Eating Dishes

What if the main dish was really a dish?

Eating Dishes

What if the main dish was really a dish?

It’s a common thing for people to carry their own food while travelling on a train. But when I’m travelling on the 12677 Intercity Express, from Bengaluru to Salem, I don’t need to do it.

At 7:00, caterers come down selling hot masala dosa fresh from the pantry-car. Two dosas a plate, along with sambar and chutney, makes for a complete breakfast. Early buyers will also get a stale vada from yesterday — don’t buy it, it’s better to wait a bit and let the fresh ones come around.

I don’t wait for anything to come around. Instead, I walk down to the pantry-car and eat at the counter they have there. Fresh from the thava. That way, I can also ask for an extra dosa or more chutney and sambar if I want it.

It’s a common thing for people to not carry food when travelling on a train, and instead wait for the food to come around.

That’s not a good idea if it’s a new train that you haven’t travelled on before. My grandparents recently took a train from Salem to Chennai. They didn’t carry any food, thinking they could buy it on the train. Sure enough, there was a pantry-car when the train came in. So my grandparents got into their coach, sat down, relaxed, and waited.

And waited.

The food didn’t come.

Finally, they were so hungry that they had to take help from a cleaner, who quickly got down at a station and got some hard, cold idlis for them to eat. Their coach was right at the end of the train, so all the outside vendors and hawkers ran out of stuff before they even reached it. There were no official railway-employed caterers on the train.

And the pantry-car? That, it turned out, was just a dummy.

Most long-distance trains, however, do have pantry-cars. Though whether they’re good ones or not is a different question. With 13 million passengers using the railways every day, providing food and ensuring quality is not an easy task. Recently, the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) announced that it was taking help from the army to come up with better ways to provide food for passengers.

The way food is packaged has also changed. Where food used to be wrapped in newspaper, you now often get styrofoam cups and plastic spoons. These are easier and cheaper to produce, but they’re much harder to get rid of once they’re made.

When I’m travelling by train, I usually wait till a station to throw my plastic waste out. At least they’ll have cleaning systems there and not leave it to litter the countryside. But even after they’re cleared up, the plastic has to go somewhere. It doesn’t just vanish away.

India generates 56,00,000 tonnes of plastic waste annually — and that amount is increasing by 10% every year. A lot of the waste is from disposable bowls, spoons, plates, bottles, and even tumblers for drinking water. These “use once, pollute forever” items are now common in parties, weddings and conferences — and, they’re incredibly wasteful. At least the railways still use paper cups. They don’t lie around, and soon get eaten by termites, other insects, fungi and bacteria.

What if all disposable dishes could be eaten away? That’s a good idea. And somebody had it.

Narayana Peesapaty got his idea when he was travelling from Ahmedabad to Hyderabad. Not by train, but by plane. Whatever the mode of transport, the point is that the person next to him was eating. And, as Narayana looked, he saw his co-passenger take a piece of khakra and use it as a spoon to eat dessert. That’s when he thought, why not make disposable spoons that are edible just like khakra?

Using food as cutlery and dishes is nothing new. Even I often use papads and khakra to pick up food. Sometimes I even use khakra as a plate, provided the food I’m eating is not too heavy and the khakra is not too weak.

It’s not limited to India, either. In Italy, the poor people used to use round, flat breads as platforms for whatever other food they were eating. By the time they were done, juices from the food would have soaked in, turning the base bread into a tasty ending for the meal. Called ‘pizza’, what was once the food of the poor became very popular — and now we have fast-food chains like Domino’s where the main dish is actually a dish.

If we expand the theme a bit, there are the utensils which are not exactly food, but very closely and directly related. The top bit of shell that the tender-coconut seller uses to scoop out the pulp from inside. The empty coconut-shell that goatherds fill with milk, and add a drop of sap from the Pala Indigo tree to ferment it into 180-minute instant curd. The leaves of the banana-tree, that are still commonly used as plates all over the country — and which will soon be needed in Kerala, with the government working to ban non-biodegradable items at weddings. (In fact, we probably shouldn’t say that banana-leaves are used as plates, since they came first. Nowadays, it’s the plates are used as banana-leaves.)

All these dishes are still food — not for humans, but certainly for the cows, ants or fungi that clear them up when they’re discarded.

But nowadays, people are used to knives, forks and spoons that have a particular shape. They need to have a handle, and a thing at the end. If the shape was very different, it would just seem awkward.

So when Narayana Peesapaty got home, he started his research. He needed to find the perfect recipe for something that was firm and strong, didn’t get soggy while scooping liquids, could be moulded into any shape, and still tasted nice.

For his main ingredient, Narayana focused on the jowar millet. During his previous job, at a crop research institute in Hyderabad, Narayana had learned that many people were growing water-intensive crops like rice, which was bringing down the water levels in those areas. Jowar, on the other hand, is a dryland crop. It doesn’t need much water to grow.

If the new edible-spoon venture was a success, it would not only help the environment by reducing plastic waste, but it would also create a demand for jowar, encourage more people to grow it instead of rice, and help to keep water tables high.

Narayana’s company, Bakeys, was a reasonable success. You could get spoons in three different flavours — sweet, spicy and plain — depending on what you want to have them with. With a shelf-life of 24 months, the spoons are as good as plastic ones, if slightly more expensive.

The edible spoons were a hard sell at first. Not many people were aware of the benefits, and they weren’t really interested in paying more for them. Luck came in 2016, when a 40-second video released on the Bakeys website went viral. Suddenly, they were overwhelmed with calls, and started receiving orders from all over the world.

The company now has a special oven that can generate 2,00,000 spoons a day. They are also working on making other products, such as forks, soup-spoons, and even chopsticks.

Imagine if the Indian Railways started using Bakeys utensils for the food they serve? With a paper cup and an edible spoon, items like tomato soup would be 100% biodegradable.

You wouldn’t need to feel guilty every time you ended up with another plastic spoon to throw away. Or keep, which is even worse, because they’re not designed to be re-used. They don’t wash properly, and, the next time you use them, you may end up with all sorts of bacteria who don’t want to be eaten and whom you don’t want to eat.

But soup is only a side-dish. What about the main course — the rice, wrapped in silver foil, or the bread-omelette, wrapped in silver foil, or the upma, wrapped in silver foil, or the dosa, on a plate made of rejected tetrapak that only looks biodegradable?

That’s where Project Patradya comes in Started by a group of students from Delhi University, the project does a similar thing to Bakeys — but for plates and bowls.

But Project Patradya didn’t just do that. Its main aim is to help women refugees from Afghanistan, by helping them start their own business. The women had come to escape from all the turmoil and fighting in their home country. Normally, refugees are taken care of when they arrive in another country — but it turned out that India hadn’t signed the ‘1951 Refugee Convention’, which meant there was no assistance coming from the government.

They were on their own, in a new, unfamiliar country, and didn’t know what to do.

So, Project Patradya started to help them do something. That something was to make edible plates, bowls and cutlery, and sell them to the neighbouring cafés and restaurants.

The name ‘Patradya’ literally means ‘edible utensils’. At first, the students had to show the Afghanis how to make vessels out of millets and wheat-flout — something they had just figured out themselves — but now now, many of them are self-reliant and are running their own stalls.

Project Patradya has just got started, and Bakeys still has a long way to go. But you can help to change that! Next time you hear of somebody planning a big wedding or conference, you know where to send them.

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