• Experts speak

    Go Organic and HOW!

  • –  Chef Michael Swamy & Sarab Matharu

    Wonder how to start your own pretty little garden at home? Or confused about buying organic food available in the market? Get all your queries answered by Chef Michael Swamy & Sarab Matharu with Travel Food & Wine.

    Organic farming is a term most people have mixed feelings about. They want to grow their own food but don’t know where to start from. Moreover, the masses are perplexed how exactly the scenario of organic farming works in India where the use of pesticides is soaring high. Travel Food & Wine had a chance to get insights from Chef Michael Swamy, a popular celebrity chef and Sarab Matharu, a passionate urban gardener from Mumbai to help you decode the art of organic farming. Get ready to take a green tour through their beautiful experiences accompanied by some of their market analysis about organic food in India.

    Chef Michael Swamy says,

    “Well, before I get into that one needs a bit of history. Organic Food, a term coined by Lord Northbourne in 1939 is a holistic approach to farming. It was a recent trip to an organic farm in the middle of a dessert that got me thinking about it all. Hideout, another eco destination grows a lot of organic produce and staying there, one gets to see firsthand what the whole thing is all about. A question is that for centuries we have been farming without pesticides and how the current trend of going organic is more expensive than pesticide created food. Even while organic is now, relatively common food terminology, it is the distinct difference in flavours, awareness and the fact that it is free of genetic modification makes it stands out. Organic means good, clean and fair: good in terms of taste, clean in terms of environmental sustainability, and fair, in terms of price and value for the people who produce it.

    According to some, organic farming is practically unheard of in India, or is it?

    For generations raw elements of our food have been grown without the use of pesticides. Currently India is the second largest producer and exporter in the world of fruits and vegetables. Many small farmers cannot afford pesticides, nor does anyone ask at the marketplace, if the vegetable produce has been sprayed or not. Organic farms have always been small family run units and the produce is available in small shops or farmers markets. Something seems to escape us all when we have been inundated with farmers markets all across the country. I have travelled my fair share and some of the farmers markets that make it for me are the ones in the interiors of India. The tiny villages where produce comes in once a week at the weekly market. The chaos and mayhem, the dust, the bargaining and cacophony of sound is all something new.

    The adage ‘know your farmer, know your food’ gives a personal dimension to the whole process. Agriculture is one of the most basic activities and its principles are embedded in the way we live, our outlook upon life and the health of the ecosystem. ‘It is not simply the absence of illness, but the maintenance of physical, mental, social and ecological wellbeing.’

    The outlets for organic foods are few and usually the tiny section in stores assigned to organic produce, is a neglected spot. What’s on display is dismal though gourmet stores and up-market one’s like Natures Basket, Navdanya, Hypercity, Fab India, Bharti Delmonte’s Field Fresh and a few others, but at the same time are making a concerted effort to promote organic produce. But is the price just? Due to the lack of volume is often priced between 10%  to 60% higher than that for regular produce. Too expensive, also means a change in the dimension of one’s shopping budget would be considerable if one were to shop just for organic produce. 

    Dr. Vijaya Venkat made early inroads into promoting healthy organic food in India long before it became a general craze. Masanobu Fukuoka a Japanese farmer wrote many books and literally changed the farming methods and implemented them in several parts of the world and created the concept of natural farming. Today we are seeing a whole range of new forms of organic, from urban terrace farming to the produce of micro greens using coconut husk as soil. The current rage of aquaponics and hydroponics and other forms of growing produce has changed the ecosystem of farming. The produce is also natural and less harmful to the soil.

    Many Indian brands like Trikaya Farms have pioneered in bringing healthy food to the consumer at affordable prices. Why should healthy food be exported while we have to eat pesticide-laden food? Groups like Navdanya and Trikaya may be honest, but do the retailers know what they are getting? It becomes questionable when people organise a farmers market in cities and there’s nothing organic about it at all.

    Taking one’s health into account, and on the nutrition front, organic food is known to contain 50% more nutrients, vitamins and minerals, as against chemically grown food, of which  you would have to eat twice as much to get the same amount of minerals, and ingest a whole dose of chemicals, pesticides, antibiotics and hormones that animals are fed with.

