A Thali for our Food Future

Photo by: Lior Shapira

On October 4th, an international audience will gather in Delhi for a sneak preview into the future of sustainable food. The Food Forever Initiative is organizing a side-event on one of the four thematic pillars of the World Economic Forum taking place that weekend – The New Ecological System: Food, Environment and Climate Change. And who better to represent food on the global stage than the people who get creative with it every day?

Three trailblazing chefs – Megha Kohli, Radhika Khandelwal and Vanshika Bhatia – will set the table at the 30-minute session, while a fourth, Anahita Dhondy, will guide participants through the menus of the future. All are part of  the 2020 for 2020 movement, a collaboration between the Food Forever Initiative and the Chef’s Manifesto that calls on chefs from around the world to broaden our palates, as a contribution to Sustainable Development Goal Target 2.5 to maintain the genetic diversity of our crops and livestock.

Today, of the 30,000 edible plants found in nature, only 12 crops and 5 animal species account for more than 80% of our calorie intake. This alarming narrowing of choice is why Food Forever is an advocate for more diversity on our dinner plates. From jackfruit to hemp seed, these chefs are cooking it and serving it up, all across India.

Jackfruit Joker

The specialties in the limelight this week aren’t futuristic fancies, nor are they obscure superfoods outside of the culinary mainstream. In some form or the other, they have always been in the Indian pantry. Radhika Khandelwal, Chef-Partner at Radish Hospitality, knows this well. A champion of the versatile jackfruit, which goes as well in curry as in ice cream, she recalls fondly, “For the first 12 years of my life my vegetarian parents successfully conned me into believing that I was eating meat biryani when they were actually serving me jackfruit biryani!”

This giant fruit, which clusters thickly on thin-limbed trees, has long been a favorite of rural people for whom it is a cheap and tasty plant-based alternative to meat. It’s easy to grow, drought and pest resistant, and extremely nutritious, with high potassium, calcium and iron content. Radhika sources jackfruit from a small-scale farmer in south India, and rigorously implements a zero-waste policy in her kitchen, whose jackfruit burgers are a hit. She’s just heard that you can make a caffeine-free drink out of jackfruit seeds, so look out for a Jaffee.

Hemp Heaven

The association between hemp and its more unruly cousin, marijuana, has sullied the reputation of the former as a food, at least in some quarters. However, this ancient Ayurvedic dietary tradition may be due for a revival. The nutty and buttery seeds of the industrial hemp plant – the same plant used to make textiles and rope – have much lower concentrations of the psychotropic agent THC, but make up for that with high levels of omega-3 and 6 fatty acids, fiber, protein and iron.

Megha Kohli is Head Chef at Lavaash by Saby, one of the only Armenian restaurants in India, and she is determined to revive near-extinct dishes that include hemp seed. During a campaign run by her restaurant last month, she was delighted to hear people talking nostalgically about the hemp seed dishes they used to eat as children. As a chef, she recognizes the power she has to reverse such trends – by sourcing hemp seed from local farmers in Uttarakhand (north India), promoting old dishes, and creating entirely new ones. Megha’s favorite is lentil and hemp seed vegan meatballs in a hemp seed and yellow chili curry.

Millet for Millennials 

“Millennials are keen on exotic crops,” muses Anahita Dhondy, Chef-Partner at SodaBottleOpenerWala. “It’s not cool anymore to be eating millet.” But this staple crop has been around for, yes, millennia. And as Anahita explains, there are many types – foxtail, kodo, finger, pearl, barnyard – all different, all nutritious, all delicious.

It’s Anahita’s mission to make it easy for young people to tap the heritage that millets represent. “Many people think millet takes a long time to cook. So I do a lot of recipes online where I showcase how it can be used. My favorite dish is probably an upcycle warm millet salad, where I just toss together what’s in season, and what’s in my fridge.” Old doesn’t have to mean uncool.

Beyond Dal

Lentils are far from neglected in Indian cuisine – but no one could call the generic “dal soup” that dominates online recipe sites exciting. Lentils are too often associated with bland nutrition rather than taste. But this need not be the case, according to Chef Vanshika Bhatia, who runs Together at 12th. Lentils come in all sizes and colors, not to mention tastes.

One of Vanshika’s signature dishes is a navrangi dal (a motley mix of nine lentils and beans), cooked simply with onion, tomato, cumin and coriander. But lentils, with their smooth, malleable textures, work equally well in desserts. Moong dal, for instance, makes an excellent halwa-like pudding.

Vanshika says she is eager to elevate lentils from side-kick to hero. But farmers around the world already know their super-powers. Their ability to draw down atmospheric nitrogen into the soil allows crop rotation with cereals without the need to add chemical fertilizers.

New Plating for a New Era

With every new food we create for plates and palates, or old food we welcome back, we are weaving one more strand into the tapestry of the resilient and sustainable food system of the future. These four “old-new” products, championed by four exciting young chefs, give us a sense of a food future that reaches deep into the past. Food Forever’s event at the World Economic Forum aims to spark conversations that will inspire us all to reconsider how we live on and with this planet, and how we approach perhaps the most fundamental human activity of all – cooking.

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