Recently, Spudnik Farms, a collective of small holding organic farmers across Karnataka organised the ‘Rooted in Community’ Chef Residency. The field visit and community cooking session, between February 19-21, facilitated an exchange of knowledge and ideas on the biodiversity and culinary capabilities of tuber crops growing in Joida in North Karnataka, located in the Western Ghats. Five chefs—Nayantara Menon Bagla, Karan Thakker, Shreya Gazmer, Karan Upmanyu and Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar—spent two days in Joida, interacting with the home cooks of the Kunbi tribe and Goud Saraswat Brahmin (GSB) community. Their learnings culminated in a yele-oota (meal served on a banana leaf) style feast showcasing several tubers, on March 11 at The Courtyard in Bengaluru.
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The Kunbi ethnic group is an important agrarian tribe of North Karnataka. With over 100 settlements, the Kunbis are indigenous inhabitants of this part of Western Ghats. They are known for paddy cultivation and grow a wide range of tubers, as many as 48 currently, for their personal consumption and for sale.
Namrata Jayanand Derekar, known fondly among her peers as Bhakri Rani (Queen of bhakris, a kind of roasted flatbread), is from Deria and is a member of a 212-strong Kunbi joint family that comprises this whole village. The family works on a 100-acre farm growing rice and several varieties of tubers. “We came to know of the value of these tubers only around 10 years ago. We grow rice and sell it and often would give away tubers for free, after storing enough for ourselves. We found them getting popular with the annual Tuber Mela (held end of December or early January in Joida) organised by the Joida Tuber Growers Association, where we would cook food with them and sell them too.” Derekar was cooking as part of the residency in Bengaluru for the first time, along with two others.
“My first trip to Joida in 2019 was humbling because it opened my eyes to the variety of indigenous produce in the region,” says Sumeet Kaur, Founder of Spudnik Farms. “I experienced the extraordinary generosity of the Kunbi community, and also witnessed them struggling with poverty. That’s when we started working with them to create sustainable livelihood opportunities through agriculture, bringing these lesser known indigenous crops into the mainstream by marketing fresh tubers and minimally processed products, like chips, papad and sanadige in Bengaluru.”
The yele-oota, was an eye-opener into the ways tubers can be used in everyday cooking, in preparations quite similar to what we are used to. The joni bella has boiled dhave kona (white yam-dioscorea rotundata) mixed with liquid jaggery to make a dry sweet of a thick payasam consistency. There was the jhaad kannaga (plectranthus rotundifolius) chutney, dark brown in colour with an earthy flavour. A seafood version of it uses dried kube (clams). There were also a variety of sanadige—sun-dried wafers that are deep-fried made with mudali (dasheen taro-colocasia), some with dried mackerel added to it. The smoked and mashed mudali bharta is similar in preparation to a brinjal bharta but is eaten with curd.
Along with jeerakasala rice, there was also ratalu (sweet potato) papad, suvarna gadde saaru (elephant foot yam curry), and kasar alu sungata kari (taro root curry with prawns).
The kona halwa, made with dhave kona had a lovely texture, quite unexpected from a tuber. Flavours also came in from ingredients like the vaate huli or monkey jack (artocarpus lakoocha), kaali mirach (local black pepper), tepphal (zanthoxylum rhetsa) and much more.
“To bring tubers into the mainstream, we have to first normalise their use in daily food,” believes Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar, Chef and Founder of Edible Archives, Goa. “The easiest is to rava (semolina) fry because marination makes some of these tubers slimy. Boiling or roasting on open fire and mashing is another simple way. And for those intimidated by the amount of prep for tubers, the incentive should be that a small portion often gives you a large yield, making a substantial dish,” she adds.
Educating people of the existence of such ingredients is an important first step agrees, Karan Thakker, an alumnus of the Culinary Institute of America in New York who now runs a private catering business Bengaluru. “The next step is how to use these ingredients. It can be reconstituted into a flour, potentially be used to bulk up spent grain, to make sanadige or papads. Working on aspects like the sliminess of these ingredients by reconstituting or dehydrating can help package them into product that chefs and people can experiment with,” he says, adding that introducing finished products in ways synonymous to Indian food, like a papad is a great way forward.
Tubers can also find their way into the fine-dining space believes Karan Upmanyu of Wood Street Sauce Co, a Bengaluru-based brand of small batch sauces and condiments. “There may have been supply chain constraints earlier for lesser known ingredients but that’s changing. One may argue that these tubers don’t have great textures but this is where our skills come to play. I’m certain that a mudali gnocchi will be just as popular as its potato version,” he says.
From a sustainability perspective, tubers are a true showcase of what future-forward climate resilient agriculture will look like. Kaur explains, “Tubers serve as a critical source of food, nutrition and cash income for many of the developing world's farmers and food-insecure people. They are known for their climate resilience due to low input requirements, adaptability to diverse farming systems and their ability to provide sustainable yields, even under adverse climatic and soil conditions. The Kunbis have preserved many unique varieties of tuber crops over centuries. Despite this, they have been unable to fully realise the potential of these crops due to lack of marketing avenues and technology. As a result, these resilient and nutritious crops are unknown in urban areas like Bengaluru."
Nayantara Menon Bagla, a Functional Nutrition Coach found it interesting to see how a marginalised community that has grown paddy as a cash crop for the last 60 years has realised that this will not be consistent in the future considering changing weather patterns. She adds that coming from the food industry, having the power to tell the stories of these people who are truly doing something that matters on the ground level, is important.
Shreya Gazmer, who runs a plant-based kitchen Hungry Alien in Bengaluru agrees with Bagla on the importance of these stories being shared and adds that such information will help battle food crisis, bring stable flow of cash income for farmers and the community as a whole. “These farmers have not been able to realise the full potential of these crops due to a lack of marketing and it's our duty, especially city folks to be all inclusive and create a demand in the market for a wholesome and prosperous community,” she adds.
This chef residency and the resultant meal was one of the ways to showcase the culture and culinary techniques of this ancient hill-dwelling community, giving their incredible produce the recognition it deserves. “The reason why these are age-old communities is that their way of life and food has been tried and tested through the years through various climates. In a world where food security will be a concern and is already so in many places, the more we go back and learn from what already exists instead of creating something new, the better it will be,” believes Kaur.
The hope is that such residencies and meals will see these ingredients making their way into the urban diner’s everyday plate, catalysing a change in the way we eat and shop for ingredients.
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Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is a features journalist based in Bengaluru.