B-complex.

All of this goes to show that the quest to enable nutrition security for the general population has to include a mix of traditional and modern approaches.