Lest we forget, we’re just 10 years away from the deadline to meet the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. Adopted by all member states of the United Nations, it’s a global partnership that aims high (and rightly so) to make the world a better place via a 17-point roster. Now, people can usually guess that education, inequality and health figure high on this list. But do you know what’s often forgotten? Goal #12—responsible consumption and production.
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), we produce about 1.4 billion tons of food a year. That’s one-third of the entire global food supply, and enough to feed India’s current population twice.
Self-motivated accountability is the need of the hour. Sure, large corporations and the per capita emissions in the developed world need to get their act together, but we as individual citizens must also shoulder some responsibility. The easiest way to let the global food supply breathe a little easy is to focus on Goal #12 whenever we can. From gardening, shopping, to cooking, to eating.When the King and Queen of Sweden recently visited India, behind-the-scenes at their state dinner were Swedish culinary innovators Jonas Karlsson and Ruth Osborne. Once the duo got a break from feeding a 1,000-strong delegation their brand of sustainably-made Indo-Swede grub, we had a brief tête-à-tête about sustainable eating, cooking and production. After a bit more research on our end, here are some combined takeaways:
Know Your Numbers
Foresight and a bit of ingredient math will help you get started. As Ruth points out, if you’re calling people over for a dinner with individually prepared plates, portion control is easy. You know how much to make, how much to put on the plate, and roughly how much could be left over. Buffets, on the other hand, make people go wild—even if you have a headcount. Who hasn’t seen small hills of rice-and-veg teetering through the crowds at Indian weddings? The time usually spent thinking about presentation and courses can be efficiently used for responsible sourcing and including seasonal variations of available produce. Using fresh and local foods creatively is a good idea, instead of trying for expensive imported products that increase your carbon footprint.
Asian communities tend to want overflowing buffets as a social marker that the host has the material capacity for more. We think it’s time to change this line of thinking, and focus on how else you can give to your community.
Veer Away From The Traditional
Think your tried and tested recipes will taste terrible without certain ingredients? More often than not, that’s a misconception. From fine dining to local homemakers, globalisation has meant that most people know about unusual ingredients and food pairings. We recently had a fancy French dinner where eggplant turned out to be the star! The only limit to offbeat and creative food pairings is your imagination.
An easy tip to get you started: find a country or city on the same latitude as you, and see how their recipes use ingredients, herbs, spices and beverages with each other. You’re bound to have geographical similarities, and thus, similar patterns of fresh produce growing in your area. India is latitude-buddies with Mexico, southern Japan, Morocco, Myanmar and Vietnam, to name a few countries. Another option is to try a food pairing calculator, where you can find new and exciting matches for a chosen ingredient.
P.S: OT readers also tend to be intrepid travellers. Whenever on a journey across the country (or world), make a note of the area’s palate preferences, and see how you can incorporate your household’s flavours into them. Ruth and Jonas, for example, made a herb-infused ‘Swindian’ dal after visiting local markets in Delhi and understanding North Indian food habits.
Remember What Grandma Said
We’re not kidding. Old school techniques go a long way in saving food and prolonging what’s in your pantry. The practice of pickling and fermenting fruit, meat and vegetables at the beginning of every season may be vanishing from big cities due to lack of time, but it’s still a given in most semi-urban and rural areas around the world.
Pickles aren’t just the oil-and-spice-heavy jars we’ve come to know. They can also be used as light and tart palate cleansers, like the Japanese tsukemono. Winter veggies like radish, carrot and turnip work well in this. All you have to do is slice your main ingredient thinly, pat it dry, and then let it sit in a brine of vinegar, sugar and salt. The time can range from 10 minutes to 24 hours, and it offers a fantastic sour hit—whether grated into a salad, used in a coleslaw, or had with fried seafood. Stronger pickles like kimchi make it into stews and stir-frys, while the Bangladeshi shutki—dried, fermented fish—stars in its own spicy curry with potato and brinjal. Ruth’s mantra? “If something’s at the bottom of your fridge, pickle it.”
Another tip is to use the whole product, and to not shy away from using ‘ugly’ vegetables. After all, it’s what’s on the inside that matters. Disfigured fruits and vegetables often come at a discounted price because consumers refuse to buy them, but they taste just as good.
Before your next weekly groceries haul, look up what fruits and vegetables have the most usable parts, and how different cultures use them. Every product of the banana plant can be used in savoury recipes (tip: ask a Bengali friend for their family's mocha'r chop recipe); cauliflower leaves and carrot tops can be cooked like any other dark leafy vegetable; potato peels are great when stuffed and roasted; meat bones and fish heads add flavour in stocks; and coriander and parsley stems are flavourful additions to your chutneys and chimichurri. Got some leftover millet that can’t go into khichdi? Make a bit of koozh. “We’re culturally-inclined to throw things away,” Ruth points out “but the other, ‘forgotten’ parts are premium too. You don’t just accept the part of the produce you’re programmed to like. Open your mind to consider what else is possible, and you’ll waste less and get the most out of your buys.”
Be Happy To Make Mistakes
Zero-waste cooking and eating doesn’t come in a day. You have to be willing to experiment, because what works for others may not work for you. Carrying your own bags and grain containers when shopping is the first step, but figuring out what sustainability patterns you and your family can permanently live on takes time. And it’s not just a homemaker’s job to figure this out—full family participation is important. Despite much intense marketing today, going vegan is not the sustainable solution if you don’t study the (often underpaid) human labour and manufacturing processes that go into your cashew milk, or if you spend more on Eurocentric vegan products and ignore local produce that’s cheaper and more eco-friendly to grow. Our hankering for meat—often a matter of pride, often social media-driven—isn’t great for the planet when it goes beyond natural cycles of consumption, so trying substitute recipes isn’t the worst idea.
Read, Watch, Learn, Repeat
Check out the thought process when chefs were asked to make butter chicken without the chicken on the cooking show, The Final Table. It even silenced comedian Hasan Minhaj in appreciation. Or look up the work being done by sustainable chefs around the world. Ruth recommends following British chef Douglas McMaster, a ‘phenomenal’ name in waste reduction.
Another name is writer and chef Dan Barber, the co-owner of the Blue Hill restaurants in New York, which, according to Ruth, is a space that focuses on regenerative agriculture. Jonas and Ruth are recreating the thought at their own restaurant back in Sweden. An organic farm is in the works inside the premises, whose substrate will be fed by the food waste created everyday to create a circular food pattern. It’s an innovative thought that could be trialled without much difficulty by Indian joints and households, provided people put in the elbow grease.
Being sustainable isn’t easy. But not only are you helping the planet on a micro-level, it also reduces the emotional weight that a lot of young professionals and families feel today, of not doing enough for a world crippled by climate change. On a larger scale, sustainable food production can be a costly investment in time, energy and creativity. But in the long-term, it's time we put our money where our mouth is.
Chef Jonas is an experimental chef working with local produce and community-style dining, while Ruth is a ‘fixer’ of sustainable projects across the world, and the co-founder of Retired Hen, which helps people and businesses be more green. Both are part of the new zero-waste restaurant Paul Taylor Lanthandel, which opened in Stockholm in 2019.