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It's more than food

Café Ethnic' represents the attempt towards the revival of a food system integral to our history, says KANCHI KOHLI, after a visit.



Reaching out - consumer education is the key.

KORRA (Foxtail Millet) Dosa, Sama (Little Millet) Kichdi, Taida (Ragi) Ambali, Sajja (Pearl Millet) Appalu, Jonna (Sorghum) Pelala Laddu, the list can just go on! And if you find it even remotely exciting, then it would be worth exploring this very different cuisine offered at "Café Ethnic", a family restaurant at Zaheerabad town, 100 km from Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. This exclusive millet restaurant believes in serving locally produced food. The grains served are totally chemical free, produced naturally with the fine taste of good earth, and can provide an amazing amount of nutrition to our body.

But there is more than just food that one can look out for at the restaurant. It presents the attempt towards the revival of a food system integral to our history, which modern day agriculture has and continues to ignore. How many of us know of the existence of these millets? They are obviously forgotten food items for urban consumers, because our distribution systems or markets have for long decided not to promote them. It wouldn't matter then that Korra and Saama have more iron, more protein, more fibre and more carotene compared to rice and wheat. And despite them being essential body builders and high-energy providers, they would continue to disappear from our household consumption.


No chemical inputs

For the bio diverse farmers of Deccan Andhra, these are the crops of truth (satyam pantalu). They are grown with virtually no external inputs at all, surviving on the available sub-soil moisture. In an area where there is annual drought, these crops are hardy. So, the poorest are able to get a yield that is at least enough to fill their stomachs. Moreover, when a combination of these crops are grown on even highly "unfertile" land, they are able to give a lot of nutrients back to the soil, while using some for cultivation. Many of these crops have nitrogen fixing and other properties. They don't require chemical inputs; organic manure prepared in a back yard with material available in village commons is all that is needed.

After years of effort, when the collectives of women farmers regained their confidence in their lands and their crops, they were faced with some pertinent questions. For a while they have and been able to exchange the food grains among themselves, and devise systems by which they can buy and sell their produce within their collectives. They can revive their seed saving practices and not be driven by market prices. But what about the larger market and distribution system that does not recognise the value of these grains? Today's trends in agriculture continue to be driven by monoculture or and profit driven cropping. Where is the place for localised food systems then?


The strategy

It was felt that one way to begin engaging with the market is to reach out to the consumer. If consumers recognise the value of these crops, and also develop the taste buds for it, then there will be a demand for it. This can then add the pressure on the government to make place for these grains in the existing Public Distribution System (PDS), and thereby get a decent price. Ironically, for large farmers who are already into market driven cropping, this could be an important motivation to shift.

The women farmers, with the help of an NGO, Deccan Development Society, have started an initiative towards marketing what they save in their homes and produce on their farms. Zaheerabad has a Sangham shop that sells all these wonderful grains. Parallel to this is the initiative of "Café Ethnic". The key to this is to develop a local market for a food system that they believe in and are attempting to revive. That is why the restaurant is not set up in the capital city of Hyderabad. It is a modest and localised attempt.

The Café, which started in January 2004, has three essential principles for what it serves for its consumers: "We care for Your Taste, We Care for Your Health, and We care for Your Nutrition". The experience of eating at the restaurant guarantees all of these. Not just is the food very different and healthy, but the ambience is also extremely earthy. The mud walls and the thatched roofs are useful and essential in helping a guest psychologically associating himself with the food he is about to eat.

Very interestingly, the café has a small recipe book which is available on request and which helps us to make any of the items on the menu. So, for someone who might want to be a part of reviving this food system, and does not know what to do with the millet they buy, the recipe booklet provides some answers.

From seed to plate

This initiative presents to its customers an opportunity to understand the link between the seed and the plate. What is grown and is subsequently promoted in the market is what we end up eating. Further, what we demand on our plates is what can also help the farmers continue to conserve the seeds that they have created, save them in their homes, grow on their fields, and finally sell the excess.

Not too difficult to understand, right? It's not too tough to be part of this culture too! Just give it a try.

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