Asia Life | Society | South Asia

Capitalizing on India’s Eco-friendly Culinary Traditions

To be fashionably modern, all that Indian cuisine has to do is be itself.

Capitalizing on India’s Eco-friendly Culinary Traditions
Credit: Flickr / Rajesh Pamnani

Bamboo straws or edible ones – such as those made of macaroni – are just the tip of the growing iceberg of eco-friendliness. There is a restaurant in New York where the forks are potato-made and even the waiters wear “biodegradable sneakers.”

Customers in the West spend a lot of money on new, fancy, eco-friendly, and-vegan restaurants; in India there are still street joints where you can drink tea from a baked clay cup (called kulhar). Once you finish your masala chai, you should just smash the cup onto the ground, right where you stand – the clay pieces will disappear in no time. You can also have approximately seven such cups of tea for $1. I wonder how much a new, fancy, eco-friendly, restaurant in downtown New York would have charged for such an “innovation.”

Then there is food served on banana leaves in South India. Or food served in small leaf-made bowls across the country. Or food eaten with bread as cutlery: Half-folded pieces of bread, such as naan, serve as vessels that carry food to the mouth, and are eaten together with it. And then there are snacks like the golgappa, where again the vessel is a part of the food, as it is being served in flour-made balls, which are filled in by the street vendor right before he hands them over to you. Then there is food that is traditionally eaten with hands themselves, like biryani, without any cutlery.

The same things, one can imagine, if introduced in a chic restaurant in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, or Western Europe, would not only cost a lot of money to experience but would be praised as fancy, progressive, and environmentally-responsible.

Seen this way, a huge part of existing Indian cuisine is already eco-friendly – all it needs is better marketing, a repackaging of tradition with modern idioms. To a certain extent, this has happened already in promoting Indian vegan cuisine.

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Not only can some traditional Indian culinary solutions now be preserved and promoted as eminently coherent with present trends, but some Indian companies are already taking the lead when it comes to real ecological innovations. Indian traditional bread may be, as mentioned above, considered as cutlery and food at the same time. But nowadays there are also Indian companies, such as Bakeys or EdiblePro, which produce edible cutlery in the regular sense of the word, such as flour-made spoons. “Plates” made of banana leaves, or similar traditional Indian solutions would nowadays be termed as biodegradable vessels. But there are also Indian firms that are introducing new types of biodegradable utensils. The same Indian company, Bakeys, makes them also from rice husks and potato starch, among other things. The group of companies that has succeeded in this market also includes a Polish one, Biotrem, which produces one-use edible wheat bran plates (among other products)-—and its work has been noticed in India as well.

It must be admitted that even in India some of these traditional ecological solutions are in peril. A sudden transition to modernity over the past decades has also made matters worse. Technology changes fast, but the habits of people die hard. The fact that the clay cups mentioned above can be carelessly thrown away feeds a bad habit of littering with plastic cups, when they replace the clay ones. People would previously also throw away leaf-made plates and bowls, knowing that nature would take care of them, but many mechanically continue with the same habit even as plastic-made vessels began to dominate the market.

But with growing awareness of the need to protect the environment, both globally and in India, the country is well-poised to become a leader in “green solutions” by simply rescuing its culinary traditions. Indian Railways is trying to reintroduce clay cups used for drinking tea as part of their catering service, instead of the now-ubiquitous plastic and paper cups. A similar attempt was made 15 years ago. And while leaf plates are not as common in India as they used to be, a German company, Leaf Republic, began to make new ones, presumably taking cues from the Indian tradition.

Sometimes, the best way to go forward is to retrace our steps. But as this does not seem fashionable to many, such solutions will only become trendy again if they are presented as innovations.