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Have you seen Shub's Let's Talk Trash book? It's the nicest 101 starting with how a lot of us grew up in the eighties and nineties... and how consumerism seems to have taken over... and how maybe it's time we went back to simpler ways. Sustainable living and sustainable cooking are really big right now - what with discussions around climate change, not only erratic weather but also ecological balance, forests, animals, what we consume, if we know about how and where our food comes from...

That we've been in a lockdown for many many months means we've had the time to think about how we do a lot of these things and how we can make small changes that we CAN possibly make into lifestyle changes. The internet is filled with memes about how "nature is healing" and "we are the virus." Well, I may not go the whole hog and might even make jokes about it myself, but somewhere I do acknowledge that we've done a fair amount of damage to the environment around us. And this is probably a minuscule way in which we can make an effort to making things just a wee little better.
Growing your own fruit and veg is far easier than you think. Plant seeds from coloured peppers or chillies or those from a tomato and hope they germinate. A dragonfruit even. A stalk of lemongrass (when you bought some extra for that Thai curry that you made). Fat stalks of mint. Get a friend to give you a stick of borage leaves or a little bit of aloe (both very hardy plants). Microgreens even - mustard seeds, methi seeds, dried peas, mung beans sunflower seeds... A little bit of Google and access to a grow bag and some soil (there's a little bit on composting, if you read below) should help you for starters. Or go sustainable all-the-way and use what you can at home for the most part, used curd or ice-cream boxes that you'd throw away, empty egg cartons, plastic boxes in which you got lettuce maybe. And it's not even like you need too much room to do this - your kitchen window sill, your balcony... I have a semicircular 'utility' area that spans 6 ft in diameter. And I grow two kinds of basil (Italian and Thai), tulsi (which I stole from the dog park in our housing society), lemongrass, moringa, aloe vera, green chillies, mint, blue pea flowers and dragonfruit (they're only saplings and they were a happy accident, but I'm not complaining). I've also planted passionfruit seeds, seeds for red peppers and soybean. We'll see how those fare.

Yes, tending to a garden does need a lot of patience and watering it regularly becomes part of ones schedule - you don't forget to brush your teeth every morning or do the laundry once a week, do you? But the joy of growing your own veggies (chemical-free, snigger) is unparalleled. If you can grow aubergines or gourd vines or pumpkins, kudos to you. Really. But after a point, having the space to grow your own veg does pose a problem.

Hydroponics is the new cool thing to indulge in these days. Of course, it means starting with a hydroponic kit, which is mostly all plastic. So, if you wish to make that investment, well (if you ask me my opinion, I'd rather not), you're opening up a whole bunch of new opportunities.

I guess the point I'm trying to make in all of this, is that if chefs the world over can talk about farm-to-table, root-to-shoot and nose-to-tail concepts, what's stopping us from starting small?

Sustainability in cooking is something a lot of chefs these days practise.

Like I said, while using the whole vegetable or animal or cooking seasonal (or local)  or even soup kitchens to make best use of food waste is all the rage, foraging is also an interesting way some chefs prefer to go sustainable. But is foraging sustainable? Here's an interesting read that may help you decide for or against the notion. I read this little nugget somewhere and I agreed with it - "Eating wild is a reliable way to eat sustainably, if done responsibly. Foraging is, by definition free, so anyone can do it. What's more, it gives urban communities access to nutritious ingredients of reliably high quality and taste." Heading out into the wild (snigger) might be difficult in urban communities in India. But kuki.jar on Instagram is an Indian-born chef in Warsaw who does this from time to time. Rene Redzepi (whom everyone has heard of) also does so. Not foraging but free for sure - this veggie patch near Trichur!

