A walk in the woods: Vanvadi, Neral

On a Sunday morning, when half of Mumbai was submerged in torrential rains, I got on a train to Neral to learn about the forest foods of the Konkan region. The workshop was being organised by Vanvadi, a forest collective around 15 kms from Neral railway station. After almost a 45-min auto-rickshaw ride, I reach a place which is far removed from the urban development just a few kilometres away from one of the busiest cities in the world.

Vanvadi, Neral

More than two decades ago a bunch of like-minded people pooled-in their resources to buy undulating land in the foothills of the Sahyadris in the north Konkan Western Ghats. “Ecological regeneration and local self-reliance was our primary aim,” says Bharat Mansata, an active founder-member of the collective. “We were initially looking to buy about 10-15 acres for organic farming, mainly of fruit and vegetables. This was to be divided among 3-4 of us. But with more like-minded people joining, I began dreaming of an ‘alternative community’ of sorts gradually evolving – a community that aspired to meet its varied needs in harmony with nature and fellow humans,” he adds. The venture was tentatively named Vision Acres which was later changed to a more local name ‘Vanvadi’ which means forest settlement of forest farm.

Over the past 24 years, the 64 acre land has regenerated into a magnificent forest, dense and rich in biodiversity. A local adivasi family looks after and works at Vanvadi, almost since its inception. Bua, the eldest member of the family, guides us inside the forest to introduce us to various edible wild greens and plants that grow in abundance during monsoon. He gently navigates his way and points out various vines, plants and trees that either yield seasonally edible parts, or are useful to the adivasis in some other way.

Monsoon greens at Vanvadi, Neral

During the trail we spot ran suran (loth), a wild variety of yam which has a beautiful ruby red flower sprouting from the ground like mushroom. Its tender leafy growth is also consumed as a vegetable, cooked along with another forest plant bondara. Bua plucks a young leaf off a plant and hands it over to us to chew on, the leaf is bitter with a sour aftertaste. We also munch on tiny variety of awala and aliv, a fruit which looks like chikoo but has a sour aroma when it’s not fully ripened.

Pic Credits: Vanvadi Facebook Page

Vanvadi, with the help of local adivasis, has listed over 120 plant species in its forest which are useful to the locals in some way or the other. Out of these about 52 species provide edible yield (leaf, fruit, flower, stem, tuber/root) at a certain time of year. However, early monsoon is the peak season for harvesting many wild greens – the fresh, tender growth of almost a dozen vine species. Certain trees have multiple uses like mahua’s leaves are turned into fodder, flowers are well known for brewing liquor but they’re also cooked in various ways (there are dozens of recipes in Central India that use mahua flower), fruit can be cooked like a vegetable and seed is crushed to yield cooking oil. The residual cake after extracting the oil works as manure for the crops. The wood is used to make furniture, musical instruments, agricultural tools etc. However, it’s sacrosanct to cut a mahua tree; the wood is only used if the tree dies.

Presently, less than 2 acres at Vanvadi are used for farming. Mansata tells us that the original plan was to plant mainly fruits and vegetables, the adivasis showed them that a variety of local millets like nachni, varie, kangu, jowar can also be grown on the gentler slopes; and rice too on relatively flat, lower-lying areas.

After our walk in the woods we come back to the mud cottage, the only house in the midst of the forest, for a lunch cooked by the adivasi family and the Vanvadi volunteers. On the menu there are greens like a wild variety of amaranth, wild colacassia leaves, and ulshya, all stir fried with minimal spices. For accompaniments there’s sesame and garlic chutney, koshimbir with mahua flower and dry black chana with dried mahua flower. We polish off the humble meal with nachni bhakri and local variety of rice.

