India’s exotic food basket
Be it iceberg lettuce, exotic mushrooms, fresh broccoli, tangy kiwis, healthy avocados, green olives or fresh blue cheese, several global food products are now being cultivated and produced in India and the segment is looking at a surge
Hand-rolled pasta with garlic butter caper sauce, served with oven-roasted Brussels sprouts, and on the side, a fresh kale salad with a handful of bocconcini balls. For dessert, a mint-green kiwi sorbet! As exotic and global these dishes may sound, their main ingredients are all grown locally and are sourced from Indian farms: capers from Tamil Nadu, kale leaves from Jammu and Kashmir, Brussels sprouts from Kerala, kiwi from Himachal Pradesh and bocconcini cheese from Punjab.
For a few years now, exotic food ingredients like vegetables, fruits, cooking oil, grains, and cheeses have become very common in India, especially with food connoisseurs and those with a globally attuned palate. Initially, they were all imported from across the world and came at a high price. But with growing popularity, many of them are now being cultivated and produced in India; ensuring higher nutrition with fresh produce and at a fraction of the cost. The positive ecological impact from reduced carbon footprint due to reduction of travel time of the ingredients is an added advantage. You no longer have to look for international labels to buy these products: the best quality of lettuce is grown in the hills of Nilgiris; the freshest avocados are supplied from the farms of Himachal Pradesh and rare cheeses, sourced from various parts of the country.
Made In India
India is the second-largest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world, and is also a significant consumer market for these products. Vegetables account for over half of the total market share of the Indian fruits and vegetable market, with a growing segment dedicated to exotic products. Indian farmers are leveraging the growing demand for exotic vegetables. In 2018, India imported fruits and vegetables worth about USD 3,000 million. In 2019, this figure dropped to USD 1,189 million. Interestingly, import of edible vegetables and certain roots and tubers more than halved in the year (2019) ended March at USD 1.18 billion, down from USD 2.9 billion in 2017-18. Import of raw vegetables, lettuce, and sweet potatoes, too, saw a decline in 2018-19. Experts say this fall is triggered by stricter import rules regarding food items enforced by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and a significant increase in local cultivation. The imported food industry in India, growing at 22-23 per cent, is being closely followed by domestic production of international foods having a growth of 14-16 per cent.
The Government of India has identified this small yet significant sector and has announced plans to introduce the best quality of exotic food ingredients in India, by providing local farmers seeds and saplings of these plants. A three-year-project funded by the Government of India, will be importing original planting material of exotic varieties of apples, almonds, walnuts, grapes and date palm to promote cultivation of these varieties. The state-owned National Seeds Corporation has been appointed as the nodal agency, which will import seeds, saplings and rootlets for further propagation in India. While private firms have been importing these seeds, the government will do so for the first time.
Among fruits, the ones that are imported in large quantities include Japan’s Fuji apples and other varieties of green apples, red grapes, dates, berries, kiwi, different types of mandarin orange, pomelo, and several other varieties of citrus fruits. While some of these are easily suited to India’s diverse climate conditions, others like Fuji apples and green apples are among the tougher ones to replace. However, Indian farmers are successfully cultivating an alternate variety of Fuji apples, in the form of Lal Ambri apples from Jammu and Kashmir. This hybrid variety is produced by cross-breeding Himachal Pradesh’s Delicious Red apples with the indigenous Lal Ambri breed. The cream-white pulpy flesh of these (Lal Ambri) apples possesses a crisp, tender texture alongside a sweet-juicy flavour. Grown throughout the year, it is popular for raw consumption and jams, jellies and desserts.
Among green apples, the Granny Smith variety grown in Himachal Pradesh serves as a good alternative to the imported ones from the US. These have a grass-green peel with white dots. The crunchy and juicy flesh is deliciously tarty, and makes an excellent choice for making pies, cakes, and pastries. The country’s grape production centres are Maharashtra (contributing to over 80 per cent of India’s grape production) and Karnataka. These states primarily focus on table grapes and give imported varieties a run for their quality. Among other exotic fruits being cultivated in India, kiwi is mostly grown in the mid-hills of Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Sikkim, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Kerala. Berries are in focus as well. The primary berry-growing state of India is Karnataka and fruits cultivated here are comparable to the global variety. The lush green hills of Nainital and Dehradun in Uttarakhand and Maharashtra’s Mahabaleshwar are covered with strawberry plantations.
In a similar manner, India imports a vast variety of exotic vegetables like broccoli, iceberg lettuce, asparagus, coloured capsicum, parsley, celery and cabbage. However, in the recent times, farmers from all over the country have been growing these vegetables both during main cropping season and during off-season. Various government and non-government organisations have initiated schemes to motivate farmers to practice the growing of these crops. Farms catering to exotic greens have mushroomed in Haryana, Maharashtra and Karnataka. Himachal Pradesh too has been a major contributor.Another food product that used to be imported in large quantities from Europe but is currently being produced in India, is cheese. Rare and artisinal varieties of cheeses are being manufactured in the Deccan region, in states in Kerala, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. Uttarakhand too is producing the rare blue cheese variety. Most of these cheese-making units produce small batches to maintain quality and it is this attention to detail that makes local cheese comparable to imported alternatives.
The growth of cultivation of exotic vegetables and fruits, and grains and other food produce in India is also fuelled by new-age farmers, or people who have quit corporate careers to turn to organic farming. They are using innovations like aquaponic methods to grow various exotic salad greens for a rapidly increasing consumer base. An average individual today is more open to experimenting with global cuisines, organic farming techniques and healthy dietary options. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi focusses on the country becoming self-sufficient in the agricultural sector and allied sectors, the cultivation and production of food items once imported can minimise India’s dependency on global imports. We can safely say that with the ongoing strategic intent and reforms from both the government and the industry, the exotic food basket of India shall be witnessing a new narrative.