food corner

Alice Waters, the pioneer of the farm-to-table movement, has an excellent idea for India

India should take a shot at ‘edible education’, believes the chef’s chef.

“How do we teach slow food values in a fast food culture?” asked Alice Waters, restaurateur, food activist, chef, and author. “I want to make the school lunch an academic subject, so that children digest the lesson along with the culture. This is my most important project right now.”

Waters is having dinner at The Bombay Canteen. It is her second day in Mumbai, on her first trip to India. In the last couple of weeks she has been to Agra to see the Taj Mahal (on Valentine’s Day, she noted, on Instagram), she has celebrated the rabi harvest with swirling gair dancers in Jodhpur, and then attended the World Sufi Spirit Festival in the Blue City. Waters speaks with particular delight about Ahilya Fort hotel in Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh. It’s where the 73-year-old ate her first salad in India, loaded with frisée and rocket, every ingredient in it fresh off the hotel’s organic farms.

Waters is the owner and chef of Chez Panisse, a 46-year-old restaurant in Berkeley, California. When it opened in 1971, it sparked a dining trend that continues to inspire restaurants worldwide. It was, then, known as California cuisine – food that focuses on local ingredients, regionally grown, fresh, in season, sourced through a network founded on direct relations with suppliers, farmers, and ranchers. The menu, as the restaurant’s website specifies, is inspired by the market and changes every day. It’s a philosophy embraced by Noma in Copenhagen and Blue Hill at Stone Barns and in New York City, among others. In the last couple of years, this idea has caught on in some of Mumbai’s finer restaurants, such as The Bombay Canteen, and also, in a slightly more intense fashion, at Masque.

Chez Panisse has been, since its early years, true to farm-to-table dining – before that was even a term – serving food that has been organically and sustainably grown. Waters’s integrity about slow food values, and her commitment to respecting where food comes from has made her one of the world’s most respected food activists. She is a chef’s chef, so to speak, and the progenitor of a global movement. Rene Redzepi, David Chang and Rick Bayless, all renowned chefs, have said that she’s been influential to their work. Chez Panisse alumni, among them April Bloomfield, Jonathan Waxman, and Dan Barber, are some of the most celebrated chefs in the world. In 2009, Waters convinced Michelle Obama, then the First Lady of the United States, to plant the organic White House Kitchen Garden, as a way to “demonstrate to the nation and to the world, our priority of stewardship of the land”.

In mid-2015, The New York Times’s columnist and feted food writer Mark Bittman published a recipe for Waters’s “perfect aioli”. This is how the piece begins:

“In Berkeley, where I currently live, ‘Alice’ is a one-name celebrity, like Madonna. This is completely justifiable. In her lifetime, there has probably been no more important American in food than Alice Waters [...] Establishing the Edible Schoolyard Project, which aims to forge meaningful links between schoolchildren and the food on their plates, she set out to make good on her belief that food literacy isn’t just for refined diners.”  

Which brings us to our dinner table discussion at The Bombay Canteen, and Waters’s plan to make school lunch an academic subject. While we bolt chef Thomas Zacharias’s local red snapper ceviche with sol kadhi, Waters shows us an image of an illustrated placemat on her phone. It features a hand-drawn infographic of The Silk Road. “Imagine this, a child is eating dal, chapati, and carrot [koshimbir] with cumin, and studying The Silk Road,” she said and swiped. “Or looking at the Arabian peninsula in geography class, while eating pita bread,” she swiped again. “Or studying the Civilisations of The Americas while having a jicama salad and tortilla soup.”

Waters believes that this “edible education” would be a wonderful idea to implement in India, because it is one of the few places in the world that is still agrarian to a degree. Now is the right time, she says, for Indian children to study academic subjects through food.

“It would support local farmers, and you could teach [a lot] about every part of India through food – history, culture, textiles... If we have schools promoting local, pure farming, it would lift up everything. A school lunch programme like this would provide reassurance to parents that their children are eating healthy, nourishing food. It would bring money directly to the farmers, the people who take care of the land and planet. It dignifies the people who make food. It not only gives children good health, every child begins to appreciate other cultures through food.”

