To market, to market

Chandrima Pal | Updated on December 20, 2019 Published on December 20, 2019

Rustic fare: The mains at Chaal Chitro were gopo rotis, madua or finger millet roti, tea flower stir fry and chicken curry   -  IMAGES COURTESY: CURRYFWD COLLBORATIONS

With an exotic menu of black rice cooked with tamarind and a butterfly pea drink, an online store and a pop-up celebrate the produce of women-led cooperative groups of Bengal

In a quiet residential area of Kolkata’s Salt Lake township, a chef’s table was coming to life. In chic tumblers, a royal blue drink made with the Aparajita (butterfly pea) flower was slowly changing colour as diners squeezed lime juice into it. Ceramic plates were laid out on the table, heaped with crunchy fritters of red amaranthus and bok phool (flowers of the hummingbird tree), papad made of Tulaipanji rice from North Bengal, with a sprinkling of dried oyster mushrooms, kaun or foxtail millet croquettes and chutneys prepared with pineapples, roasted tomatoes and spices.

The mains arrived on burnished metalware. There were gopo rotis, a sweet and savoury mini bread, madua or finger millet roti, tea flower stir fry and a hearty chicken curry. The khichdi arrived in ramekins — kalo nunia or black rice cooked with tamarind and freshwater shrimps, served with crispy fried mustard greens. By the time dessert was served — a custard apple ice cream under a cloud of yogurt and coconut cream and a crumble of milk solids — it was worth recalling how far every element of the meal had travelled from its place of origin in North and South of Bengal to the chef’s table that day.

We were at the second edition of Chaal Chitro, a food pop-up that stars produce from Bengal’s self-help groups (SHG), which sell their non-perishable items online on a platform called Amar Khamar (My Farm).

We the people: Most of the ‘farmers’ on the Amar Khamar platform are women, who work on small holdings

The first edition last year focussed on indigenous rice grains, leafy greens, spices, condiments and fresh catch from the Sundarbans, cooked and served exactly the way they were locally. This time, the food was gentrified, though the stories retained all their robust, homespun flavours. The attendees were informed that most of the ‘farmers’ on the Amar Khamar platform were women, who worked on their small holdings while the men migrated to urban hubs as daily wage earners.

Designed by food consultants CurryFwd Collaborations, the menu for the day focussed on the rare, rustic and raw ingredients from the SHGs in parts of Bengal that typically have the smallest holdings and lowest yields. Some such successful collectives are Madhovita, Mahamaya and Sanghat. A visibly excited Rekha Roy, the founding member of Madhovita, explained the story behind the ingredients. This was the food she and her friends from the cooperative group in North Bengal had helped produce, grow, pound and pluck — but in an avatar she could never have imagined.

The SHGs, formed with the help of non-profits as well as the government, are now augmenting family incomes by honing their entrepreneurship skills and embracing technology. For instance, when they have no land to cultivate, they use hanging pots to cultivate mushrooms. At the same time, they are working towards seed preservation, growing more indigenous variants of paddy and millets and practising single seed cultivation. The efforts — and increased incomes — are leading to greater literacy, welfare of the girl child, sanitation and nutrition.

“We wanted to see how far we could travel with the food ideas we had picked up during our travels to the North of Bengal; how these ingredients would fare in a modern, urban and commercial kitchen,” said CurryFwd team’s Rituparna Banerjee, who, along with her husband Avinandan, has designed culinary projects in many parts of the world. The idea of working with the SHGs was born when the team sampled the produce at Amar Khamar. Banerjee was encouraged by Amar Khamar founders Sujoy Chatterjee and Sara Gekeler to visit North Bengal villages where women and families use conventional wisdom and scientific ingenuity to revive indigenous and rare rice grains.

The CurryFwd team also discovered how in the villages around Siliguri such as Khoirabari and the Phansidewa block, families under the leadership of local farmers such as Roy were putting every inch of space to innovative use. Roy, who was earlier involved with the government’s mid-day meal programme (a scheme for schoolchildren), used her understanding of the government machinery to attract funds and support for initiatives such as mushroom cultivation and ornamental fishery.

Madhovita signed up with Amar Khamar a year ago. But they are already encouraged by the feedback and the money that their produce is fetching online. While a hanging cylinder of mushroom can fetch every family ₹5,000 every 18 days, as a collective they earn upwards of ₹15,000 per month when they sell millets and other non-perishable items.

Buoyed by the feedback to some of their more experimental dishes developed by co-collaborator chef Varun Raj — who created a restaurant in Bangalore called Lipi that focussed on produce procured within a radius of 30km from its kitchen — the team intends to incorporate these products in modern bistros and restaurants.

So, do not be surprised if you find on the menu of a fine-dining restaurant in Bangkok a croquette prepared with foxtail millet sourced from a Siliguri village, or an iced tea at an Indiranagar bistro made with Aparajita flowers that grow wild around Roy’s home. Food with powerful stories always travel well.

Chandrima Pal is a freelance writer based in Kolkata

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Published on December 20, 2019
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