India,  Travel

A Trip to Rajasthan To Meet The Farmers | Is Your Spice Procured Ethically? Produced Organically?

This post captures four locations, two time zones, different sets of people and many emotions – a posh cafe restaurant, an organic store, a small Farmers’ Market – all in the heart of Dubai and a Farmers’ Festival and a few organic farm lands, thousands of kilometers away in Rajasthan. What is the relationship between all of these? It can seem as simple as procuring the right ingredients from the source where the farmers are, or the very complicated relationship where products nurtured in many small organic farmlands across India, travels many many miles before they finally reach the actual buyer (farm to fork philosophy) – all the while maintaining that they have been ethically procured and organically farmed. A bit of a ‘heavy background’ story to the food that arrives at the table which has been in a fancy Dubai restaurant. My earlier post on the traditional Marwari meal of Daal – Baati – Churma has nothing to do with the fact that I am writing two posts on two consecutive days – the common thread in both of them being ‘Rajasthan’. This is definitely not a coincidence. It’s destiny perhaps? Location 1 – Baker & Spice, Dubai: A concept cafe cum restaurant with gorgeous locations (below is the one in Souk Al Bahar where you can experience the gorgeous Dubai fountains with a stunning backdrop of Burj Khalifa), this is definitely a restaurant which is one of a kind in Dubai. I have met Yael Mejia, the lady behind Baker & Spice, a few times and everytime I am intimidated by her presence. Am I using enough of my social media and writing power to promote a concept that I absolutely believe in but feel (like many others) is difficult to sustain and maintain, more so, considering the nature of the city that we live in? Definitely not impossible. The concept of ‘organic’ food or ‘locally produced’ fresh produce is gaining awareness only recently, but what is commendable about Yael is that she has been committed to supporting local and organic farmers, even when the concept itself was new to many of us in Dubai. So was the concept of a ‘changing’ menu, depending upon the seasonal fresh organic fruits and vegetables that can be procured from the local farmers. The philosophy – local, organic, fresh and homemade – rules the Baker & Spice kitchen and that definitely reigns my heart. Also, trust me to dig out a Bong connection here in my last visit – there’s Chandan who hails from West Bengal and has been working in the restaurant for the last 6 months {do check my Instagram post}. Hearing “Abar ashben kintu” or “Please come again” in Bengali at Baker & Spice – is not what will bring me back to the place again and again. It is the freshness of the food served and the positive vibe that reverberates through their long rectangular dining hall. {Baker & Spice website}

Location 2 – Down To Earth Organic Store, Dubai: The first time I had entered Down To Earth was way back in June 2012. In fact, the first time I met Lokesh Aswani, the Managing Director of Down To Earth Organic, I had to prod him to talk about his products. He wanted the wide range of his products to speak for themselves. Borrowing the words from my earlier post (probably their first ever media post if I am not mistaken)… The essence of Down To Earth Organic is captured by it’s very logo – beautiful green stems branching out from the ground. The red bricked walls with the humbling word ‘natural’ written in various languages (even in Bengali, my mother-tongue) reflects what the entire shop stands for. In their own words, ‘Down to Earth Organic Products retain the natural goodness of food and are produced in harmony with the environment. These products are free of all chemical, pesticide and fertilizer residues; hence the perfect instrument to live in harmony with our bio-rhythms, our society and our world.’ But then, don’t all organic products profess the same? How are these any different?… One thing that struck me as I was exploring the shop was the wide range of Masala/Spices (both powdered and whole) available. Also the prices. One always assumes that Organic products have a higher price tag as compared to non-organic counterparts. Surprisingly, the prices of most of the products (Rice, Cereals, Spices etc) were quite comparable to any other non-organic products available in normal supermarkets. A reason for suspicion? Yes, indeed. But my suspicions and doubts were laid to rest as Mr Lokesh explained how in most cases the existence of intermediaries between the farmers and the shops add up to the bulging cost of organic products. Down To Earth Organic products were sourced directly from the farmers, hence there were no hidden costs involved. Hmm, that was many moons back when Lokesh and I were discussing how to spread the message and make people aware of their organic products. I feel super proud that today, there are almost 300 products under the Down To Earth brand and they supply to all the Spinneys outlets, various other organic stores {for example, the The Change Initiative} across UAE and of course to Baker & Spice. {Down To Earth website}   Location 3 – Farmers Market on The Terrace, Jumeirah Emirates Tower: Imagine breakfast on Fridays sitting on a wooden bench or on a picnic mat on green grass surrounded by locally produced fresh, bright organic vegetables available at affordable prices. Does the term ‘affordable’ even exist in Dubai, you wonder? This is the Friday Farmers’ Market organised by Baker & Spice at the Terrace of the Emirates Towers. Initially, starting with 7 farmers, today there are many local farmers who have joined in, along with other organic vendors displaying their organic products, starting from Coffee to Honey. At a distance, you could soak yourself in the aroma of Suzanne Husseini’s LIVE cooking as she educates her fans about these local farmers and their produce. Or watch celebrity Chef Silvena Rowe fill up her ‘recyclable’ bags with fresh vegetables almost every Friday. The Z-Sisters love coming here on Friday mornings. Although, we can’t make it on most Fridays, in the past I have placed my vegetable order via my blogger friend’s LIVE Instagram updates! 2 weeks back, I caught up with Lokesh and Yael when I heard that they had gone all the way to Rajasthan to meet the farmers and to experience the Shekhawati Festival, or the Farmers’ Festival – such is the passion in sourcing the right ingredients in the right way, for both these outlets. Again, the focus here is on the farmers and one can buy directly from them. {Farmers’ Market on Facebook

