The World on Your Plate

EyeAt Olive Beach, Bangalore, chef Manu Chandra cooks up a pan-seared reef cod from Chennai with flash-cooked vegetables

Goan sausages in place of pepperoni, sashimi-grade yellowfin tuna from Lakshadweep and mushrooms from Coorg. A new breed of chefs is using fresh and locally grown produce to create inventive global cuisine that hurts the environment less.

Ribbons of fettucine loll in a bright red sauce, surrounded by oven-baked asparagus spears and delicate snow peas. If you ordered this pasta in honour of spring, you missed the point entirely. The dried pasta, the canned Roma tomatoes for the sauce and the olive oil it is cooked in come from Italy, the asparagus from South America and the peas from China. If spring did grace these ingredients, it wasn't this year.

A misguided sense of elitism affects many Indian five-star restaurants today, with Balik salmon, Dutch cheese, Parma ham and tuna from Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market colouring their menus fifty shades of foreign. In some kitchens, imports account for as much as 70 to 75 per cent of the food cost, according to an importer from Delhi who does not want to be named. "Restaurants don't just indulge aspirations for expensive foreign food, they import so-called exotic ingredients for the sake of importing," says Arvind Shah, a 35-year-old gourmand from Malad, Mumbai, who eats out almost every weeknight. Shah, who worked in Los Angeles, USA, as a technical evangelist for three years before moving in with his parents in India two years ago, has been following closely the wave of 'locavorism' in the West that saw people passionate about food look closer home — ideally, within a 100-mile radius — for fresher ingredients that came with a much smaller carbon footprint. "In India, we are still globavores," Shah rues.

A breed of well-travelled chefs is now embracing the fresh flavours of locally grown produce in inventive global cuisine, thanks in part to a handful of new-age farmers across India. Trikaya outside Mumbai, Dr Kale's near Pune and First Agro near Bangalore, to name a few, have managed to grow everything "exotic", from pandan leaves and arugula to kumatoes (brownish heirloom tomatoes from Spain that are known for their sweet, intense taste) and baby beets. At City Bar in the al fresco dining space at UB City, Bangalore, corporate chef Vibhuti Bane rustles up a "Red Ocean" salad with avocado, English cucumber, watermelon balls and succulent cherry tomatoes in vibrant pinks and chocolaty browns. The veggies are grown in a farm 130 km from the city, by First Agro, a zero-pesticide company compliant with international food safety norms. "The supply chain in India is not a stable thing. Before I was introduced to First Agro last year, I did not have much to play around with. I was using imported canned tomatoes and tomato paste to give my sauces the body and colour that the watery local variety could not impart. Now I tell First Agro what I want and they grow it for me. My menu has gone crazy," says Bane, who, between his three restaurants — Zaffran, Kobe and City Bar — goes through about 800 kg of produce from the company in a month. He has significantly cut down on imports in the past year.

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