How the Ooru feeds me, by Archana Pidathala

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How the Ooru feeds me, by Archana Pidathala

A Journey through South Bengaluru’s markets, organic collectives and grocery apps.

“Bandidare, badnekayi-biryani-medem,” Manjula chuckles whenever she sees me at the Jayanagar 9th block market. It all started on a sunny July morning about a decade ago, when I stood in front of a mountainous pile of jade eggplants at her market cart. “I need a kilo to make biryani. How do you tell a good eggplant from a bad one?” I had asked. She was utterly bemused as I rattled off the recipe for the eggplant biryani while she picked firm, small, even-sized eggplants with unblemished skin and fresh green stalks for me. The moniker stuck.

Manjula is amongst the hundreds of informal vegetable sellers, who at the crack of dawn make their way to KR Market—the city’s largest wholesale market—from every corner of Bangalore. She picks up four to five kilos of several vegetables—onion, tomato, okra, eggplant, squashes, gourds, tubers, legumes— loads them into an auto and reaches the 9th block market to sell the day’s yield.

From my home in South Bangalore if I take a short walk (in any direction) I will find myself in a market bursting with the colours and rhythms of the season—one of the reasons I decided to live where I live. It is in these markets that I have discovered some eight varieties of heirloom eggplants, over twenty varieties of foraged greens, the wildly fragrant paneer fruit, turkey berries and green peppercorns. Over time, my need to visit the market has become as much a need to see the people who sell the bounty and communicate with them as it is about buying food, and it’s the connection that keeps me going back.

Growing up in Kurnool my parents showed me, night after night the importance of gathering around the table for a family meal, but this undying love for markets is one of the many generous gifts this city has bestowed on me. When I moved to Bangalore as a wide-eyed twenty-one-year-old to start a career in technology, vegetable shopping was an avoid-if-possible bore and my sustenance was very willingly outsourced to office-canteen meals and quick microwave dinners. In 2007, in the aftermath of my grandmother’s sudden death, I became the unlikely custodian of ammama’s recipes. As I cooked my way through my ammama’s cookbook and shopped week after week for the freshest local produce in one of the many markets in Bangalore—Banashankari, Malleswaram, Gandhi Bazar, Madiwala, Jayanagar—I finally fully understood the culinary tenet that she often preached: “Ammulu, cooking begins at the market.”

Markets have since become a fixture in my life.

When my son was a toddler, on Wednesday afternoons, I would strap him to my chest and walk basket in hand to one of our favourite organic stores in the neighbourhood: Buffalo back, Aurovika or Grameena Angadi. Over time the people who ran these collectives—supporting small and marginal farmers—became friends, expecting Arjun and I every week. With unguarded wonder, Arjun would wander around sinking his little fingers into bags of silken grain, smelling dill leaves, tasting fresh peas or feeling firm beets. The produce was so alive that we could sometimes catch the scent of mud on the sweet potatoes. It was the closest we could get to feel the earth in our bones. As I look back on those moments I wonder now if I planted those little weekly rituals as a selfish maternal act of collecting memories—memories I hope will stay in the vault till the very end.

I would return from these market jaunts with baskets bursting with the wealth of the soil, romanticizing the vivid, luscious, living food tumbling onto my countertop. But every visit also raised questions. Where did the city get these vegetables from? How many degrees of separation existed between the farmer and me? Did the farmer have enough to eat? Why were farmers so poor and debt-stricken? What would it take to put more money and power in the hands of the farmers? Was climate change affecting the yield? Did Manjula make enough to provide for her family? Why did so many people go to bed hungry in my country? Over time I bottled up all the questions and set it afloat in the river of consciousness for a Future Self to confront them.

When the pandemic began to engulf the city, and the lockdown made us realize anew the centrality of food in our lives, the bottled-up questions somersaulted back at me. “Dada, up for a quick chat?” I texted Shameek, who responded almost immediately, “Sure, boss woman!” Shameek and I were study groupmates in business school high-fiving our way through dozens of last-minute assignment submissions. A decade and a half later the camaraderie remains. Shameek is the founder and CEO of Farmizen, a mobile app that initially started as a way to let urban dwellers rent a mini-farm to grow their own veggies. Farmizen has since expanded to allowing group buying of chemical-free and naturally grown produce directly from the farmers.

How has the crisis changed consumer behaviour, I ask. “Needless to say, everybody is cooking!” he says. “We have seen a renewed interest in people wanting to grow their own food, microgreens more so. People are looking at ancient remedies and turning to their grandmother’s wisdom to ward off seasonal sniffles. So, traditional immune-boosting foods are getting a lot of attention. And there is some uptick in consumers buying vegetables and fruits online.”

Am reflecting on how I haven’t visited a market in some four months now. I miss the joy of visiting markets without a shopping list in hand: days when meals needn’t have to be fixed anchored affairs. I miss the rewarding human interaction too. However, the market never stopped arriving at my doorstep through the crisis. Shoba, a vegetable-seller near where I live, was back with her cart at our apartment, a couple of days after the first lockdown was announced in late March.

“You are right. One of the first people to get back on their feet were vegetable-sellers with mobile carts. What happened with the food systems reflects in a way what happened with global supply chains. The hyper-local food systems bounced back very quickly. We should remember that we are lucky to be in a very favourable agro-climatic zone. Almost everything the city consumes comes from within a 100km radius,” Shameek explains.

This crisis has definitely alerted us to an old truth that growing food locally—even if it is more expensive—is the way forward from food sovereignty and food security standpoint. The crisis raised awareness of the benefits of small and local. Farmers who remained most resilient in the face of the crisis were those who owned multi-cropped small farms close to the city and found ways to deliver direct to customers.

Kavitha, the founder of Aurovika, works with a cluster of small farmers in Northern Karnataka. I have perhaps learnt everything I know about millets from her. It is in her store in Jayanagar that I have bit into my first burgundy okra, tasted the juiciest black carrots and sniffed on black mint—opening my eyes to the diversity of food that small farms strive so hard to preserve. “If we want our small local farmers to survive, we need to start making conscious choices. To know where your food is coming from and to make an effort to buy as directly from farmers as possible is step one in that direction. Diversifying our diet to include more greens (beyond palak-methi-coriander) and even more vegetables is the next step. Supporting produce that is traceable and diverse is good for you, for the earth and for our farmers. We all deserve better,” she stresses.

We can choose to wade through this crisis, ignoring the hardships of our farmers—the vicissitudes of weather, unseasonal rain and heatwaves, the endless backbreaking work of cultivation, the hours spent harvesting, cleaning, sorting. Farmers who are forced to sell products so cheap that they barely make the seed price for the next harvest. Or we can choose to eschew mass-production ethics in favour of smaller local farms, healthful food and fair farmers income.

To steal a phrase from the poet Wendell Berry Eating is an agricultural act. Let’s make it count.

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Archana Pidathala is the author and publisher of the cookbook Five Morsels of Love.

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