A snippet of our chit-chat with Lokesh:

What is the Shekhawati Farmers’ Festival all about? According to Lokesh (above right), the Shekhawati Festival festival is a kind of a break for the farmers and celebrates the farming families’ hard work throughout the year by sharing traditional Rajasthani food made with organic ingredients grown on the farms. During the 4 days of the festival, all the farmers who come to the town of Shekhawati, which is about 125 kms from Jaipur, from all parts of Rajasthan as well as India, are served organic food. A huge stadium is hired and the farmers set up their own food court where the women folk cook traditional Rajasthani food, while there are performances and competitions for the kids all day long. (This must the only festival in the world, where everyone – both the participants and the visitors are fed only organic food)

What was the objective of Bakers & Spice and Down to Earth, in going all the way to India to see the source from where the ingredients are sourced? To understand more on the sourcing of Down To Earth ingredients, it’s important to know about the the Morarka Foundation. It is a 19 year old non-profit voluntary organization, set up by Mr. Kamal Morarka, which started helping the farmers to convert their lands into organic farm lands. He came up with the concept of creating support services for farmers. Today, there are 70,000 farmers associated with the Morarka Foundation and over the last 15 years, the foundation has impacted around 250,000 farmers across India. So, with the team of Bakers & Spice, we all went down to see the farms and the research centres. Our trip happened to coincide with the Shekhawati Festival and that made our journey much more interesting and colourful. Bakers & Spice is using a wide range of our organic products. By itself, their concept is very unique and focuses a lot on ethically produced ingredients. They wanted to find out the authenticity of all these ingredients and also understand the how this is being done.

Tell me more about Organic Farming in India. The concept of Organic Farming in India is not very old. The Morarka Foundation is the pioneer of sustainable agriculture in India and Down To Earth is a part of this Foundation. It didn’t start with the intention of starting organic agriculture, but simply to provide some sort of support services for the farmers like providing information on weather etc.

Going back to the past, didn’t Indian agriculture follow the principles of organic agriculture, specially when chemicals weren’t as prevalent? Yes, true but not in the last 35 years. With the Green Revolution in the 1970s, farming started to become hybrid with more focus on commercial crops. Contrary to popular belief, I believe (and who ever believes in Organic Farming, believes) that Green Revolution didn’t boost Indian agriculture. It boosted the harvest of only two particular crops – corn and wheat (same as in the US). But in reality, for most farmers in India who are marginal farmers owning 2-3 acres of land, monoculture or cultivating only one crop is not sustainable. A typical Indian farm would have wheat growing along with say, coriander and other crops underneath and much of this produce nurtured the farmer’s own family. So although there was a boom in production with the Green Revolution, after the 1990’s there was a thrust to change the type of crops being farmed by small farmers. So, the thought here was, why not start farming organically? However, even today, this hasn’t proliferated much into the core of the Indian farmlands. With the help of the Foundation and Mr Mukesh Gupta, an agricultural scientist, there was a movement to promote organic farming. Starting from being a one-village concept with 50 to 60 farmers, the movement slowly spread to the neighboring village and gradually it reached 70,000 farmers! The dry goods like lentils and spices are collected from the different farmers and brought to our facility, packaged and then distributed across the stores. {Do read the entire process involved in Dubai Eye’s blog}

No middle men or intermediaries? No, not at all. The farmers give their produce to the Morarka Foundation and that comes directly to all the Down To Earth stores across the globe. Some of these farmers are associated with the foundation for the last 15 years.