    Hotels too are making a change to the environment with having their own waste treatment centres and mini farms on their properties. Not only has it changed the life cycle of vegetables but it’s also fresher and has travelled less miles. You use what you need rather than buying and ending up with a whole amount of waste. Chefs too have taken up the challenge of cooking with organic produce and have witnessed the fresh flavours for themselves. 

    Many spas in India like Aahana, Pugdundee resorts, Ananda spa, Waxpol resorts have set the trend for spa cuisine and using local ingredients in their food. Soon we will see a change in the shift to holistic and organic foods, but the change will come when we start a training program for farmers and bringing back the old ways of sustainable farming.”

    A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, London, Chef Michael has done his specialization in Bakery and Patisserie. He has worked with various Michelin Chefs in UK and has headed many high-end restaurants in India.  Along with his expertise in progressive Indian cuisine, he is also a bestselling author of several cookbooks in India

    Sarab Matharu says, 

    “During my college days my path often crossed Dadar station, where the vegetables supplied to parts of Mumbai arrived in the morning in the most heart cringing conditions. I saw food being treated like garbage, like waste for three years, and I was really disappointed with the quality of food that we receive. I thought I should do something about it, so I became an urban farmer and now I teach people how to grow their own food.

    If you buy your vegetables from the local vendor or a fancy supermarket, it is skeptical that the quality is any good. Your capsicums may look shiny but you don’t know the lethal chemicals they’re grown with. Besides, the vegetables have been harvested when they haven’t even reached their optimum nutrition, then they travel for days, again lying on the shelves for us to purchase them and even after we bring them home they lay in our fridge for a couple more days until we finally consume them. What we’re eating is dead food. The point is, to elevate the food experience, the quality, the standard, the hygiene, the safest and the best quality food that you can ever put on your table is the one you grow yourself.

    In ancient times, everyone grew their own food and hunted for it, the connection with food and land was strong but as we evolved the responsibility of growing food fell on a few shoulders we today call “farmers”. Slightly imbalanced don’t you think? All that power in a few hands, why not take some of it back? Why not grow some of your own food organically at home?

    What is organic food anyway?

    Organic food doesn’t just mean grown without chemical pesticides but in the true sense, it means carrying out a process without having a hazardous impact on the environment. So organic food also means locally grown food. For example, take avocados, even though they’ve been grown without using pesticides, they’re not really organic because they’ve flown thousands of miles to get to your plate and have created a massive carbon footprint.

    In June 2017, the glorious summers of Quebec, Canada I was blessed to work on a 100% organic vertical farm and it was like living in a Disney movie. Working with plants, with birds chirping, bees buzzing, bunnies and frogs hopping, otters building a dam in the little stream, the deers glaring at us from a distance, I felt in complete harmony with nature, picking red juicy strawberries and a myriad of vegetables grown by us. Farm life has undeniably been the most satiating life experience for me.

    Now, right across our farm there was a conventional broccoli farm. As far as I could look, I saw thousands of little plants of broccoli neatly lined up till the horizon. But I observed that there was not a single person on that farm for days together while we used to go on crazy watering our plants in the blazing sun. If we didn’t water our plants for a day they would start wilting but on that other farm after every 15 days I used to see through big sprinklers water the broccoli plants. That was very strange and made me wonder how are the plants surviving with such scanty watering. Then after a few days I could see the mystery unveiling as a giant tank sprayer came with its sophisticated hands spraying chemicals on the rows. At night I remember I used to love watching the fireflies, there were so many of them in our lawn and farm, but then again I that noticed right across the road, there were none. It was baffling to see the fireflies just 15ft away from the farm, but they wouldn’t go near the perilous broccoli plants.

    So imagine what are we eating?

    What the wildlife dreads to go near, we consume decorated in our plates. No wonder the cancers are on the rise. After about two months, bunch of people came in a team and harvested the entire field in a couple of hours. Those broccoli heads looked beautiful and fresh, ready to go on the shelves across the whole city, but the people buying them wouldn’t know the slow poisons they have been grown with.

    Eating organic isn’t a trend, its tradition. Growing your own food is so exciting, easy and rewarding. You get to choose what you grow and the options are endless. Did you know there are more than 3,000 varieties of tomatoes alone? And you are still eating the red flavorless stones for tomatoes? There are vegetables like purple cauliflower, purple beans and carrots, blue and pink and colorful corns that we haven’t even heard of.”

    Here are a few reasons for you to start growing your own food

    • It’s truly organic and you get unique variety which isn’t available in the market.
    • You don’t have to leave your life chores and be a full time farmer for this. For a small window garden you only need to invest 5 minutes of your time daily for watering and an additional hour every week to show your plants some extra love.
    • You know your food better and learn more about how it really looks while growing and have a real connection with food along with lesser food wastage.
    • You positively impact the environment in a many ways. If every roof top and balcony and window was occupied by plants, there would be cheer in the air, a drastic change in the climate, the temperatures wouldn’t go above 30°c.
    • It’s good for your health, not just by eating healthy, but while nurturing plants and being in the vicinity of fresh oxygen has positive effects on your mental health and reduces stress. Also working with soil introduces healthy bacteria to your gut which improves immunity.

    Tips for starting your organic garden

    • Start with 10-15 plants and then coax yourself in having as many as you want. Take small steps in the beginning.
    • Grow what you love and would enjoy eating.
    • Start from good quality seeds. The seeds you sow will become the food you eat, so only sow the best. Start with easy and fast growing plants to be more encouraged.
    • The very basics of a successful edible garden are planning, using good quality supplies, fertilizing and maintenance.
    • Consider choosing a place with good sunlight. Morning sunlight is the best for plants. An east-facing window should be the first preference. But if you don’t have it, that’s also fine, your edible garden needs a minimum of 4 hours of sun to flourish. If you live in a place with not enough sunlight, you can still grow a lot of greens.
    • Soil is most crucial, especially in container gardening because your plants get nutrients from the soil. Make sure to use rich dark compost, mix it with cocopeat and perlite to make the texture light and aerated.
    • Never use the clay soil that is used by most of the nurseries. That soil is picked up from the forests, which adversely affects the ecosystem and only does well in the forest because it’s alive with millions of living insects that keep the soil aerated and nutrient dense, whereas in containers the soil is as good as dead. Note that the clay soil is nutrient deficient, compacts down overtime forming a hard block which chokes the plant roots and stresses the plants acutely. Also the clay soil has a sticky mushy texture which in most cases leads to root rot which is undetected by most people.
    • The perfectly amended soil blend is the secret to a successful garden, period. A good way to tell whether the texture of the soil is right is when you hold the soil in your hand and press it, it compacts down to a ball, but when you poke your finger into it, it falls apart.
    • From time to time keep adding natural fertilizers to your soil as the nutrients in the soil get used up very fast.
    • Strong healthy plants will keep most pests at bay. It’s the weak, under-watered, nutrient deficient plants that attract pests. So keep your plants as healthy and vigorous as you can.

    Also, always allocate 40% space for pollinator-friendly flowers, without those most of your vegetable flowers will fall off and never turn into fruit without pollination.

    Sarab’s Soil Recipe

    The compost, cocopeat and perlite in the soil should be in a ratio of 40:40:20 for most edible plants. Compost aids nutrition, cocopeat adds for a  light texture of the soil and helps in retaining moisture and perlite helps the soil drain well and stay aerated.

    Fast growing plants from seed (harvest in less than 30 days)

    • Microgreens
    • Herbs like basil
    • Spinach
    • Round Raddishes
    • Baby beetroots
    • Arugula
    • Spring mix lettuce

    Easy to grow plants (harvest in 2-3 months)

    • Cherry tomatoes
    • Tomatoes
    • Okras
    • Carrots
    • Moringa tree (for leaves)
    • Eggplants
    • Beans
    • Peppers
    • Lettuce heads

    Easy and fast growing plants from cuttings/roots

    • Lemongrass
    • Mint
    • Stevia
    • Basils

    Wishing you well on your journey to a new life of growth and fulfillment. It is my vision to see more good health, greenery, clean air, butterflies and bees, more love and joy for our beautiful planet!

    Sarab is an urban gardener based in Mumbai. After working on a vertical 100% organic farm in Quebec, Canada, Sarab is all set to create a positive difference in the country with regards to growing your own food at home with the dream of improving millions of lives.