Leaves, shoots — and other eats

Aditi Sengupta | Updated on November 30, 2018 Published on November 30, 2018

Start from scrap: In The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, residents of a beleaguered English island find ways to live on a potato diet   -  IMAGE COURTESY: NETFLIX

Peels, skins and stems are the new super food in the West. But in many parts of India, the discarded bits of fruits and vegetables have always been on the deft cook’s menu

Pies come solo or with fries. Surely not with English dry gin? Juliet Ashton’s surprise at this unusual combo was justifiable. But with German warplanes hovering overhead, the 32-year-old author knew better than to ask her hosts, a group of five book-lovers, the reason behind this unusual offering. She took a tiny bite of the pie — prepared with potato peels and milk — and realised that only the gin could help push it down her throat.

The year was 1946. Britain was under German occupation. And the only food that most people outside of London and other cities could afford was potatoes. In The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a 2008 novel that was made into a Netflix film this year, residents of a beleaguered island find ways to make do with the starchy tuber. The parched peel pie was born out of necessity, as Ashton, a visitor from London, discovers.

But more than 70 years after the end of World War II, peels, along with stems, leaves and roots, are gathering ground as a trend in the West. This time around, it’s not scarcity that is driving this comeback; it is awareness of the nutritional power of the parts usually discarded before cooking, and realisation of how much food is wasted.

In 2015, the issue of food waste by restaurants and other commercial establishments received some attention when celebrated Italian chef Massimo Bottura, winner of three Michelin stars, and his wife Lara Gilmore turned abandoned buildings in several European cities and one in Brazil into dining rooms for the poor and hungry. The food was made with ingredients derived entirely from waste. The campaign acquired more news space when chefs Alain Ducasse and Yannick Alleno joined in. This came at a time when thousands of refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries were streaming into Europe. Bottura’s kitchens — serving grills, pasta, soup and ice-creams — were soon flowing with surplus food from supermarkets and restaurants.

Closer home, peels have often been part of meals. Kitchens in many parts of India are not new to the concept of cooking with everything from the root to stem.

Food historian and development consultant Pritha Sen pins this practice down to social and economic factors. “To explain this in terms of social structure, one has to go back to the way meals were served and eaten. Women were the last to eat and it was not uncommon for them to be left with scraps. They would often use peels, stalks and roots to put something together quickly for themselves,” she says. So, in Bengal, the skin of the potato or the bottle gourd was grated and fried with poppy seeds; the cauliflower stalk became the star of a dish prepared with mustard paste and kochu pata (colocassia leaves) gave a new twist to shrimp steamed with coconut paste and mustard. Even the entrails and scales of the modest river carp were put to good use.

It was her mother-in-law that inspired Chennai resident Sabita Radhakrishna, food columnist and author of Annapurni — Heritage Cuisine from Tamil Nadu (2015), to include skins and peels in her cooking. “She used to collect all kinds of peels, even leaves. When boiled and pressure cooked with garlic, even cabbage leaves can make for outstanding vegetable stock. I learned this ages before stock cubes appeared in the market,” she says. From watermelon rind to the top of carrots — which is the first thing to go into the bin — a range of ingredients can make gravies, chutneys and pickles more interesting and flavourful; apart from teaching the value of conserving things.

“Even something as basic as cooked rice soaked overnight is being served at fine-dining restaurants in Chennai as an appetiser. Garnished with onions, green chillies and spicy powders, they come in fancy tumblers,” she says, adding that this leftover rice is what many poor people still eat for breakfast.

Delhi-based nutritionist and author of Ultimate Grandmother Hacks: 50 Kickass Traditional Habits for a Fitter You (2018), Kavita Devgan’s approach to root-to-stem eating is loaded with vitamins and minerals. In her mother’s kitchen, apples were never skinned, potatoes not scraped. The bitter gourd peel was turned into a tangy dry sabzi with potatoes. “Our grandmothers and mothers have always retained the skins and the stems. And they didn’t even have any kind of research to back them up for this kind of cooking and eating,” she says. Devgan acknowledges that the use of pesticides on crops is probably one of the reasons for peels being discarded. “It is natural to feel worried about consuming chemicals. Washing fruits and vegetables with salt water and vinegar could be one way of reducing the risk,” she says.

So, the time has come to bring back to the high table all that once went into the bin. It’s food — and it is, indeed, super.

Published on November 30, 2018
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