For the urban (c'mon, I mean if you have internet and access to this little piece of writing, I can very well assume you belong to an urban community) folk, understanding what you can eat, what you cannot eat is, then, crucial. Did you know that whom we call 'beggars' and who we see ''scavenging for food' in India just go by another term Dumpster Diving in USA? Take this a step further and look up about freegans - dumpster divers who self-identify as freegans. They claim living from dumpster-dived-goods reduces their ecological (and economical!) footprint The snarky me is thinking of a 'food blogger' who stakes claim on a free meal at a vegan restaurant, but hey, you know me! How much of it is an anti-consumerism mindset is something that I'd rather not get into. However, I'm amused that urban + wild foraging, urban gardening and SHARING (I know, right!) are also parts of this freeganism thing.

 While still on the topic of foraging, well, hunting was popular when urban communities weren't a thing. Hell! Hunting as a hobby is still legal in some places. And tribals (the few that are still around) hunt meat too.

But more interesting than that is their use of insects as food for themselves has steadily awakened urban folk to consider the usage of insects as flours.

While crunching through insects and slurping pupae might be everything right out of The Lion King, that it is high in protein content, doesn't taste bad at all (in fact, it lends a beautiful nutty after taste when cooked with)is making it an alternative to meat.

Speaking of alternatives - using bamboo toothbrushes instead of your Colgate Double Bristle Toothbrush might be the new cool thing to do. But what’s stopping us from using a mortar and pestle instead of a mixer-grinder then? Well, that's what our grandmums did right? In fact, stone weapons made way for stone and metal grinding equipment. And those made way for the modern mixer grinders. So, I guess there is some sense of pride (almost!) in going back to the mortar and the pestle, every once in a while.
I asked my mum whether all the different grinding tools we had before the advent of the mixer-grinder had their own use - much like the three different jars that come with our mixer-grinders - a chutney jar, one for wet grinding and one for grinding spices/masalas. She said the big wooden ones operated by two people and a tall 'pestle' (called a 'sambelu' in Gujarati) was primarily used for removing husk. Following that, the grain was 'milled' in a chakki (or ghanti) to a flour. The rectangular/square ones that were laid flat on the floor were used for finer chutneys/pastes. And the small mortar-and-pestle that we have in our kitchens these days were used for dry masalas that didn't need to be that finely ground. The metal ones (mostly brass) were used to grind herbs or make medicinal concoctions. There used to be a kind made of iron too - but I'm unsure of what it was used for.

So, whether it's the hamam dasta or the sil batta or the molcajete or the Italian mortaio e pestello - it's been around for centuries (if not more). Attempting to use it in a modern world not only gives you the joy of saving on a few minutes of electricity but also make your food unbelievably tastier (if done the right way).
Of course, this edition was supposed to be about sustainable options around cooking and I've digressed. So back to it, then. Milling your own grain at home can be an expensive affair and seems worth it only if it is a cost-effective option (home ground and home fermented idli and dosa batter is always nicer in taste or so claims Ma). But if that were a feasible option, it'd most definitely be something a lot more of us did. No?
If grinding spices or herbs in a bowl is a thing, there's another thing that people loved doing many many years ago. A lot of people from the world over - different communities, different civilizations even, practised pit cooking. They're also called earth ovens. A pit is dug in the earth, where a large quantity of food can be cooked. This is typically done in the absence of proper cooking utensils to do (this could just be a function of the number of people being cooked for or the access to cooking utensils or, well, because it's damn tasty to cook food this way!

The food can be baked or slow-cooked using heated rocks, flowing hot water from natural springs, fossil fuel (sigh, carbon footprint alert!) and the pit is then covered with vegetation to add moisture and a final covering of earth/soil. Food cooked in bits can take several hours to cook. And usually results in extremely tender cuts of meat or perfectly cooked melt-in-your mouth tubers.

