Food shortage and starvation are hard-hitting realities which engulf many countries around the globe. What’s disheartening is that a huge amount of food grown for human consumption goes into the garbage bin. In response to this wastage of food, chefs around the world are introducing revolutionary cooking techniques to minimise or repurpose food scraps.
There is a movement around the world to devise a sustainable cuisine which is environment-friendly, under the rubric of “zero-waste cooking”. This cooking approach, adopted by countless contemporary chefs, involves being mindful of the produce in a way that no food is discarded or thrown away. The method is cost-effective as well.
The first step towards zero-waste cooking is to reduce packaging, utilising maximum percentage of food items, repurposing the leftovers and composting the rest. As a result, nothing goes to the bin.
While we still have a long way to go to get used to zero-waste cooking, Indians have traditionally been repurposing food discards creatively. For example, many vegetable peels and seeds are fried and consumed or used as ingredients in various dishes. Stale bread and rice are also used in different recipes. But now, there is a growing need to create mass awareness about food wastage.
These days, several restaurants in India have been trying to embrace zero-waste cooking. Chef Ansab Khan of Burma Burma, Delhi, explained the multi-pronged approach needed to ensure zero or minimal food wastage in the kitchen. It starts with the procurement of quality ingredients, storing them properly at right temperatures, processing and cooking the right required quantity based on the sales estimates, cross utilisation of ingredients and using the trimmings—like vegetable stems and peels—in stocks and sauces.
According to Khan, such methods of cooking need to be further popularised and chefs at mainstream establishments must be trained in zero-waste cooking.
Chef Anas of Molecule Air Bar, Gurgaon, feels strongly about the issue of food wastage. He said, “Food is the single largest source of waste. Worldwide, we throw away about a third of our food. More food ends up in landfills than plastic or paper. The enormous amount of wasted food depends on our cooking and eating habits.”
Chef Anas shared some tricks he uses in his kitchen to minimise wastage: “Firstly, I keep all vegetable peelings. The best flavour is to be found in carrot, beetroot or celeriac skins. One can make a simple purée using potato peelings cooked in salted water with herb stalks, then puréed with butter, pepper and buttermilk. Secondly, bread is never wasted. If you look at great cooking from around the world, bread is often used stale and transformed into all sorts of tasty things, such as the classic Italian tomato and bread soup. You can always convert stale bread into breadcrumbs for crispy coatings or to toast and scatter over pasta dishes. We can pickle pretty much anything with a 3:2:1 mix of vinegar, water and sugar. If it can’t be pickled, it can usually be frozen. We usually sweat vegetables in fat, purée and freeze them. That’s a good soup base. You can freeze herbs or salad leaves and mix them with oil to make sauces and pestos.”
While the zero-waste approach has many benefits, it can be difficult to grasp and implement the concept. Restaurants have to discontinue the use of plastics and bring in items like bamboo straws, glass bottles, recyclable to-go containers etc. Chefs have to brainstorm recipe ideas that are in sync with the zero-waste philosophy. In addition to this, they have to cook food in small batches.
The challenge of finding innovative ways of cooking sustainably remains a motivation for many chefs. They use discarded food items to their advantage by carrying forward their nutritional value and using them to add new flavours and textures to dishes. This is true for Chef Monu Kumar of The Imperial Spice in Delhi. He said, “Using the ingredients with greater diligence and using them in multiple ways helps us master the art of cooking. I’ve grown up believing in and practicing multiple use of the same ingredient. From trimmings to unshaped vegetables to excess chopped food, everything has a place in a chef’s pot and pan, it only requires the necessary eye and perception.”
While everyone acknowledges the need to curb food wastage, not all are convinced about reusing leftovers. For example, Chef Ashish Singh of Cafe Delhi Heights and Nueva is against repurposing discards. He explained his view: “I am of the opinion that substitute always is a substitute. When we try repurposing, we end up mixing lot of things and consumers don’t get the desired product. Also, this can lead to confusion. So rather than focusing on repurposing, I focus on proper use of all ingredients and curating a menu accordingly.”
However, there is a different concern regarding leftovers in home kitchens. The lack of awareness leads people to think discarded items should not be preserved for health reasons. Many edible parts of plants are thrown away as zero-waste recipes are not commonly known.
Chef Sanju Maity of The Marketplace, Delhi, also shared some sustainable cooking tips he follows. He said, “Chicken has multiple uses in our kitchen. After trimming the fat from the thigh of the chicken, we use the rest for many signature dishes like Seekh Kebabs, Shawarma Roll and minced filling for dim sums. From Rara Chicken to flavourful stocks, we make sure ingredients are used in the best way. Leftover breads are used to make bread puddings and bread crumbs. Similarly, trims of fish from Fish Tikka are used to make Fish Balls and leftover yellow dal from the afternoon buffet is used to make Dalcha Ghost Khow Suey for the dinner buffet.”
Besides dishing out sustainable recipes, some restaurants are also making use of customised food wastage management systems. For instance, Chef Ajay Anand, Culinary Director at Pullman & Novotel, Aerocity, New Delhi, said: “We have introduced the system in our kitchen. It offers improved data accuracy by validating each food waste entry and provides richer insight to help the teams to reduce waste. It also facilitates planning for the future.”
To ensure minimal food wastage, most restaurants today use a composter to convert discarded items like peels into manure. Recyclable items are more in demand at these venues. Considering the benefits of zero-waste cooking, the method seems to point towards the future of commercial and household kitchens.