Meal including local wild greens at Vanvadi

The forest regeneration has also helped the area solve the problem of water scarcity in summer. “We get around 8 ft of rain in an average year. With such a generous supply any water scarcity is a human failure, not nature’s short-coming,” says Mansata. The porous soil of the forest acts as a massive sponge to efficiently recharge the groundwater drawn from wells and bore-wells, while stream-bed check dams and reservoirs harvests rain as surface water bodies. . The land and its downstream villages now have water all year round, despite a proliferation of one-way extraction bore-wells in surrounding areas in recent years.

Vanvadi has had its fair share of struggles and fights too, mainly dealing with the builder community which is deforesting big chunks of land to build resorts and holiday homes. “When locals cut the trees for firewood or other use, they don’t damage the roots and most trees regenerate. However, the developers dig out the roots with JCBs, which is the major reason for soil erosion under heavy rain, which then silts up stream-bed water bodies,” says Mansata.

While there are challenges, Vanvadi is slowly growing as a space to host workshops, work camps, forest food trails and  ecology-related educational activities to understand the local flora and fauna, and the vital life-supporting ‘environmental services’ that the forest provides. Every year, starting on Dussera, it also hosts a Vanutsav or forest festival – to celebrate nature and community.

To stay updated with the events and workshops being conducted at Vanvadi, you can request to join their Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/vanvadi.

Advertisements

The best meals of 2017 – Where and what I ate

How you begin the new year sets the tone for the rest of it…

It’s true. I started 2017 with a langar at a Gurudwara in New Bombay, wishing for  equally great meals in the coming year. And what a fabulous food year it was. I traveled to various cities for food. Took a trip to Pune to try the famous Bedekar misal and loved it, went to Surat to eat the locho and visited the ponkh market, traveled to Indore (done that twice this year already) and found another food city to fall in love with, took a solo trip to Calcutta and Meghalaya (where I ended up making some most amazing friends), traveled to Goa to learn sourdough which became one of the most brilliant experiences of 2017, traveled to Indore (again) and ended the year with a trip to Srilanka. Apart from all the good food I ate at these places, there were umpteen fabulous meals cooked by my mother, a couple of trips to Lucknow that involved loads of chaat, and some amazing beef curry/fish curry and rice meals at Chetna (PositivityAngel’s) house. Don’t think I can be thankful enough for this year.

View this post on Instagram

I am an atheist, but somehow going to a Gurudwara doesn't feel like I am confirming to any religion. The idea of following a teacher and learning from his/her experiences sounds more logical to me than blind faith. Also, what fascinates me is their self-less service and the feeling of giving back to the community. Eating at a langar with people from different casts, religions and financial backgrounds and accepting your food with a feeling of gratitude is a humbling experience. So glad to start my food journey this year with such a beautiful meal. I hope the food that I eat this year helps me connect to my roots and make me aware of the efforts people put-in to put that food on my table. Also, here's a big thankyou to all the people who came into my life this past year, taught me new things, gave me new experiences and motivated me to be better than myself. I don't know whether all of you will be part of my journey onwards, but I will always cherish and value those times, learnings and experiences. Wish you all a very happy, healthy and successful new year. #NewYear #gratitude #CircleOfPositivity #Happy2017 #gurudwara #food #langar #feelinghumbled #thankyou #HappyNewYear

A post shared by Shirin (@shirinmehrotra) on

Continue reading

Food Walk Through North Calcutta With A History Lesson

This post was written for India Food Network

Calcutta is bursting at its seams with history, and that’s not an exaggeration. Walk on the streets of north Calcutta and the mere feeling of tracing the footsteps of legends will give you goose bumps. Every corner tea stall, every snack shop has a story to tell that dates back to India’s independence movement.

Indian Coffee House, Calcutta

When British established the city as their capital and took up central Calcutta to convert it into “White Town”, the local population moved to the northern part of the city. It later became the hub for India’s freedom struggle movement and communism. Shops were built as a meeting point for the revolutionaries.

