The wisdom of sustainability suggests that we should milk our resources only to an extent so as not to damage them for future use. Responsible chefs worldwide are increasingly focused on sustainable practices in their kitchens
Hotels, restaurants, caterers, and even consumers, are now aware and mindful of sustainable culinary practices. The upkeep of the environment, and the welfare of society at large, is a common goal for all; thus, it’s a constant endeavour to look for better and more sustainable culinary practices. In the quest for cleaner and more responsible ways to cook, we are led to look into the past, explore the older, traditional, and sustainable practices, and make it the new modern, and sustainable way of running the culinary business.
One of the finest examples of ancient culinary wisdom lies in using banana leaves as a natural plate for eating food. Across various states of India, especially in the regions of banana plantations, banana leaves are used to serve food. Not only is the food served on a banana leaf healthy and hygienic, but it is also an effective way to conserve water, otherwise used in cleaning crockery. The biodegradable banana leaves also save the environment from using soaps and detergents used in washing dishes and, of course, the human effort involved in cleaning. Similarly, eating bare hands is considered a healthy and sustainable practice, which also heightens the experience of eating traditional food served on a banana leaf or otherwise.
The traditional practice of serving food on banana leaves is widespread across many restaurants in South India and is followed by many regional cuisine restaurants across India. This sustainable culinary practice has inspired many chefs to apply it in their restaurants too.
Alongside Banana Leaves, many other plant and tree leaves are used to produce natural, disposable, and bio-degradable crockery and cutlery
Zero Food wastage
The cruellest treatment of food would be to waste it without using it. Zero wastage is a concept many chefs are trying to achieve, thinking of newer (or rather older ways) to put all parts of ingredients to creative use. An Indian kitchen offers exciting ways to make stalks and seeds useful for dishes. A mango seed may be used to flavour an Aam Panna or Chutney, and stalks of coriander may add prominent flavour in a ‘Dal Tadka’ or be ground along to make chutneys. Vegetable stems are often used in curries or soups, the rind of fruits is used for flavourings, and the seeds of pumpkin are often used to make chutneys or as a gravy thickener. The umpteenth usage of coconut and edible and non-edible products derived from it speaks volumes about the sheer brilliance of India’s sustainable culinary practices.
Pickling is an age-old culinary concept, and in India, food items are preserved using various pickle recipes in different states of India. Mango, Carrots, Chillies, Jackfruit, Lemon, Cauliflower, and even fish, chicken, and meats are preserved using the pickling recipes, which use Sun drying, oils, salt, and spices as effective means of preservation, leaving behind a delicious pickle heightening flavours of dish we eat them along with. Pickling is thus an effective, sustainable culinary practice and is widely practiced in Indian kitchens.
Donating food and feeding the needy is part of Indian culture. Be it community meals like ‘Bhandara’ and ‘Langar’, one of the collective goals is to feed the hungry and let no grain go waste. Even restaurants and hotels need to be inspired by this social cause, and many food businesses take it as a responsibility. Robinhood Army, a volunteer-based NGO, assists restaurants and communities not to let their food go waste but, instead, help feed the hungry and needy population of their neighbourhood. Having volunteered with them as a Robin (Picking food from restaurants and distributing it to the needy) and a food provider from my catering kitchen, I can assure you the sheer happiness I got from being able to feed those who often sleep hungry at night. Such sustainable food practices ensure zero wastage and bring food, nutrition, and joy to the less fortunate around us.
Local and seasonal
Eating Local and seasonal produce is one of the eating habits all responsible people want to inculcate in life. In modern life, where food items are imported globally, international cuisines are preferred by many diners, and processed and packaged food businesses are on the boom; it seems tough to imagine how the previous generations managed without culinary globalization. The older generation has remained our guiding force in creating dishes with seasonal produce, and our traditional regional cuisines are full of culinary gems being churned out of locally grown produce.
Many Indian chefs, restaurants, and hotels take pride in utilizing local ingredients in their menus, from preparing regional recipes or using local ingredients as import alternatives in international cuisines. Responsible chefs have the slow food movement in mind when curating restaurant menus. For a true gastronome, eating locally and ethically sourced ingredients prepared in the cuisine and style of the region is an experience like no other. And thus, most hotels and resorts today aim to inculcate local ingredients and recipes as the cuisines on offer, taking care of the guest’s well-being by providing an authentic experience of healthy and sustainable dining and supporting local farmers.
A fine example of using local produce and sustainable practices I experienced recently was in the ecological hotspot of Wayanad. This beautiful region lies at the southern tip of the Deccan plateau, full of paddy fields, forests, flora, and fauna. My visit to the Wayanad Wild Resort by CGH- Earth introduced me to the sustainable ways responsible tourism is conducted in collaboration with the local tribes and farmers. The indigenous rice varieties, namely Gandhakasala and Jeerakasala, reach from farm to table, along with local spices that grow abundantly in the region. Promoting the local cuisine and the economy, resorts like Wayanad Wild live up to the only sustainable way tourism can be conducted in an ecologically fragile landscape like Wayanad’s, i.e., Responsibly.
To ensure the responsible tourism mission of No Plastic, Wayanad Wild has set up an in-house bottling plant that treats the harvested rainwater and natural well water with UV—making their property 100% plastic free. Kerala tourism laid out its responsible tourism mission a decade and a half ago, where tribals and local farmers were supported to promote their arts, crafts, agriculture, architecture, local practices, and traditions to the many tourists who visit the ecological region of Wayanad, part of the western ghats, a UNESCO world heritage site. Resorts like Wayanad Wild, Play a vital role in this mission. An inspiration for other states and regions to follow.
Near Mysore, I visited ‘We Mill’, a millet brand factory run by rural women entrepreneurs from Bilikere Village. Trained and mentored by scientists of CSIR- CFTRI, India’s premier food technology institute, the rural entrepreneurs I met were brimming with skills and confidence in producing millet products. Especially the healthy and nutritious Ragi Millet. ‘Women Empowerment’, Rural Entrepreneurship, and healthy and nutritious local produce are some of the critical sustainable practices achieved through this initiative, and this is just the start.
Sustainable practices like honey production promote beekeeping as an effective way to sustain effective pollinators like bees, which is required for our nature to flourish. Additionally, there is a need to focus on many other responsible ways of going about food production in India. From Responsible fishing practices to energy consumption, from organic products for better health and soil to lower carbon footprint of our production practices, a lot needs to be done, and there is a lot to seek inspiration from.
During my travels across the country, I am always on the lookout for sustainable practices happening around us, and bringing them to you is not merely a pleasure I seek but also my responsibility. If the many sustainable practices can inspire us in India, we can certainly lay the path for the many more sustainable practices we need to adopt. For future generations to enjoy the fruit of nature, right now is the right time to adopt environmentally better practices and sustain the resources for future use. Inspiration can go a long way, and the ripple effect of good practices is underrated; let’s start today and see where we can reach before it’s too late.
Sidharth Bhan Gupta, Founder of 361 Degrees Hospitality, is a Hospitality / Food and Beverage / Restaurant Consultant, Travelling across India on a Cultural and Culinary Exploration.