Nature on a plate

Sunday, Mar 24, 2013

By Shikha Kumar

A few brave restaurateurs are determined to bring the organic food movement to a table near you, writes Shikha Kumar.

The buffet at Bangalore’s Lumiere has the usual suspects on display. But there’s one critical difference: the lettuce salad, vegetable sandwiches, chicken seekh kebabs and biryani are all made of organic ingredients sourced directly from the restaurant’s farms in Ooty, Kodaikanal and Hosur. Even the breads available at the restaurant are made of organic whole wheat, soya, ragi and other grains.

The ‘organic’ food concept has been around in India for a few years now. It is clearly spreading, going by the increasing number of shelves local supermarkets stock organic food on. Arguably, restaurants serving organic food have not taken off with as much gusto but metros are slowly warming up to the idea.

‘Pure’ eating
Tattva, an all-vegetarian gourmet restaurant in Delhi’s Hauz Khas village, opened eight months ago. “The whole idea was to make good quality, healthy food accessible to all,” says owner and executive chef Anuradha Madhusudhanan. Ninety per cent of Tattva’s dishes are in-house innovations. This includes the pearl millet pilaf, the couscous platter and the trivikrama kebabs that are served with an assortment of organic dips.

Lumiere has been around longer. It opened three years ago when owner Manjunath PR decided it was time to re-introduce Indians to the concept of wholesome, unadulterated food. His contention is that ‘organic’ food is what we should eat in the first place since nature has provided us with ways of farming that do not require chemicals.

“With packed lunches in office and fast food items becoming part of our staple diet, this generation doesn’t know the importance of organic food,” says Jeeno Iyte, operations head at Lumiere.

The idea is to work with nature. The people at Lumiere only source produce from their farms and do not use artificial colours or flavours like MSG. “Even our meats are organic. The chickens bred at the farm are not given any hormones, antibiotics or artificial treats,” says Manjunath.

Busting myths

Given the urban Indian’s increasing concern about healthy living, why haven’t organic food restaurants caught on in India in a big way yet?

One possible reason say restaurateurs, is the perception that such food is expensive. That is partially true. Yes, organic produce costs more than regular produce. But the costs are never prohibitive.

At ‘In the Pink Organic Bazaar and Restaurant’ in Bangalore, an average dish costs Rs200 as founder Panish Rao believes that people should be able to try out organic food and feel the difference in taste. “Affordable prices ensure that happens,” says Rao.

Similarly, the lunch buffet at Lumiere is priced at Rs449 inclusive of taxes. Today, Lumiere is getting ample word-of-mouth publicity and feeds about 130-140 people on an average weekend.
Madhusudhanan admits going all organic pushes up costs but it is possible to limit profits so the emphasis is on the food, not the bill. A meal for two at Tattva can cost between Rs1,000-1500 for two depending upon what’s ordered.

Another misconception is that organic food is bland and mainly comprises raw vegetables. Nothing can be further from the truth, says Rao. “You can make desi cuisine like dal makhani using organic ingredients. Organic food is not just about salads or soups.”

Restaurants like Tattva ensure a continued supply of organic produce by sourcing it directly from farmers. This also keeps costs down and benefits farmers too. “There is always a tug of war between demand and supply when it comes to organic food. When middlemen get involved, farmers realise that their produce is not fetching them money and the whole purpose is destroyed,” says Madhusudhanan.

Aparna Karjagi, co-founder, of ‘In the Pink’ has a farming background and has a network of farmers she relies on. She sources all produce, grains and condiments directly from farmers.
So where is the organic food movement headed in India now?

“While I don’t see organic food totally replacing other food in the future, it’s destined to grow. We can’t ignore the fact that we’re eating a whole lot of chemicals in the form of simple vegetables,” says Madhusudhanan.