From Lodhi Garden to your dining table: Foraging for food in New Delhi
The recent Delhi Walk Festival explored the 'seed to plate' phenomenon taking over restaurants.
On a cold November morning, six people gathered outside New Delhi’s Lodhi Garden, armed with little pocket knives, scissors and empty cloth bags, ready to pick their lunch.
The “Garden to Table” walk, curated by Uzair Siddiqui and Kush Sethi, was one of nearly 200 curated walks organised as part of the incredible Delhi Walk Festival to introduce new aspects of the Capital to its residents.
In particular, Siddiqui and Sethi wanted to educate participants about the variety of edible produce, herbs, vegetables and fruits, available in Lutyens’ Delhi: grown in the nursery, or simply sprouting around the sidewalks.
The seed-to-plate phenomenon, usually associated with hipster, Brooklyn-style joints, vegan co-ops and an obsession with organic produce – is actually a common phenomenon in several parts of India, where adivasis, for instance, eat what they find in the forest.
“Wild is nice,” said Sethi. “Most of the plants dismissed as weeds are edible and we don’t even know it. We walk past them every day. Some are sweet, spicy, minty and can be used in innovative ways.”
Siddiqui is an architect by profession with a keen interest in food systems and Sethi is a ‘green’ chemist with many successful gardening experiments to his name. The duo began the morning walk by pointing out various edible plants and herbs, encouraging people to nibble at them.
Many looked dubiously at the little leaves plucked from trees and shrubs they could not recognise, but bravely popped them in their mouths, eyes widening as they stumbled upon familiar flavours.
“Hey, this tastes like wasabi!” exclaimed one, chewing on some Nasturtium leaves, an edible flower with a strong radish-like flavour that takes over the senses briefly. Another rubbed freshly-plucked mint leaves in her hands and whiffed the strong minty smell with a blissful look on her face.
“Mint won’t grow in winters, but come summer, it will sprout easily,” said Sethi. “You can grow so many of the herbs you use in your daily cooking in your backyards, or even in just potted plant in your balconies.”
Sethi and Siddiqui plodded along, picking out fresh aloe vera (spat out by the tasters the minute it hit their tongue), mustard greens, groundnuts, cassava roots, baby green chillies, fresh spinach and kumquats among other things.
Eventually, the gardeners of the Lodhi Garden nursery took over the walk, good-naturedly showing the participants the many vegetable patches and trees and playing little pranks on the unsuspecting walkers by giving them fruits, either too sour or too bitter, to eat.
Aloe vera. Courtesy: Uzair Siddiqui
In the last few years, the “locavore” philosophy of eating local, of eating farm-to-fork and garden-to-table, has been catching on in urban India. It requires urban, city-dwelling Indians to source fresh ingredients from backyards and terrace gardens.
With restaurant-goers becoming more conscious than ever of where their food comes from, establishments are now expected to not just have healthy options on their menu, but also to serve local produce with a fresh spin.
Restaurants housed in five- and four-star hotels are embracing the revolution by making their menus more green and a little more responsible. Siddiqui and Sethi insist that the revolution need not be restricted just to restaurants and that the model can be easily emulated at home and practiced in our daily lives if you are armed with some knowledge about local plants.
“There’s potential even in the tightest of spaces,” said Sethi. “You can hang things from the ceilings, make use of DIY planters and create a mini garden within your home which will only require your attention for 15 mins everyday.”
There is no need to head to an expensive cafe or restaurant to eat organic “gourmet”, insisted the organisers.
The walk culminated at Perch, a wine and coffee bar in Khan Market which serves European cuisine and is known for its inventive use of Indian ingredients and herbs.
Chicken breast with chillies and nasturtium leaves (Picture courtesy: Uzair Siddiqui).
Chef Agnibh Mudi, who had joined the walk and helped guide the participants in what and how much of it to pick, got to work using the foraged ingredients to make a five-course meal including a dessert.
The recipes, simple yet flavourful, let the foraged vegetables shine. The cassava roots were served up as fries, the chillies and Nasturtium leaves came paired with chicken breasts, the mustard flowers made a potato dish more fragrant, the grilled eggplants were complemented by bit of goat cheese and, to crown it all, a decadent chocolate dessert was served with tangy reduction made using kumquats.
Potatoes with mustard flowers (Picture courtesy: Uzair Siddiqui).
Even as Sethi and Siddiqui encourage people to start growing herbs and plants in their houses, they admit that Delhi’s soil is not conducive to some vegetables, like tomato, and that a lot of other vegetables require a bigger surface area to really flourish.
Garden to table in India still remains a niche way of eating, afforded only by a few who otherwise head to their local grocers for their vegetables. Sethi and Siddiqui hope the trend will not limit itself to restaurants.
First published by Scroll on 5 Dec. 2016