On Safe And Sustainable Produce And Their Contribution To Deliciousness

I was excited that we were going on a field trip to a farm. As a cook knowing your ingredient and where it was born is definitely important. Digging a little more into FirstAgro here’s what I found out:
FirstAgro proudly claims to be the leading producer of fresh produce in India and they do it the Non-GMO and Zero Pesticide™ way. Not only do they grow exclusive produce for large hotel chains and keen chefs who are vested in using locally grown exotic ingredients, but they now sell in retail, allowing every Indian to eat worry-free.

In my pre-field trip study, I thought it was quite strange that I didn’t come across the term ORGANIC anywhere!

Organic has been and is a massive food revolution around the world. Restaurants, grocery stores— they all advertise organic. The U.S. organic food market is reportedly worth $30 billion and India and China are considered emerging organic food markets with China already #4 on the list of the largest domestic organic food markets. So why not mention it then? It would assist in sales. After all, don’t words (fads/trends) alter our perception of nearly everything?

Nameet is Co-Founder and Chief Production Head at FirstAgro. He loves his farm, his dogs and knows more about ingredients than chefs do. He also believes in facts. When you live in a country where corruption is as normal as morning tea, you can’t really trust a sheet of paper claiming something to be organic, can you? That’s why FirstAgro is not just Non-GMO and Zero Pesticide™, they also comply with FAO’s and WHO’s Codex Alimentarius, the global food safety standard. FirstAgro also have an Integrated Pest & Disease Management System in place which uses nature against nature, pest against pest, to grow safe produce sustainably.

Nameet’s Integrated Pest & Disease Management system includes the use of neem and garlic sprays on crops to keep pests away. Also the use of compost, manures and pheromone insect traps prove to be highly effective.

All the agro talk was kept lively as Nameet humorously narrated the story of how he deceived the carrot fly by planting some coriander near by.

Darina Allen says that the first recipe any cook should learn is that of compost. So we started from ground up.

We began with propagation—lining protrays with peat and studding them with seeds. The propagation chamber should be ideally at a temperature of 36C with 80% humidity. After a couple of weeks, the saplings kept in direct radiation to harden and toughen up for the big farm.

Basil was the first smelt. Its glorious aroma wafted gently towards us. And behold we weren’t just smelling and tasting one variety but our palates savoured six! Tulsi or holy basil is sacred in India and is known to give multiple medicinal benefits. Strangely other species of basil grown around the world were not revered for their holiness, instead feared as they were believed to be associated with poverty, hate and misfortune. It was introduced to the United States by the British and during the 1970’s it became one of the most popular herbs used in cooking for its persistent and spicy-warming flavour.

Clove Basil

Komatsuna is also known as mustard spinach. It’s not mustard, neither is it spinach. Instead it comes from a greater pungency— the brasicca rapa family. Komatsuna shares its defensive chemical flavour profile with the turnip, broccoli rabe, tatsoi, mizuna and a few others.

Komatsuna still nestled in propagation trays

Species like these are beautifully designed to enzymatically react when the plant cells are damaged emitting profound, bitter and pungent compounds. Flavour profiles of brasicca can be modified or toned down by cooking. Some enzymes stop working at prolonged temperatures, and others become more defined during a cooking process with minimal water (stir frying). We also got to get a look at beautiful pokchoytoychoi and tatsoi— same family but completely different profiles.

Kai lan also from the brasicca family, in fact the same species as broccoli, is known for its use in Chinese (Cantonese) and Korean cuisine. Kai Lan is also the better half of the hybrid broccolini.

Kai Lan

Tomatoes! I have never been in love with a nightshade so deeply. For those of us who’ve studied ingredients and learned by heart all those species, varieties, uses and dimensions of vegetables, it’s not learning at all unless you’ve been there, tasted, held the ingredient in your palm and breathed in deep the air that it builds its life on.

If you know your tomato, I think you’d know your dish. For the differences in the pith, fruit wall and the jelly could determine a soggy bruschetta or an unappetizing makhni gravy. The fruit wall contains most of the sugars and amino acids. And aroma compounds are found between the cuticle and walls. Thus any cooking method, whether de-seeding, blanching or cooking tomatoes whole, would completely alter the end flavour and texture result of a dish.

History tells us that bitter gourd (karela) was considered to be cucumbers gone wrong. The presence of bitter cucurbitacins are known to yield several health benefits. Their bitterness is toned down through various cooking methods. These warty vegetable-fruits are usually consumed green, but we’ve been told that the mature bright yellow over ripe fruit hides a sticky sweet component that shelters delicious seeds.

These Mediterranean originals with the prettiest bright blue-purple flowers and fuzzy leaves are historically known to be our first medicine for depression. Borage tea is known to heal respiratory and cardiovascular disorders. Its large leaves undergo the same chemical reaction as of cucumber, causing borage to taste almost exactly like cucumber does.

Peppers, Chilli, Capsicum! The most consumed spice which has the power to define a regions cuisine. From habanero to jalapeno, red birds eye and black, these fiery fruits, altered by the temperature they are grown in, can be obstinate or compliant on an eaters palate.

Herbs and spices are the most defining ingredients to a culture. We live in a small world with access to almost every ingredient that grows, whether two kilometres or two hundred thousand kilometres away. Just by adding, say curry leaves to a dish would prompt the eater to think south Indian. How about Ras el Hanout — Morocco! Five Spice — China! Za’atar — Middle East!

Pepper cress and arugula are wild ones! They are built from various aldehydes that give them there pungent zing but can easily be cooked away leaving them ordinary and tame.

Parsley has a high place in European cuisine with its distinct earthy, woody and green flavour profiles

Summer Savoury is brilliant. It tasted like the Christmas of herbs. Thyme, oregano, caraway, sage and cumin were some flavour notes. Yum.

Kolhrabi— Another cabbage patch kid (brassica oleraccea). The smaller ones are more salad fresh while the larger ones are woody. (Nordic Coconut!) Sorrel in all sizes and varieties are brilliant acidity lenders.

Shiso (red perilla) is a Japanese herb used commonly in seafood and grilled meat. Herbaceous and spicy (says Harold Mcgee) even the seeds and flowers impart the same flavours.

Spending time at FirstAgro has really created positive impressions on the changing Indian food system and our role as cooks to be able to serve safe sustainable exotic produce.

That tomato is not JUST a tomato anymore. It’s characters define the meal and satiety to the diner. Not only has he or she savoured a fantastic meal with incredible flavour and taste but has also eaten SAFE & SUSTAINABLE.

To know a little more about FirstAgro, watch Nameet at INKtalks 2014: