Crop Connect Chronicles


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A team trip to the Devbhoomi, Uttarakhand: our travel story!

Before the intense summer heat could take its toll on us, our team decided to have a team retreat in the hills. What better place for this than the land of the Gods? Hence, the destination was chosen to be the state of Uttarakhand where many of our farmer partners reside.

As the Shatabdi train approached the Kathgodam station, we could see the magnificent hills of the region. We made the journey to Ranikhet from there in a car admiring the beauty of nature in the hills, valleys, and rivers. We stayed at a homestay where the view from our windows was ethereal and the quiet of the place was soul-satisfying. We were accompanied by chilling rainfall at night when we went to meet one of our farmer partners and had a delicious traditional Pahadi dinner.

On the second day, we met with one of our women farmer groups and had a tour of their fields while getting to know their stories. We were caught in rain and a hailstorm mid-morning and ended up going back to our homestay for shelter. The chamomile fields that we visited afterwards seemed to be calling us to them with their distinct fragrance from far.

We reached Bhikiyasain by nightfall where we stayed at a guest house by the river bed. This place was warmer and we were looking forward to visiting some new farmer groups here. After an early morning trekking expedition, we set out to visit 2 women farmer groups who were growing the famous Lakhori chilli. We talked to them to get to know more about them, the state of agriculture in the area and about how we can partner with them.

After a long day, our team bonded over games of taboo and chausar before having an amazing Pahadi dinner. The next day, we bid goodbye to the hills with a promise of coming back soon. We were soon on the train watching the landscape change from the hills to plains with the stories of farmers etched in our hearts.

Devbhoomi was beautiful, and so were its people.

 

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Amaranth- the superfood that has always been!

Amaranth is known as a super food globally. Interestingly this gluten free pseudo cereal (it is actually a seed not a grain) has been grown and consumed in India since generations. Known as Chaulai and Rajgira colloquially, Amaranth is widely consumed during fasts due to its high nutritional value in the form of puris/rotis made with its flour and laddus made with puffed amaranth. We decided to spend our Saturday experimenting with amaranth seeds and trying out some contemporary recipes.

Amaranth Porridge 

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We loved this alternative to the regular oats porridge because of its unusual grainy texture. Make sure you try the porridge before adding honey as the combination of amaranth and cooked milk imparts a sweet flavour.
1/2 cup amaranth
1 cup water
1/2 cup milk
Honey to taste
Raisins and almond slivers
Lightly roast the amaranth seeds in a sauce pan till they smell toasty and start popping. Add the water, boil and let it simmer for 7-10 minutes. Add the milk, boil once and simmer covered for 10 minutes or till the amaranth is cooked. Keep stirring to make sure the amaranth seeds are not sticking to the bottom of the pan. Add honey to taste along with almonds and raisins.
(Recipe adapted from New York Times Cooking.)

Amaranth Patties

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After a filling breakfast, we next tried to make some Amaranth Patties – two ways to have with our evening tea. We tried one recipe with egg and amaranth flour as a binder and one with just amaranth flour as a binder. Both turned out different and great. The one with egg stored better due to the viscosity of the egg while the other one started becoming dry within an hour of cooking.
1 cup amaranth
2 cups water
1/2 red onion finely chopped
3-4 cloves garlic grated
1/2 red capsicum chopped
1/4 zucchini chopped
2 tsp amchoor (dry mango powder)
2 tsp chilli powder
4-6 tablespoons amaranth flour*
1 whisked egg
Freshly ground black pepper
Salt to taste
Cook the amaranth in water – first boil the water and then simmer to cook. Once the amaranth is cooked, drain the water and let it cool. Heat some oil in a pan and add the onions and garlic. Once brown, add the capsicum and zucchini and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the mixture to the cooled amaranth along with amchoor, salt and pepper and mix well. Add the amaranth flour or flour and egg and mix well, ideally with hands. Add flour till you get a consistency that allows you to form round balls with your hands which can be pressed into patties.
Once the patties are made, add some oil to a flat pan and cook the patties on both sides till brown and crisp. Enjoy the crunchy amaranth patties with some freshly made coriander chutney made with fresh coriander, ginger, green chillies, lemon juice and salt.
*quantity of flour varies depending on whether egg is used. With egg you will need lesser flour.
(Inspired from a recipe on NDTV Smart Cooky) 

Here’s to a health filled and delicious weekend! Oh and btw, here’s Original Indian Table’s Himalayan Amaranth on Amazon.


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Lakhori chilli – Unravelling the famous yet obscure Yellow chilli!

The Lakhori chilli is quite a well-known indigenous chilli variety even though there is very little information available about it on the web. Let’s get to know about the chilli that can add remarkable flavor to your culinary adventures!

Bhikiyasain and Salt in Uttarakhand are famous for the Lakhori mirch (chilli). The former is a tehsil while the latter is a block in Almora district of the state and the famous chilli grows only in these areas in spite of futile attempts to grow it in other regions.

AreasFields where the Lakhori chilli is grown

What distinguishes the Lakhori mirch from the other varieties is that it gets a specific type of wrinkle on drying. Interestingly, we asked a lot of people for the etymology of the word ‘Lakhori’ and finally got to know that the variety of chili was first grown in a village called Lakhora in the Garhwal region giving it its name. We were very curious to find out which part of Latin America the original chilli seeds came from to Lakhora but were unable to find this piece of information.

Lakhori chilli has a distinctive yellow colour, thereby giving it the name Yellow chilli. Though it is claimed to be extremely hot, we found it to be pretty unpredictable. We tasted the famous Lakhori chillies from different villages in the region; some were so hot that they brought tears to our eyes while some were mild and piquant.

The Lakhori mirch can be categorized into two types based on their size. The smallest ones, known as Lakori Jamri, have the most number of seeds and are alleged to be used to make chilli flakes. On the other hand, the big ones are used as whole spices or grinded into powder.

Growing chillies requires a lot of hard work compared to other crops. The sowing season varies but is generally around February to March; sown by scattering the seeds around. Harvesting starts in October. Once the chillies are harvested and sun dried correctly, they can be used all round the year. The farmers say that if these chillies are dried again after a period of 2-3 months, they will never go bad thereafter. Cultivation of these chillies benefits them as Lakhori chillies are heavy and yield good financial return for the farmers who sell them by weight.

IMG20170408130358.jpgWomen farmers telling us about the Lakhori chilli that they grow

The local people generally grind it and use it in the powdered form. This way, the heat gets balanced as the chillies vary on the pungency scale.  They also make a spicy achaar (pickle) from it. It is perfect for adding to kadhi, curries and daal after frying in oil as chhonk (tempering). The chilies also make a great garlic chutney, the traditional Maharashtrian Thecha as well as a chilli oil for western and Chinese meals. Moreover, it is said to give an unparalleled flavor to non-vegetarian recipes.

According to the locals, the chillies with more seeds are usually hotter than the rest. Soon after harvesting, the chilli is sold in the local market where people from outside these villages come to buy the produce in bulk. While the whereabouts and end use of the bought produce remains a mystery, we heard stories of the chilli going to Kanpur to be used for making tear gas.

For all the people who love their food hot, spicy and flavoursome, the Lakhori is a must-try!


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The story of our Himalayan Rock Salts!

Our Himalayan Rock Salts are handmade artisanal blends of rock salts with different infusions to give the salt a twist. What’s more, they are blended with the love and hard work of our partner MiraDi Farms, based in Uttarakhand. There is an interesting anecdote behind this. Let’s go back in time and retrace the story of our salts.

On our trips to meet farmers across the hill state of Uttarakhand, we relished the traditional food that they served us. What we particularly liked was the vast variety of infused rock salts they used as accompaniments in meals to enhance the taste. These salts were like magical potions that could make any dish delightful.  Whenever we tasted them, we knew that we had to find a way to make other people enjoy them.

It was on one of these visits that we finally initiated the process. We were at Mr. Ajay Rastogi’s farm in Ranikhet, a place where we had tried the infused rock salts for the first time. Ajay moved to the hills after an illustrious career in environment, agriculture and certification to live a life closer to nature. The salts we had were made by Miradi from the local village, who catered to Ajay’s yoga students’ refreshments and meals as well as was the caretaker of the farm. We interacted with her and came to know that she prepares the delicious salts by herself, as do other Pahadi (mountain) women of the region. We immediately decided to collaborate with her and Ajay and procure the delicious salts from them. Today we source three types of infused rock salts – Garlic, Lemon Rind and Bhangjeera.

MiraDi and Ajay Rastogi interacting with customers at Annamaya

Miradi told us that these salts are a legacy passed down from their ancestors who hand blended them to perfection. She herself has been eating and making them since childhood. The lemon rind rock salt is their (MiraDi and Ajay’s) innovation while the other two salts, garlic and bhangjeera, are traditional.

The making of salts: crushing and grinding the rock salt

Miradi resides in Beguna village near Ranikhet and loves the place with all her heart. She says it is as lovely as a place could be; there is no pollution and the people are hardworking although she hopes there were more livelihood opportunities there.  Her kids, Shreya and Sumit, are adorable and she wants them to be educated properly.