Kachuri Subzi and Tele Bhaja

One such place is Paramount in College Street, which is now declared a heritage building by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. Established in 1918 by Niharanjan Mazumdar, the shop was first known as Paradise, which later became Paramount. It’s said to be the favourite hangout of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and the owners still have that chair where Netaji used to sit regularly. As I sit there, sipping on my second daber sherbat – the most popular drink here made with coconut water, ice, syrup and the pulp of coconut, the owner tells me the story behind the drink. It was Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy, the founder of Bengal Chemicals, who suggested the recipe to the owner since it was inexpensive and highly nutritious. On a hot and humid day, dab sherbat is a blessing in disguise.

Netaji’s footprints become more evident as I move ahead. At Lakshmi Narayan Shaw and Sons, where he regularly ate tele bhaja (Bengali fritters), his birthday is still celebrated every year with free food for all the customers. The most famous snack here – the onion bhajiya – is known as Netaji ki piyaji.

Lebu Cha shop, Calcutta

Atithi, across the street from Lakshmi Narayan Shaw and Sons, is where I stop over for some lebu cha – the fuel that keeps the city going. The lebu cha or lemon tea in Kolkata is a hot concoction of black tea, lime juice, sugar and a special spice mix, which gives it its zing. In the midst of the locals getting together for adda – meetup to chat and discuss, I sip multiple cups of cha. I move on to Sukea Street to line up for my evening snack of kochuri-subzi at an old shop at the corner of the street. The humble shop has just two rows of benches where people sit with their plate (made of dried leaves) of kochuri and potato subzi. 

The Indian Coffee House, right opposite Presidency College, still has lingering memories of India’s independence struggle and the rich literary past. While most of the tables are occupied by the young college-goers, you’ll also spot a few elderly men sitting with a newspaper and sipping coffee. And then there are cabins, the dining rooms of the era bygone. Cabins served as private dining areas in the times when it wasn’t usual for women to eat out in public. The curtained dining booths provided them the much needed privacy. A few of such cabins still exist, albeit as tea and snack joints. A few such places are Basanta Cabin and Mitra Café – the latter is where I eat a dinner of prawn kabiraji cutlet – deep-fried cutlets coated with bread and eggs.

What and where to eat:

•    Sweets at Girish Chandra Dey & Nakur Chandra Nandy at Hatibagan
•    Piyaji at Lakshmi Narayan Shaw and Sons, Hatibagan
•    Lebu cha at Atithi, Hatibagan
•    Kochuri subzi at Sukea Street
•    Lebu cha at the corner shop on Sukea Street
•    Daab sherbat and imli at Paramount, College Street
•    Kabiraji cutlet and fish fry at Mitra Café, Shobha Bazaar
•    Mochar Chop at Kalika, College Street
•    Coffee and dosa at Indian Coffee House, College Street

The author went on a food walk with Devashish Kuthari, a foodie and history buff, who also runs a Facebook group called GoodVegFood.

Why Sarafa Market Is The Jewel In Indore’s Nightlife

This post was written for India Food Network

“This is Sarafa market, you will feel a different vibe here in the night,” said Amrita, my friend and host in Indore, as we drove through the tiny by-lanes during the day. In a city where food is a conversation starter, my hopes were high and I couldn’t wait to dive headlong into the street, which has many seasoned food writers swearing by it. I walk in at Sarafa, armed with my curiosity and appetite.

The shops that had gold and silver jewellery shining through their windows now had their shutters down, and the street was lined with makeshift food stalls. Amrita has the itinerary chalked out listing down everything I must try with room for whatever catches my fancy.

Bhutte ka kees and garadu, Sarafa Market in Indore

Continue reading

How to eat like a local in Meghalaya

This post was written for India Food Network

It’s around 6 pm when we reach Mylliem, a small village between Shillong and Cherrapunji. It still isn’t reasonable time for dinner, but our half-hearted lunch at a generic roadside dhaba has long disappeared making our stomachs grumble. We spot tiny restaurants on both sides of the street and stopover for some grub. We walk into a small wooden house like shop with curtained windows.

Kong Shop in Meghalaya

Continue reading