Situated smack dab in the midst of Hauz Khas' urban melee - honking cars, zilch parking space, obstructive cows - the Navdanya Slow Food Cafï¿½ is hardly the kind of place to zip into for a quick bite. There are no signboards to help locate this new cafï¿½ (it was inaugurated on October 1, 2004); and to top it all, it is tucked away within Byzantine lanes that crisscross this south Delhi colony.
Once you do manage to unearth it, however, the inconvenience is worth it. A warm and inviting ambience envelopes you from the moment you enter the 20-seater eatery. Polished cane chairs, tables inlaid with gleaming glass through which you can observe a repertoire of never-seen-before grains, spices and pulses, a polite hostess and - the litmus test for an eatery - a well-crafted menu.
Set up by Navdanya, a north-India based NGO which supports the organic farming movement, in collaboration with Slow Food International (see box), the cafï¿½ offers a slew of healthy options for the food lover while promoting grains from nutritious indigenous crops that are threatened by extinction. Grains like amaranth (ramdana) for instance, or the exotic red rice, raagi, kala bhaat, and jhangora.
The Slow Food Movement
The Slow Food movement - obviously antithetical to the fast food one - was stirred into existence in 1986 by Carlo Petrini, an Italian-scribe-turned-environmentalist. Petrini recognized that the industrialization of food was standardizing taste and leading to the annihilation of thousands of food varieties and flavors. Concerned that the world was quickly reaching a point of no return, Petrini reached out to consumers and demonstrated to them that they have choices over fast food and supermarket homogenization. He rallied his friends and began to speak out at public forums. Today, the Slow Food movement is active in about 45 countries and has a worldwide membership of over 65,000.
Slow Food's mission is to create a robust, active movement that protects taste, culture, environment and also social values. There are slow food cafes in Japan, New Zealand, USA, Italy, the UK, France and many other countries. Navdanya's slow food cafï¿½ in Delhi is India's first.
"We're the antithesis of McDonalds," explains well-known environmentalist Dr Vandana Shiva, who founded Navdanya in 1989 to espouse the twin causes of ecology and the Indian farmer. "We will not homogenize and standardize foodstuff but offer you a menu that will incorporate India's biodiversity in all its richness. It will reinforce our commitment to sustainable, healthy and equitable ways of food production." And since Navdanya's vision is to turn Indian agriculture totally organic, from the farm to the table, the cafï¿½ offers traditional and innovatively cooked food.
Endorsing this credo of eco-gastronomy as it were, the cafï¿½ serves hot and cold beverages like mint and lemon grass tea, squashes made of litchi, sea buckthorn or ginger, and sattu paani (prepared with chickpeas). Salads include the 'nine sprouts chaat (a spicy mix made with organically grown chickpeas and different pulses), and a smorgasbord of dhoklas (a popular Gujarati steamed preparation) made of jhangora, sooji, besan and other flours.
For those who like bread, there is a unique 'create-your-own sandwich' section with whole-wheat or buckwheat bread and delicious fillings enhanced with an exotic apricot or tomato chutney paste.
"The idea," says Minoo Sahoo, the energetic cafï¿½ manager, "is to offer a diverse food basket that addresses the needs of different individuals. For instance, while amaranth is excellent for diabetics, sea buckthorn (or Leh berry, which is very nutritious and excellent for growing children in particular) may not work for them. Similarly, red rice is anti-carcinogenic while millets are good for lactating mothers because of their high calcium and mineral content. We also serve different kinds of wheat and rice that so far existed only in resource manuals."
According to Maya Jani, co-director of Navdanya, problems with contemporary food arise because it's been reduced to a lifestyle item. "Food has been cut off from nature; and this is the root cause of many lifestyle-related diseases like obesity, diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol."
The Navdanya Slow Food Cafï¿½ has an inclusive and holistic approach to food. Besides serving cooked nutritious food, it also retails organic raw food and semi-cooked products. These include rice, pulses, corn, millets, oils like olive, mustard, sesame, bhringraj and apricot, and traditional food sweeteners like honey, gur, shakkar and boora. It also plans to sell organic vegetable baskets (seasonal and green), of which only a few are currently available.
The cafï¿½ also plans to organize cookery classes soon to acquaint people with the art of cooking our forgotten foods. "We want to offer maximum nutrition without taking the edge off taste," asserts Jani. Incidentally, Navdanya's organically grown food has been selling from their permanent stall in Dilli Haat (south Delhi's craft bazaar) since a few years.
The cafï¿½'s menu also has enough for those who like their palates teased and stimulated - for instance, pav bhaji and papri chaat are on offer. The paapri (made of raagi flour) comes topped with curd, coriander chutney and saunth (a sweet and spicy sauce). And the wonderful medley of taste and textures explode on the palate. The plump pav (crafted out of whole-wheat) is crowned with a blob of white butter and the bhaaji is a yummy mishmash of cauliflower, ginger, garlic and raw bananas instead of the usual carbohydrate-intensive potatoes.
True to the cafï¿½'s holistic approach to food and health, even a full meal - tomato-basil soup, pav bhaji, papri chaat and kheer (a traditional sweet preparation) - sits easy on the stomach. And at Rs 130 (1US$=Rs 46), it's also light on the wallet.