Wild foods, ingredients that are gathered from our surroundings rather than cultivated through human intervention, have been a part of our collective way of life for millennia. Way before words like ‘foraging’ and ‘hyper local’ were hip, we survived-no, thrived-on eating what naturally grew around us. Over thousands of years, we learnt the wisdom of what would nourish us and protect us from illnesses. However, we have lost touch with this side of our collective consciousness over the past several decades.
Not surprisingly, there are still several tribal communities across India that continue with this tradition, but in quite a different way from the hallowed farm-to-table movement that is all the rage these days. What is systematically wrong in the way farm-to-table is understood and executed in even some of the best restaurants in the world is that it puts the chef in the driver’s seat. When the restaurant decides what should be grown, there’s a complete disregard for the soil, climate, terroir and, sometimes, the entire ecosystem (think avocados being grown in an organic farm in Ooty).
Take Noma, for example. This trailblazing, modern Nordic restaurant in Copenhagen relies heavily on ingredients within their geography for its highly seasonal menu. They have a dedicated foraging team that studies the flora and fauna in Denmark, finding plants and weeds that are often consumed as food for the very first time on Noma’s menu. In India, on the other hand, wild foods have been a staple diet for our tribal communities for over thousands of years, with each generation building on the nutritional wisdom of the previous one and striving to preserve the knowledge. For example, Teri, also known as Shield Leaf Ariopsis, consumed by the Mahadev Koli tribe in the Harishchandragad area of the Sahyadri hills is known to have anti-bacterial, anti-diabetic and anti-arthritic properties, apart from being a rich source of phytochemicals.
Sadly, with the onset of the agricultural and industrial revolutions, we have forgotten a lot of these lessons. Cutting down forests for farmlands has had repercussions-soil erosion, destruction of ecosystems, monoculture, depleted nutrition in produce and dependency on pesticides, which then is responsible for a lot of the illnesses today.
Therein lies the biggest irony of the post-industrial, modern era of food consumption. The way forward is to actually go back to our roots. Not to say nothing good has come from modernity, but to ignore the wisdom of communities that have refined their diets based on what was available around them would be silly.
Indian restaurants, for the longest time, have prided themselves on putting ‘fancy’ vegetables like asparagus and truffles on the menu, all the while ignoring the plethora of ingredients we have at our disposal. What has happened in the process is that while growers and supply chains for these English vegetables have mushroomed, the same for local produce continue to be abysmal.
When we opened The Bombay Canteen in 2015, fine dining and imported ingredients were still the ‘in’ thing. We realised early on that in order to connect our local, regional food philosophy with our diners, we would have to redefine the notion of ‘luxury’ and glamourise indigenous, seasonal produce without being gimmicky or taking away from the integrity of the ingredient. In this endeavour, we’ve incorporated nearly 140 different desi, highly seasonal vegetables over the past four years into our menu. However, we were still detached from the people growing our food. That changed with our ‘Taste of the Wild’ initiative earlier this year. Working closely with OOO Farms, we created a menu using wild vegetables that was both exciting and delicious, but one that also respected the ingredients. This was particularly daunting because there was no rulebook on how to cook these vegetables and many of them were available for a short time, sometimes less than a fortnight. So we travelled to the villages growing them and spent time there, understanding preparation techniques.
The most important outcome from this immersive trip, however, was the realisation that we needed to be mindful about this sourcing process. Instead of demanding specific vegetables for our wild foods menu, we worked with the community to give us only the produce they had in abundance-without depleting the forest or their own diets-for our menu. Chefs and restaurants today have a responsibility. It might be in their best interest to peg their USPs on initiatives around sustainability to preserve heritage and cuisine. It is also obvious that we are moving into an era where being conscious is inescapable, so why not start right away.
Man’s thirst for luxury will never be satiated. So, if we want to become more wholesome as a society, we need to rethink, reconstitute and redefine what luxury means from something material to being more in touch with ourselves, our heritage and tradition. And that’s a future that’s both delicious and responsible.
-The writer, Thomas Zacharias, is the executive chef and partner at The Bombay Canteen, Mumbai.