MiraDi with her daughter Shreya

It is an absolute bliss to be working with people like MiraDi who when given the right support and encouragement from mentors like Ajay are determined and hardworking and greet you with the widest smile whenever you meet them. Her salts, just like her, are pure and full of goodness!


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The journey from being a volunteer to the CEO of Sahaja…

In a visit to our office, Somesh Basavanna, CEO of Sahaja Samrudha, got candid with us. He took us down his memory lane and we had a vicarious experience of his journey. Sahaja Samrudha is one of our partner farmer producer companies and we were thrilled to know more about it, from the CEO himself. Here’s a narrative.

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Let’s start from the very beginning!  Somesh is the son of a farmer and his forefathers had been into the agriculture sector as well. He completed his Class 10th from a school in Mandya district in Karnataka and pursued a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Commerce from the University of Mysore. Soon after, he was faced with options of career choices to be made. When all of his friends opted for careers in the teaching line or to work in call centres, Somesh was interested in doing something for the society. So he joined the DHAN Foundation and worked there for one and a half years. It was the Green Foundation in Bangalore where he started working with farmers.  

After working for NGOs for a while, Somesh had to quit due to financial strains and decided to take up a corporate job. In the next 3 years, he worked at Aditya Birla and Reliance Communications. Now that money was not a pressing issue, he had regular sessions of introspection where he questioned his job and always pondered over the fact that he was working to make the rich richer while there were people who were getting poorer by the day.

One fine day, Somesh was attending a meeting between the members of Sahaja Samrudha when he decided that he would put down his papers and work for the people.  He had been a volunteer of Sahaja since very long as he handled their finances in his free time. However, his journey from being a volunteer to the CEO is quite a fascinating one. In the afore-mentioned meeting, there were discussions on how to improve the condition of farmers and Somesh was full of ideas for the same. Within a few hours, the members offered the position of CEO to him and it was in this moment that he decided he would take it.

There were inevitable protests from family and friends. His wife and father were particularly upset and everyone advised him to not compromise on the benefits his then company was offering him. As they say, the heart wants what it wants. Somesh believed in his decision and knew that money for him was never a source of satisfaction.

It was on May 5, 2011 that he joined Sahaja as the CEO and never looked back. He has been dealing with the challenges and even had to go without salary for the initial 3 months. Over time, things started to get better. In 2013, they broke even and now Sahaja regularly distributes profits to their farmers.

It has been a long way for Somesh and he wishes that more youngsters form farmer based companies and think about the farmers of our country. He finds extreme satisfaction in his job and feels that you have succeeded if at the end of the day, you are happy and satisfied. Kudos to Somesh!


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Maati Sangathan- Empowering women at a height of 7500 feet!

The village of Sarmoli is located at 7500 feet on the slopes above Munsiari in the Kumaon Himalaya of Uttarakhand. It is a beautiful place that was earlier a pass through for tourists but now boasts of 15 homestays. This has been possible by the active involvement of Maati Sangathan members.

Maati is a group of local mountain women who have come together to work for the betterment and development of the people of the region in various aspects, ranging from crisis intervention, combating alcoholism, promoting responsible tourism to working towards environmentally sustainable development and generating employment opportunities for women.

Founded in the 1990s by local women along with Malika Virdi, Maati spoke up against the growing violence on women and came out to protest against liquor sales and its rampant use. Since then, they have been working towards a number of critical issues that impact the well-being and subsistence economies of forest dependent mountain communities.

 

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Our team with the women of Maati Sangathan

 

Maati has laid stress on livelihood support for women in order to empower them. They have found out means to earn, through selling their agricultural produce like rajma and homemade snacks, starting homestays and tour guide programmes, and creating a market for their handicrafts including carpets, rugs, blankets, sweaters, etc. All the Maati members are farmers themselves and they grow local produce on their farms. At Original Indian Table, we procure a variety of products from them, especially the different kinds of rajma and Himalayan herbs, which taste delightful owing to the efforts these women have put in and also due to the agro-climatic conditions at high altitudes.

 

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The women of Maati cleaning the rajma sourced by Original Indian Table

 

In 2003, after being elected as the Sarpanch of the village Van Panchayat (Forest Commons), Malika along with the women of the Sangathan  started taking up the responsibility of their forests by regular afforestation and structured the use of the forest’s produce like grass, wood and leaves.

In the realm of environmentally sustainable development, Maati is contributing by encouraging the use of solar lanterns and organic seeds.  They also oppose destruction in the name of development, that is, large hydrological projects that will adversely impact the livelihood of the people and ecology of the region.

Maati has set a benchmark for women development in the hills where women were earlier not involved in any public matters. They have made a lot of achievements and are right on the road to development, in pace with nature.  Maati signifies a rural transformation that empowers women as well as is ecologically sensitive.