Organic spices are sourced from India. But what about the organic Pastas? As a commercial company, we realised that to increase the viability of production we have to produce everything ourselves. Initially, we were sourcing these from Italy but they proved to be very expensive. So we worked back the recipe of Pasta, and started manufacturing Pasta ourselves. Everything that is being sold is sourced in India. For example, tea. Adjoining the famous Kaziranga National Park, there is a beautiful tea estate called the Hathikuli Tea Estate and our tea grows wildly in this estate which is very regularly frequented by elephants, rhinoceros.

How is Baker & Spice special? Bakers & Spice understands what we are doing. Most commercial operation would probably use organic products if they are offered a decent price. The very agenda of going organic or the choice that Baker & Spice makes while choosing its ingredients – proximity to the source of produce – is very important. Spices don’t grow in this region and hence one of the closest sources would naturally be India. They make an effort in doing that. For the rest, we have to go and convince them. It’s just not being ‘organic’ but they are also very conscious of ‘fair trade’ and ensures that we pay the farmers the prices that they deserve. So, conceptually we are at the same plane. While every business needs to be commercially viable, everyone who’s starting an organic business knows that it’s going to take a long time to make it sustainable. Behind this, there has to be a passion to ‘believe’ in the concept of ‘going organic’. Yes, it’s good for the environment but also the main focus is the ‘farmer’.

The final question that is probably the most important. Being conscious is one thing, but as a consumer, am I paying more when I make a choice of going organic? Yes, but not very much. We are unable to communicate to the consumers that the purity of the spices is the biggest challenge when it comes to spices. For most brands, the adulteration is at the source itself. In India, where a trader who owns hectares and hectares of land, if there is an adulteration at the source of even 10%, it is a turnover of crores of Rupees. Until and unless, they are whole spices, the chances of adulteration is very high.

Location 4 – Rajasthan, India: Suzanne Radford of Dubai Eye 103.8FM (above right with the farmers’ family), the host of the popular talk show ‘Dubai Today’ where she brings in people, places and personal stories from the heart of the city, had accompanied the Lokesh and Yael to India to learn the trail of organic farming. Suzanne shares the following pictures of the Shekhawati Festival (I have made some minor adjustments to the colours). Do hear the episode where Suzanne documents this amazing Rajasthan trip with Baker & Spice and Down To Earth (below).
[gigya src=”” style=”background-color:transparent; display:block; box-shadow:0 0 1px 1px rgba(0, 0, 0, 0.15); min-width:349px; max-width:700px;” flashvars=”image_option=none&imgURL=&link_color=steelblue&mp3Author=IshitaUnblogged&mp3Duration=600000.0&″ width=”480″ height=”150″ allowFullScreen=”true” wmode=”transparent”]

Suzanne with the entire team of Bakers & Spice and Lokesh
On the farm
Organic cabbages
Yael, the founder of Bakers & Spice

Imagine a crowded Farmers’ Festival in Rajasthan – and a few Dubai-ites immersing themselves in the crowd to learn about the sourcing of their own ingredients and to educate the end consumers. Inspiring, isn’t it? You will definitely find me in the plane that goes to Jaipur from Dubai next February – I really have to make my way to the Shekhawati Festival. And talking about Rajasthan, do hop into my earlier post and join me as I drooled over the Marwari speciality – Daal – Baati – Churma!

Unblogging it all… Ishita

Disclaimer:  The pictures of Rajasthan has been kindly shared by Suzanne Radford from Dubai Eye 103.8FM. Please note that this post is not a sponsored post and the subject, story, opinions and views stated here are my own and are independent. While you enjoy reading the posts with lot of visuals, please do not use any material from this post. You can catch my daily travel and food journey on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.





Did you enjoy reading the post? Do leave some love!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: