I got a last-minute call from the Startup India team to showcase our startup innovation with green jackfruit at the India International Trade Fair at Pragati Maidan in Delhi. One of the communications I received mentioned that President Ram Nath Kovind is expected to inaugurate the fair and I thought it would be a nice story to tell my kids that I could present to him what his predecessor Dr APJ Abdul Kalam asked me to develop. After booking the flight to Delhi, I did some research on a gap in the diet of urban India, identified by the largest diet study, PURE (Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology), published in The Lancet two months ago.
According to the study, India (grouped under South Asia), the second largest producer of vegetable and fruits in the world, is the lowest in its consumption, and to make matters worse, the study says whatever little we eat as vegetables doesn’t even count! India, especially urban India, mostly eat vegetables that are cooked while the Western countries consume them mostly raw, in the form of salads.
Avial is practically a salad of cut vegetables without the lettuce, which
lightly cooked with a cream of yoghurt, coconut, turmeric and a bit of green chilli. Now, from the point of view of The Lancet report,
is a dish with both prebiotics and probiotics.
I had to research further to understand what is wrong with cooking vegetables. It boils down to what is beneficial for the good microbes in our gut. Raw or lightly cooked but still crunchy vegetables retain prebiotics or soluble fibre, a hero ingredient we found rich in green jackfruit as well. But vegetables that are boiled or cooked long in oil to a mash lose the prebiotics and are not of much use for the probiotics that we get from the likes of yoghurt.
A good combination of prebiotics and probiotics in our diet is critical to have enough good microbes in our gut and defend us from most diseases.
That Salad From Kerala? Huh!
I am all too familiar with the salad culture of Europe as I was the only guy in the enterprise marketing team of Microsoft UK and invariably ended up at the salad bar in our campus cafeteria for lunch with my women colleagues and the conversation would be around the salad dressing, the only major variable in our lunch. To me, a salad is a lot of lettuce, few other fresh vegetables and a small portion of protein pieces thrown into a bowl and then you will be asked to choose your dressing from a long list of creamy to clear liquids.
During lunch, my colleagues would teach me the health benefits and the history of each of the dressings I tried each day. But one day my colleague Zoe surprised me by saying that the best salad dressing she had was from Kerala in India. “You must be referring to some other place, I am from Kerala and we don’t have salads unless you count a few slices of cucumber and carrot as salad and the only dressing we use is a quarter slice of lemon,” I retorted with surprise. “No,” she said, “I had it as my lunch for a whole week with the tastiest grilled fish. The creamy dressing had yoghurt, coconut, turmeric and was not too spicy.” Zoe was positive and promised to check with her boyfriend for the name and I was left puzzled. Next day she came back and told me, “It’s called avial and we ate it with fish pollichathu,” and I almost fell of my chair.
Nobody in Kerala eats or serves that combination to guests. One is the most authentic vegetarian dish of Kerala that you must have with a sadya served on banana leaf and the other is a pucca non-vegetarian delicacy. Zoe then recalled the advice she got from her friend before their trip to Kerala. “If you want to eat salad in Kerala, never ask for it! Look for restaurants where they have big English signs outside, which says ‘MEALS READY’. First ask for ‘Today’s Special’ and they will all be happy as that will be the only expensive optional item served with the rather inexpensive rice meal. Pick the healthiest fish option from the specials, and then tell them you can’t eat rice, instead would like a full plate of avial.” She was right, Avial is practically a salad of cut vegetables without the lettuce, which are lightly cooked with a cream of yoghurt, coconut, turmeric and a little bit of green chilli.
Now, from the point of view of The Lancet report, avial is a dish where you have both prebiotics and probiotics. Green vegetables prepared with coconut in Kerala, commonly known as thoran, also retain prebiotics as they are all lightly cooked and remain crunchy at the time of eating.
So I had a good supply of prebiotics in Kerala and in Europe, but how did I manage when I moved to Delhi in 1993 and worked at a factory in Jehangir Puri, next to the Azadpur subzi mandi? I couldn’t recall any crunchy vegetables in my lunch from the roadside dhaba where we used to eat. We always had some yoghurt, and most days roti with dal or a vegetable boiled and cooked with potatoes, and some days rice and kidney beans. After a few days of mulling over this, I suddenly remembered my first ever bite of mooli, radish. My colleague Sachin and I were walking back from the dhaba and Sachin stopped at one of the carts, which only showed up near our factory during our lunch break. Sachin said he was going to have a vegetable chaat and I should have it too. Though finicky about eating open food from the streets, I reluctantly agreed.
As I tried my chaat, the first thing I noticed was that all the vegetables were fresh and crunchy and the chaat masala made sure you didn’t have a clue which vegetable you were biting into as the flavour of the masala masked the character of the vegetables. I enjoyed it till I bit into the first piece of radish which sent shock waves to my head. For some reason radish doesn’t agree with me, even if it is the Japanese radish that I had with sushi in California. Later I switched to fruit chaat, while Sachin stayed with vegetable chaat. The fruits too were crunchy and the masala made its part to level all fruits as one. Whoever paid first would pay for everyone as the chaat was really cheap. If Europe’s cheapest source of prebiotics is salad, in Kerala it is avial and thoran, and in Delhi it is the vegetable and fruit chaat. During the Delhi trip I wanted to check out if the chaat culture still exists and if they are still cheap.
I was waiting at the startup pavilion for the president when the staff told me that he would inaugurate the main fair and Commerce and Industry Minister Suresh Prabhu would inaugurate the startup pavilion. I knew my storyline for the kids was all gone. The minister stopped at our display and was rather amused to see a startup in the name of the most popular fruit from his native land in the Konkan coast and the flour we make from green jackfruit. I pitched that our invention to make a flour from the green jackfruit could reduce carbohydrates and calories and increase fibre in most Indian starchy meals, from roti to dosa, and thereby fight diabetes. In fact, a new study from Newcastle and Glasgow universities, published in The Lancet, shows that type-2 diabetes can be reversed by a radical lowcalorie diet and substantial weightloss.
I then ventured out to search for a chaatwallah. I had already spotted a fruit chaatwallah near the New Delhi Metro station, selling more than a standard serving of fruit for just `10. The fact that it took me two years of engineering to figure out a way to serve a cup of green jackfruit, albeit in dry form, for Rs 10 in Kerala itself, while these guys can give absolutely fresh and crunchy fruit which doesn’t even grow in Delhi for the same price, made me even more curious.
As I stepped out of Pragati Maidan Gate No. 8, I saw the same scene I used to see in Jehangir Puri in the early 1990s. A long row of carts was selling vegetable chaat as well as chhole kulcha, and the young men and women who were working as exhibition hall staff were standing nearby, having a cheap bowl of prebiotic-rich raw vegetables and fruit. As I approached a cart to find out how they are able to sell such fresh vegetables for just Rs 10, there was chaos.
They were running away with their carts without even collecting money from customers, some were tipping everything in their carts to the pavement and hiding the carts behind shacks or bushes. In a few minutes, the picture became clearer: the carts had no licence to sell on the streets, and officials of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) were confiscating the carts and taking them away in trucks.
Saviour of Delhi Belly
Let’s set aside the issue of lack of licence and the obstruction to traffic and people movement for the time being and look at the critical role these chaatwallahs are serving urban India, touching several hot startup sectors. First, they buy the not-so-good-looking vegetables and fruit that supermarkets and wholesalers reject at mandis — these therefore don’t end up as a biomass dump near markets. There are several well-funded startups in California and Europe that only buy and sell ugly-looking vegetables and fruits to reduce farm produce waste which is at 46% globally. The chaatwallah’s Rs 10 plate has more prebiotics and fibre than anything that a raw cold pressed juice startup can offer even at hundred rupees. A plate of green vegetable is a low-calorie and high-satiety diet, which is emerging as the No. 1 diet therapy to reverse diabetes for which India ranks second in the world, costing us $76 billion, as per WHO. Finally every extra plate of raw vegetables and fruit plugs India’s gap from recommended consumption in the Lancet report.
The most impactful startup idea for India was actually showcased outside the Startup India pavilion. The chief minister of Delhi, who himself has diabetes, should give a maharaja headgear to chaatwallahs and call them CM’s Diabetes Busters or GM (gut microbe) Rakshaks of Delhi’s belly. MCD officials should issue them on-the-spot licences and provide them access to clean water, and the health department should help them improve hygiene and give additional incentives for bettering our national average on vegetable and fruit consumption, which is more important to long life than exercise.