In 2002, when Amrita Chengappa moved to the small village of Chitai Pant, in Almora, Uttarakhand, she was amazed by the area’s biodiversity. The village was home to a range of distinct indigenous produce such as hemp, nettle, rhododendron, Echinacea, wild mint and citrus woods. When she got the local nettle tested, she found its iron content was among the highest found in food.
Each item had the potential to be converted into oils, soaps or tea infusions to boost health and create a sense of well-being. And yet, locals were moving away from traditional practices, and towards processed foods consumed by people in the city, says Chengappa, who had sold her share in a business venture and moved from Lucknow in search of a simpler life. She wanted to re-instil a sense of pride in indigenous produce among villagers, while creating sustainable employment for the local women. And that is how SOS Organics started, in 2008. This venture, growing at a rate of 30% annually, has placed local produce at the heart of its herbal infusions, oils, soaps, seasonings, honey, natural cosmetics, and beeswax candles.
Today there are many similar ventures—some, which started during the pandemic, almost entirely self-funded—that seek to shine the spotlight on indigenous ingredients. There is Zizira in Shillong, which highlights a special type of turmeric, with curcumin content of 7% to 12%, grown in the village of Lakadong, in the interiors of Meghalaya. In West Bengal, a young startup, Amar Khamar, has curated a range of local pulses, spices, honey and ghee, such as the variant from Medinipur. Its forte, however, lies in a selection of indigenous rice varieties, be it the nutty Kanakchur or the caramelly Chine Kamini. The youngest of these startups, Porlaboka, launched last September, is focused on making pickles with the bhut jolokia, or the fiery ghost chilli pepper, from Assam and Nagaland.
Each focuses on ingredients that city dwellers had begun to consider exotic and out of reach. Now, with a growing number of ventures acting as a bridge between the consumer and the producer, often located in remote parts, the ingredients are slowly becoming part of the urban pantry.
The ecosystem of indigenous ingredients has grown considerably over the last two-three years. “One of the reasons for this is that some markets, which were earlier inaccessible, have opened up due to digitisation,” says Sushma Kaushik, partner at a venture capital firm, Aavishkaar, and member of the Indian Venture Capital Association’s executive committee. Producers who initially trained their sights on the domestic market have discovered a global one, with some now exporting their produce.
The Indian consumer’s increasing discernment is fuelling the growth story. “There is an increasing focus on health and wellness. Traceability of ingredients has become very important. This is leading consumers to startups which come with details on the provenance of the indigenous ingredients,” says Kaushik.
The pandemic has only accelerated the trend. “Consumers are now looking for immunity boosters even more than before, and products with a health aspect to them. They would prefer products which come directly from the source,” she adds. It’s no wonder then that the second half of last year saw some very interesting startups in the health and wellness space, working with local ingredients, attract the attention of investors.
Each brand is using the produce to generate employment locally. Zizira, for instance, was founded as an e-commerce venture by Ralph Budelman. The 70-year-old from Illinois, US, came to Shillong in 2004 and first started Chillibreeze as a PowerPoint formatting service to create employment opportunities for the youth. But he noticed that the state’s agricultural wealth was woefully underutilised. In 2017, he started Zizira. Today, the leadership and management is in the hands of three local members, who head a young team of 24.
Guwahati-based Porlaboka seeks to offer employment to the youth in the area while creating products that do justice to the bhut jolokia. The founder of this food and beverage startup, Stanzin Lhaskyabs, was visiting friends in Guwahati when the lockdown was announced last year. “I was already a fan of the chilli. However, most of the pickles and relishes that I had tasted were all made at home. These weren’t easy to find in the market. Some brands were offering products online, but it wasn’t the same flavour,” says Lhaskyabs, an independent researcher based in Ladakh. The idea of a venture took root.
With help from a friend in Nagaland, he set up Porlaboka in Guwahati. The recipe for the zinging hot pickle, Mürcha, came from a local, Gunada Malakar, who now heads their production.
The market is ripe for such brands, with consumers preferring products that don’t just follow quality checks in sourcing ingredients but are also environmentally conscious in their approach and offer a fair price to farmers. And these brands are trying to do just that. At SOS Organics, from the very Chengappa was clear that she wanted to follow a model, which was in sync with the local ecology. As a result, SOS Organics runs only on harvested rainwater, keeping in mind that Kumaon faces severe water scarcity. The team of 20 women works only for 6.5 hours, as they need to collect firewood and return home before it gets dark. At Zizira, the team draws on the ancient wisdom of small family farmers in Meghalaya, who are using regenerative and sustainable methods. Measures are in place to ensure that farmers are paid a fair price, with no middlemen involved.