Waters is not in India or Mumbai on a work trip. She is not here to introduce her 20-year old mission, the Edible Schoolyard Project, which builds and shares edible education for children in the US. She’s here as part of a group put together by David Prior, who is a contributing international editor for Conde Nast Traveler. Prior has previously worked at Chez Panisse and the Edible Schoolyard Project, as director of communications. He has organised this visit to India for colleagues and friends from the worlds of food, photography, and writing, as what he says will be the first in a series of high-profile journeys by his travel and experience design company, Prior Knowledge. Indeed, it’s a group of industry heavyweights, and many of them have had long professional connections with Waters. The group includes Gilbert Pilgram, chef-owner of Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, California, and an alumnus of Chez Panisse; Fritz Streiff, an editor who has worked for Chez Panisse for over 40 years, as one of Alice’s literary collaborators, and as a cook, bartender, and maître d’hôtel; and Seen Lippert, a former chef at Chez Panisse who Food & Wine magazine described as a “kitchen garden goddess”.

For Waters, who has dreamed of visiting India for years, this trip has been exhilarating in many little ways. She considers India and the Middle East her two big places of inspiration. “Where these regions meet has some wonderful food; again, it is the cradle of civilisation,” she said.

A magical place! I thought it could not live up to its reputation but it went beyond.

A post shared by Alice Waters (@alicelouisewaters) on

Until this day, Waters had never had sorghum or jowar. And then, in one day, it is in her lunch and dinner. The bhakris at Shree Thaker Bhojanalay in Kalbadevi during her midday meal were made with jowar flour. At The Bombay Canteen dinner, it shows up in two forms in the barley and ponkh (freshly winnowed green sorghum) salad. There are fresh, tender, emerald grains from the recent harvest, and some dried ones, toasted, and crunchy for added texture.

Waters has dressed up for the dinner, a 45-minute drive from her hotel, after an already exhausting day visiting Mumbai markets and being stuck in traffic for hours. Her energy and enthusiasm would make a teenager look jaded. For most people, a decades-old project would be on autopilot. But Waters is convincing Zacharias and me that it will be much easier to expand the Edible Schoolyard Project at a speedier scale today – because of what she calls virtual globalisation, and how people perceive fast food. “The greatest damage lies in thinking that food should be cheap, fast and easy,” she said. “Food has always been affordable. But we want to pay the real cost of food. This is what we been indoctrinated with: you can eat anywhere, cooking is drudgery, advertising confers value, more is better, it’s okay to lie. We have become what we eat, in the US. Donald Trump is the expression of this. What we need to understand is that time is money. The best things in the world take time – growing food takes time, falling in love takes time, cooking takes time, eating with family takes time.”

Waters used to be a Montessori teacher before she was a chef, and she believes strongly in the principle of learning by doing. She believes that our senses are doors to our brains, and so eating food – an act that engages all our senses – could open our minds. “In the US we are sensorially deprived,” she said. “So I am using Montessori ideas in food education. We learn by doing. People don’t believe that any more. We think we can read off a screen, but [to understand food] we need to pick it up, smell it, touch it, taste it. We are nature – the separation of people from nature has caused the greatest harm.”

As we slide our spoons into a pink guava tan-ta-tan – Zacharias’s excellent interpretation of a seasonal Indian tarte tatin – under a quenelle of red chilli ice cream, atop swirls of deeply aromatic guava caramel, Waters persuades him to start something like her marketplace initiative, A Tasting of Summer Produce, in India, where farmers can meet and sell directly to restaurants and consumers. Hers is a seasonal bazaar with a mission, where restaurants participate as well. They set up stalls to prepare and distribute dishes that showcase farmers’ ridiculously fresh, sustainable, high-quality, ethically grown produce, foodstuffs that embody the principles that Waters has been espousing for half a century. “We don’t just eat food that is good for us,” she said to emphasise its importance. “We eat the values that come with the food. With every meal we have, we can decide we are going to support the farmer.”

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.