There's Rugbrauo - Icelandic rye bread cooked under earth in the heat of hot springs and pachamanca (dates back to the Incas in Peru) - a mix of meats and veggies that get their characteristic char from heated volcanic rocks or even the Beggar's Chicken in China - clay and lotus leaf wrapped chicken that is slow-cooked underground. Closer home, there's khad khargosh - a Rajasthani preparation that uses a pit to slow cook a rabbit or even a wild boar or chicken (typically popular among soldiers) or ubadiyu - which you see on highways in Gujarat - wild grown leaves called kalaar (which add a beautiful aroma and an ever-so-slight bitter after taste), loads of ginger, ajwain and turmeric. Of course, it can be made with undhiyu beans and potatoes and the like, but tastes utterly delicious when made with chicken or mutton too. 
Cooking slow and without utensils may be ingratiating in more ways than one, but what if I added one more cool thing to it? Composting vegetable skins. Putting bones in, as is, might not be the brightest thing to do. But you can always read up on how you can char the bones and add it to your compost bin. Of course, it's a lengthy process and everyone might not be up for all that effort, but, hey, you do get some phosphorus-rich nutrients in your little pot of black gold!

You could use the bits you'd otherwise throw away to make tepache or different kinds of vinegar or flavoured oils too. My favourite thing to do is to rinse a lot of the bones I have from a roast or a curry and use onion peels, coriander stems and anything else I might fancy to make stocks. They can take a good 4 to 6 hours to get the depth of flavour I like. But once the stock is down to room temperature, into the freezer it goes. And it makes a lovely addition to soups, curries, you name it.

Various countries have statistical data on the percentage of food wasted in grocery stores and I've even written about how best we can tackle it in our own ways here. However, there is a lot of traditional Indian food that focuses on making best use of parts of a vegetable (for instance) that would otherwise go to waste - a chutney from peels, leaves in a dal and the fleshy veg in a thoran, and so much more! However, composting might just be the more convenient option for us, in cities. Besides, most housing societies actively compost waste and allow you to take some of the compost for your little home garden. That's two birds with one stone, if you ask me!
I had two very interesting pieces show up in my email - one about sustainability being closely linked to drinking! (Who wudda thunk!). The other called Eating The Gap - a virtual event to engage people in a more sustainable and healthy diet without sacrificing taste. It's happening on Monday, November 16th and it's a weekday. So it'll be VERY VERY unlikely that I can attend. But please do if you're keen! :)

Google's Sundar Pichai has even announced that they wish to go sustainable (not only in the food sense) by 2030! And that's huge!! If more folk were to follow suit (or even increase awareness about the issue), there might be hope of reversing several (ecological) disasters we have brought upon ourselves, as a race.

But, that leaves me with a handful of more questions that I will be reading aggressively about to try to find answers to. Maybe I'll make another edition of the newsletter of it. Who knows?
  1. What, really, is the future of sustainable or faux-sustainable options then? Is it really a way of reversing this ill we have brought upon ourselves? Or is it a meek attempt at doing so and boosting our overinflated egos in the process?
  2. Will us relying on doing a handful of things ourselves actually stop over-harvesting of grain or basic greens? We can go vegan because we think that the means to raise meat/fish are not ethical. But that puts more pressure on the vegetarian scale (and resources), right? Is it right on our part to ruin the food chain in an attempt to save it?
  3. They say, there is familiarity and comfort in what we eat (therefore we will slowly look for less options and learn to be content with what we have and what we grow). For instance, I've even read that we will begin to enjoy lab-grown meat if we connect with it. Does that mean that in an attempt to maintain an ecological balance, we will switch to consuming faux-food?
Sometimes, thinking of all of this leaves me sadder than I first started out being. It's happened more than once. So then, I take the escapist route and sleep it off.

With that, here are some book recommendations for this month.
I'd bought this book almost a year ago and read it in detail. Alas, I haven't gotten around to trying anything from it yet. When that will happen now, God alone knows.
That I have immense respect for this man is a given. That this book is very expensive also is.
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It goes without saying, stay safe, y'all.
Cook your hearts out. Eat well. And remember, there's always that little bit you can do to make the world a better place (as corny as it sounds).

Until next time, nom nom!
- Meha
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