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Farm to Fork: Original Indian Table

Makers & shakers

 

Picture Courtesy: Pinterest

Meet Ishira Mehta and Puneet Jhajharia – compulsive foodies and travellers with a passion for social impact, Co-founders of CropConnect and subsequently, Original Indian Table.

Ishira has an MPA in International Development from Harvard Kennedy School and an MSc in Comparative Politics from London School of Economics. She has worked for the International Finance Corporation on projects dealing with sustainable supply chains in the Fagricultural sector among others. She has also worked with the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), which aims to provide rural women with financial and social security. Puneet has a Master’s degree from Cornell University and an MBA from NYU Stern School of Business. He worked as Vice President (Technology) in Goldman Sachs New York. Puneet set up the India office for Grassroots Business Fund (GBF) in 2009. GBF works towards sustainable livelihood for people with low incomes. He also has extensive experience working with NGO’s and farmer groups.

Both left behind cushy corporate jobs with a dream to help Indian farmers and bring healthier, safer food to consumers. These include fruit – both fresh as well as dried and preserved, honey, tea, rice, millets, grains, pulses, and finally, the crown jewel in their product list of about 500 items, spanning the length and breadth of the country: herbs, condiments and spices.

Picture Courtesy: Pinterest

My own personal favourites include three types of exotic rock salt — infused with garlic, Himalayan lemon rind and seeds of the bhangjeera plant, found in the Garhwal hills of Uttarakhand. There’s also the medicinal Gandrayani herb, sold as Munsiari White Rajma.

The list goes on though – Cinnamon and Flaxseed from Karnataka, Solam from Tamil Nadu, Himalayan Black Cumin, Chive, Coriander Powder, Crushed Red Chilli, Whole Red Chilli and Turmeric from Uttarakhand, and for those who like it hotter still, once again from Karnataka, Guntoor Variety Whole Red Chillies as well!

Here we are in conversation with Original Indian Table and their wonderful venture which brings farm to fork, a livelihood to farmers, better eating to urban life, and fresh organic flavours to kitchens everywhere.

 

20 states and 70,000 kilometres is a lot! How and when and why did this happen? What did you learn?

 

When we started CropConnect we did not have a clear idea of what problem we wanted to solve in agriculture. As neither Puneet nor me have an agricultural background (I have worked in agri-value chains in my past job at IFC, but I’m not a trained agricultural expert), we figured the best way for us to find the problem we wanted to solve and focus our efforts on, was to travel across India and see what was happening on the ground.

Picture Courtesy: Original Indian Table

We started off with the Kiwi project in Arunachal Pradesh. They’re called Chinese gooseberries and grow in the wild. We sold nine tonnes in the Delhi mandi, after manually grading them along with the farmers. They did so well, we noticed traders removing Australian stickers from the imported kiwis and putting them on ours, since ours were fresher: after all they had been plucked only 72 hours earlier! This was followed up by a string of consulting assignments and pilots across the country, which exposed us to realities on the ground.

We learnt that there was a huge variety of regional and indigenous products which were not marketed beyond local markets. These products are not only unique, nutritious and healthy, they are also better for the farmer and soil. By nature of the fact that these ingredients are locally adapted over the years they are better for the soil and water and don’t require many chemicals to grow.

That’s amazing! Is that how Original Indian Table was born?

 

Yes. This led to the birth of Original Indian Table in November 2015 with the aim of bringing traditional food experiences to urban customers who are looking for more healthy, nutritious and local alternatives. We do this by bringing to customers authentic, traditional and directly sourced ingredients from across the country. Our offering is positioned as an experience as it contains not just the product but also details on the origin, nutritional benefits, uses and farmers for each product. All products are directly sourced from farmer groups, giving them access to a national market for their local indigenous produce.

Picture Courtesy: Original Indian Table

Over the last year we have partnered with chefs and restaurants in Mumbai and Delhi to supply ingredients and curate recipes. We have curated a list of over 100 healthy indigenous products from farming communities all across the country which we offer to b2b partners like chefs and restaurants . In addition, we have launched over 10 individual products for our Retail customers across several marketing channels like Amazon, Big Basket and FoodHall.

What is your personal relationship with food and travel? How does it connect with why you started Original Indian Table? How has it since evolved?

(Ishira) “I grew up in a Gujarati household that loved food and took pride in making good food. My paternal grand mother wrote one of the earliest cookbooks in Ahmedabad and was known for her cooking skills. Growing up my parents exposed my brother and me to different cuisines as well as people from different walks of life. All of this sowed the seeds for my love of food and travel.

 

Besides, eating healthy and well – you are what you eat - has been ingrained in me from childhood. My parents are doctors and my mother absolutely shunned outside food! This attitude and philosophy stayed with me and as I got interested in agriculture and wanting to help farmers – the dots connected naturally – that I can eat good food if firstly safe and nutritious food is grown. Seeing how conventional agriculture and commercial crops was rampant with usage of pesticides and fertilizers led us to focusing on helping farmers market traditional and indigenous crops better.

What are the challenges running a venture such as yours in a city like Delhi where customers are finicky and options galore?

The main challenges of running our venture are:

Creating customer awareness about indigenous ingredients and a willingness to buy – not just the product but also about its nutritional benefits and how to use it etc. The larger the demand we can generate the more we can encourage our farmers to grow these sustainable local products.

Ensuring sustainable supply of our ingredients at the quality that is needed.

What do you love the most about what you do?

The best part about our job is the field visits we do for sourcing as working with and helping farmers is the main reason we started CropConnect and Original Indian Table. Over the years we have learnt so much from different farmer groups across the country. Their warmth and commitment to sustainable agriculture is inspiring.

Picture Courtesy: Original Indian Table

If not this, what do you guys think you might have ended up doing?

 

We would have probably worked on a particular value chain like ginger, honey or something else. Hard to say.

I assume you guys are incurable foodaholics. Tell me a fun food story?

 

When we are traveling we are actively seeking out opportunities to eat the local food. Normally highway dhabas have the same Punjabi style menu. So we actively scout out local eateries or eat at the homes of local villagers to experience and get exposure to local products and cuisines. One of my most memorable such meals was when I was visiting a farmer group in Tamil Nadu at practices organic agriculture and is reviving millets. They fed me a full meal made of only millets – starting from salad to rice to vegetable to dessert everything was made of millets.

Picture Courtesy: Original Indian Table

As an extension of the previous question: what or who is your biggest food inspiration?

 

(Ishira) “My biggest food inspiration is my mother. Growing up seeing her passion and creativity for food and making all cuisines and some of the best desserts at home sowed the seeds for me.”

What is the one ingredient you swear by?

Munsiari Rajma. This is probably the best Rajma we have had. It simply melts in your mouth. The reason why this Rajma is so tasty and special is that it is grown at altitudes of 5000+ feet in the Himalayas.

Picture Courtesy: Original Indian Table

OIT now works with restaurants in Mumbai and Delhi. Elsewhere too? Who are these guys? How do they use your recipes? What are your bestsellers? And what should guests order here? How did these relatonships transpire? What’s special about you guys / the ingredients you supply that gets these top chefs excited?

We are currently supplying to the following restaurants and these are products they are making from them:

Kala Ghoda Café – Black Rice Mushroom Risotto

Bombay Canteen – Bamboo Rice Khichdi and Black Rice

It Happened in NY, Mumbai – Black rice tacos, Millet flakes bhel, Black peas burger

Annamaya restaurant in Andaz Hotel , Delhi – range of products

The chefs are looking for new ingredients to work with and that is what excites them about our product list. They can’t access these ingredients from their regular traders.

Picture Courtesy: Original Indian Table

You’ve literally been across the length and breadth of this country? What are your favourite spots in India and why? Favourite vacation spots if any, besides?

Ladakh

Arunachal Pradesh

Kasauli

Nilgiris

A creation of yours that you are most proud of (or a moment till now that has been truly landmark)?

Black Sesame Jaggery Bites (one of our best selling products).

Picture Courtesy: Original Indian Table

Five words to define your brand of creativity.

Traditional

Healthy

Contemporary

Sustainable

Fun

Picture Courtesy: Original Indian Table

What’s in store for the future? Where would you like your brand to go... besides places? How do these plans tie into your own aspirations, and what if all this were to come crashing down? Would you start again or would you go another way completely?

We want Original Indian Table to become the preferred partner by farmers and consumers for indigenous and healthy Indian ingredients – nationally in the short run and globally in the medium to long run. We are too early in the journey to know what we would do if this doesn’t work. So far we are having a blast and are going at it full throttle. We don’t really believe in back up plans!

Picture Courtesy: Original Indian Table

Written byRanjeeta Muduli

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