Amar Khamar too works with small cooperatives, not-for-profits which have been training farmers for years, and farmers’ collectives. “Basically, organisations that have a welfare objective. Today, we have so many customers from across India, who believe in this slow way of living,” says Sujoy Chatterjee, a development consultant who set up Amar Khamar with his own money and the support of like- minded people.
Through 2018-19, he experimented in small ways, realising that not many people, including him, knew about the sheer diversity in rice varieties. “In a village in Bengal, if you are a guest of the family, your meal will contain at least two-three varieties of rice in the form of payesh and other delicacies,” says Chatterjee. The team figured out the possibilities of working with the different varieties—some of them have tested up to 60-70 of these. “Someone in our team posted about a taco which can be made with rice flour, and people loved it,” he adds.
On the Amar Khamar website, one can find detailed flavour profiles for each rice, with a short note of what it can be paired with. The Kataribhog, for instance, has been described as sweet and caramel flavoured, with this traditional variety having found a mention in folk and rural literature of Dinajpur district in West Bengal, indicating its long history of local consumption.
For Ruchira Sonalkar, who runs Native Tongue in Thane, Maharashtra, it has taken time to get the supply chain going and find the right producers for Gurbandi almond, alubukhara or Byadgi chillies, who are willing to send produce to Mumbai. “But now we have been able to establish a trust chain,” she says.
Ruchira used to head product management for specialty content with a noted media house till she took a sabbatical after having a baby. A friend, who knew her penchant for creating jams, spreads and preserves with local ingredients, asked her to create a baby announcement hamper. The hamper became so popular that she ended up floating a brand called Jam Packed in 2018. It was, effectively, a pilot project created with six products.
“Finally, my husband and I decided to create a more organised brand, with proper packaging and certification from the FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India), and in 2019, Native Tongue was born,” says Ruchira. The idea was to work with lesser-known Indian produce. A lot of people who were wary of consuming peanut butter earlier took to her version made with Byadgi chillies. “It was so versatile that it could be spread on dosas, phulkas and more, and had a flavour which resonated with people”. Her product portfolio now includes Gurbandi almond butter, pink guava nectar, Nashik strawberry preserve, Gondhoraj lebu mulling spices, thandai butter and many more. Last year, she launched a chunky, aamras-like mango jam with different varieties available during different times of the fruiting season. “The flavour changed with each variant,” adds Ruchira.
For some, it is not just about working with indigenous ingredients but also about passing on their family legacy to like-minded people. Take, for instance, Shelley Subawalla, who started Zarin’s Secrets with four Parsi spice mixes taken from her grandmother’s recipes. Initially she shared these with only close friends and family, who motivated her to start selling these commercially. “People find Parsi food exotic. So these spice mixes are a way of preserving culinary tradition, while making it accessible to people everywhere,” says Subawalla, who is based out of Gurgaon. Slowly, grandmas from other families also started giving her recipes, and soon after her spice mix and offerings expanded to 25-plus to include the dhansak masala, Parsi khara masala and the ever-popular vasanu and gor papri, made with jaggery cooked with ghee, almonds, ginger powder, coconut slices and fennel. In order to keep the products fresh, she doesn’t make big batches, ordering spices only 5 to 6 kilos at a time.
What also appeals to people is the story behind each brand. For instance, the name Mürcha for the bhut jolokia pickle piques the curiosity of most consumers. Lhaskyabs shares the story. “Chilli is known by many names, especially in the Himalayan belt. It is called mirch in Hindi, mercha in Nagamese, and martsa in Tibetan and Bhutanese. We wanted a name that blended all of these,” he says. At Zizira too, the team has noticed an interest in the stories of the farmers and the history of the produce. “We were searching for produce that perfectly captured what a Meghalaya farmer could offer to the rest of India and that led us to the turmeric, which grows in the village of Lakadong. It wasn’t easy to spread word about the immense value it possessed, and that it was more than just a kitchen spice. But over time people believed in us and what we were trying to accomplish,” notes Kimbretta Khongwir, head, Zizira