Chennai Food Designer on a Mission to Revive Lost Vegetables

Akash Muralidharan the young food designer from Chennai is on a mission. He wants almost extinct local vegetables to repossess the culinary space. The 25-year-old food designer recently completed a 100-day cooking challenge on Instagram, which saw him discover and cook with some of the lesser-known vegetables native to the South, like country cucumber (thummatikai), spiny gourd (mezhuku-pakal), the list goes on.

How many 25 year olds are chopping and cooking unheard of vegetables with a burning passion to get them back on the menu? To understand his passion we need to rewind his life. It was the Alserkal Avenue’s Quoz Arts Fest , Dubai that made him conscious about saving local cuisines and crops. He was there as a part of  the CGG  team that had put up the art show- Food design and Art installation? What is this Brave New World?

Akash Muralidharan is a food designer who was trained at SPD, Milan. He gave up his career as an architect to pursue a calling that is deeply rooted in his childhood.

A young life packed with so many flavours was a sure invitation to CSP. CSP spoke to him about his journey as a food designer, the importance of safeguarding our culinary diversity and, why we cannot shun away from our role in guarding our legacy which we have taken for granted. We can consciously preserve our culinary heritage by doing something as simple as cooking some of the vegetables listed by Akash.

Food influences and growing up years

Food and the joy that comes with cooking, has always been a part of his life. Recalling his childhood, he says he spent most of his time in the kitchen. Firstly, because he loved eating and the second was because he was his grandmom’s favourite. He would watch her cooking, follow her around while working in the kitchen garden trying to cultivate new plants from saplings brought from numerous family trips. His fondness for food and cooking grew from hanging around with grandma. Touchingly he says, “I think my interest in food might have stemmed from my relationship with my grandmother and the kitchen.”

Chennai to Milan

Life took a new turn. Growing up, moving away from the joint family settling in a new flat he felt that design was his passion, so he pursued a course in architecture. Later, while working in an architecture firm the monotony of blueprints and AutoCAD drove him to quit his job. In pursuance of his passion, he took up animation and joined a start-up too. But nothing inspired him till he saw a notification in July of 2018.  It was for a Master's course in Food Design and Innovation from Scuola Politecnica di Design (SPD) in Milan. Talking about that moment he shares, “It was a very last-minute decision but my portfolio interested them at the Institute and I joined the institute. The course helped me expand my interests and I realised that I enjoyed working with food every-day. My background helped me get creative with food.”

Academic Internship and exposure to the Food Industry

Akash Muralidharan interned with Katja Gruijters at her Studio is in Arnhem, close to Amsterdam, working with her he got to experiment with architecture and food. With her, he learned how to translate food into installations, spaces through which people could feel the process of an ingredient.

A story had to be told about a region which was rich in agriculture but unknown, uncelebrated in the rest of the Dutch world, a narration in form of an art installation that would increase the footfall in the neglected agricultural bowl of Holland. While working on it he realized the rich possibility of design and food.

The course took him to places across Europe and he learnt much from the community of food designers.

Importance of Food design in today’s world

What is this new field of Food Design? He says that Food design is a form of art whose canvas is food. The food designer acts as an artist using food as a medium to send powerful messages. Food designers no longer stick to the norms dictated by society. They no longer confine their skills in creating tangible products.

“Food designers are making the effort to reshape and reimagine the relationship between humans and food for a better sustainable future.”

Talking about the status of Food design in India he says that he was not  sure of designers working as a team but many have started talking about issues related to food . “Through design we can reach out to larger people, we do not only package food aesthetically but create awareness behind the presentation.”

The purpose behind the design is to create awareness about food diversity and how to sustain it best.

The Centre for Genomic Gastronomy

After his internship at Amsterdam, he moved back home as he felt that there were, “Many opportunities to send very powerful  messages through food.”

He joined The Centre for Genomic Gastronomy. It is a study group of artists from around the world who work on food. He has been working with them remotely, Akash has been spending his time studying about food and human behaviour, designing food, and presenting his thoughts through exhibits and workshops. “We tell the stories and exhibit the dishes so that people eating and reading the stories realise that whatever is happening with their food habits right now could dictate what they would be eating in ten years from now! They aim to educate people about being conscious of their food habits.”

Alserkal Avenue’s Quoz Arts Fest, Dubai- Sushi on the plate

New National Dish UAE is a project that asks how climate change will change what people eat. Sushi on the plate was one of the food scenarios that CGG presented at Arts Fest Dubai. The very idea of Dubai eating sushi in ten years seems like a fantasy. New National Dish was inspired by the exhibition, Food Bigger than the plate by  V&A London. In a similar effort to bring the same concepts of sustainability and food future, but specific to the UAE’s scenario V&A  asked CGG to manage the art show at Alserkal.

In a very scientific manner, four possible food scenarios were projected for 2030. Imagining a future dictated by socio-cultural changes on one hand and by scientific or technological developments, on the other hand, a hybrid Sushi emerged as a possible national dish! Looking into the factors it does not seem farfetched as salmon farming has increased and a drought-resistant variety of rice that grows in saltwater, sticky rice. Voila, Dubai may eat sushi in ten years!

Aakash played a key role in this show. The project was taking shape remotely. His training as an architect saw fruition as a lot of aids were needed to visually communicate the concepts to chefs, installation artists, and fabricators. The instructions became lucid and were aesthetically translated into a wonderful exhibition. It received many accolades and hopefully, it will make people conscious of their food choices.

As he says, the idea was not to tell what exactly they would be eating “These futures are not predictions, but rather fictions you can use to imagine with or push back against. To start conversations and debates.”

An idea of one such more immediate conversation was brewing in his head.

100 days pact- Cook & See

Akash’s earlier projects had triggered in him a burning desire to preserve food diversity. Grow local and eat local should become the norm. But how could he start a debate on this issue?  A chance encounter with   Samaithu Paar by S Meenakshi Ammal lying in his erstwhile bedroom now a converted storeroom showed him the path and a movement commenced.

The three-volume book Tamil cookbook was an essential part of the trousseau for many young Tamil brides. The narrative that contained stories, instructions on how to treat vegetables, and detailed methods of preparations hypnotised him, the yellowing pages heavily underlined with margins  bearing notes in his mother’s handwriting gave him the  idea of  “ Cook & See”

The book bore names like mezhuku-pakal, names he had neither heard nor tasted. So,  in whodunit style he started digging out these vegetables, he started questioning his mom, aunts, and cooks from an older generation. While doing so a plan began to emerge;  a plan designed to make these lesser-known vegetables cool again.

On March 1st, 2020 Cook & See was launched

He wrote on Instagram at the start of the challenge.

“These hundred days will help me gain the perspective of the house cook who decides the meal to be served in the house, and the challenges faced by them in acquiring and cooking with these vegetables,”

The idea behind this was twofold.

One was to educate himself about each of these vegetables, their origin, the background of them, and the culinary aspect of each vegetable.

The other was to raise awareness by sharing recipes.

About the launch, he says that “I went into this with blind faith,” faith because he had his mother’s support. In the beginning, he had 25 vegetables on the list. Every week he would plan the menu with his mother and source the vegetables taking inspiration from the cookbook. The recipes were cooked for lunch and his dad was mighty pleased with trying out new dishes every day!

He shared clips of them cooking on his Instagram along with explanations about the origins of each crop and how histories of trade have formed cuisine in parts of South Asia. It is appropriate to go gaga over his Instagram feed. He used his design skills as well as took help from his illustrator friends to create a wonderfully engaging template showcasing these lesser-known vegetables.

Cook&See was not without its shares of challenges and surprises, Lockdown being the biggest one!

Recipes from Samaithu Paar were the starting point, it did not have recipes for all the vegetables. Together with his mother, Akash Muralidaran adapted existing recipes, matching flavour profiles and textures. For example, he cooked moringa flowers according to a recipe featuring banana blossoms and the result was surprisingly good.

Lockdown – Show must go on

The lockdown, which was implemented shortly after the rolling out of his series, did not make things easier. It was a bit hard to hunt down these vegetables. Insta support and encouragement came in handy. Aishwarya was growing many of these vegetables on her grandmother’s land. For Akash, this was a prayer answered.

The initial plan of 25 vegetables snowballed into a movement. Major credit goes to his visually appealing Insta page that was flooded with hundreds of likes and comments. His recipe videos touched many hearts, inspired hundred to share their list of forgotten vegetables, and in no time the list of disappearing vegetables multiplied!

Many shared a similar sense of loss and hoped for the resurrection of these vegetables. And so Akash stepped out of the kitchen, hung his apron, and passed the ladle to his community of supporters.

The last ten days were open to the public. It was Cook and Forage. Vegetables are growing around us; moringa, neem,  papaya, the flowers of which could be sourced without visiting the market for the supplies! 

Friends took it up and shared interesting recipes. Survival skills to be nurtured during Lockdown!
Native vegetables apart, it was also time to celebrate the greens surrounding us, says Akash. Aloe Vera Thuvaiyal was one such revelation. “One of my friends suggested this dish to me. It made me realise how we do not notice the vegetables growing around us,” he adds.

The 100th post on aloe vera wrought to close the Cook &see with an awareness about the vegetables that are fast disappearing from our kitchens

Why is it important to think about biodiversity (or the lack of) on our plates?

Over the last 20 years, our eating patterns have changed drastically.  The culinary landscape has changed.

“Most of the vegetables that we eat today have been reduced to a handful, quoting a 2013 FAO Article, Akash tells us that 95% of the world’s energy needs come from 30 species of crops. Our quest towards a standardized diet in interest of food security is one of the main reasons’’

In Akash’s research, he also raises an interesting point about cooking traditions and the link to vegetables used and the reasons for the disappearance of many!

On the 100th day of the project, Akash Muralidharan stated he intended to continue Cook and See’s aim to help heritage vegetables and locally grown crops make a comeback.

There were three parts to the campaign.

The first one was on Instagram Cook & See. The second one was research. He is in the second stage of research. Because action can only come when we know the reasons, “I am now in the process of talking to home cooks, chefs and caterers in Chennai about why these vegetables do not make a big part of the city’s kitchens and menus. The aim is to publish that as a book,” he says.

Research into the causes second part of the Campaign

 Any research must ask the right question. Why and how did we start losing these vegetables and the most pertinent question, why do we need these vegetables? As he wrote appealingly in his article…

“We can preserve the diversity if we know the threats. If we study what has happened in our past, we can answer the questions about our future,” he says.

He spoke to home cooks, caterers, restaurant owners to find the answers. Was it because the vegetables were not available in the market or because many did not know how to cook them? Surprisingly, none of them talked about having less time to cook or the difficulty of the process. So why are we losing our traditional cuisines?  Were these vegetables or cooking techniques eliminated naturally by a change in society or were they influenced by external factors like the markets and social media? This needs to be researched seriously or else these cookbooks will become mere repositories of forgotten foods from the past for future generations.

From his research, it emerges that each one of us has played a role in the disappearance of these vegetables.

From home cooks who do not plan their menus for the week and end up buying whatever is available, to restaurant owners who have only eight to ten vegetables on the menu, to new methods of recipe transfer -YouTube channels and recipe blogs that have replaced mothers’ and mothers-in-laws’ recipe banks, to the suppliers- the wholesale markets that force the farmers to cultivate only about twenty or less variety of vegetables, vegetables which have a longer shelf life and, thus dictating what comes on our plates!

Third Stage-What would be on your plate in 10 years?

 “I’ve been talking to  25 to 30 home cooks in Chennai, asking them about their shopping lists and how they plan their meals. It was a revelation to me that people do not give this much of a thought. They are happy with the 15-20 vegetables that are available in the market. But if this were to continue, we would risk losing more variety,” he points out.

In the third stage, one of  action commences, “Once the research is put together as a book I would like to experiment on some of the solutions that came up during the research.” Duly educated and sure of the reasons he wants to take the campaign to schools and colleges. He shared with us that promoting urban gardening and re-inventing these vegetables can be a definite way of bringing them back on our plates. A cook himself he wants to create Squash Caviar to woo the gen Z !

“This is not the end of ‘Cook and See’,” he wrote on social media. “The challenge may have come to an end, but this is just the beginning of more campaigns and research to bring back these vegetables to our plate. To new beginnings and new challenges.”

One feels that vegetables will see a better chance of revival if we stop looking at women as the custodian of the culinary legacy. Women are no longer confined within the kitchen. They have found other mediums of expression. Men too need to don the apron strings. Akash is a lodestar to all the cooks out there. He mastered the art of making the most delectable Mysore Paak following his grandmother around in her kitchen.

(Photographs credit- Akash Muralidharan)