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Big fat Indian weddings: A Bollywood villain in war on wasted food

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s attempts to clamp down on his country’s “shocking and distressing” food wastage with his ‘Clean Plates’ campaign should be food for thought for the country’s next door neighbour.

India , the world’s second most populous country after China and home to nearly 1.4 billion people, is struggling with food waste too. Tonnes of it. The South Asian country bins a staggering 67 million tonnes – about US$14 billion (S$19 billion) worth – of food every year, according to a government survey.

Yet at the same time, in a cruel irony, starvation is rampant across the country.

According to the 2018 Global Nutrition Report, 46 million children in India suffer from malnutrition , accounting for one-third of the world’s stunted children, while in the 2019 Global Hunger Index, India ranked 102nd out of 117 countries.

Despite such chronic hunger, as the ranks of India’s wealthy swell, propelled by robust economic growth, conspicuous consumption of food has grown exponentially.

From lavish banquets at big fat Indian weddings to mounds of food cooked at festivals and community gatherings to over-ordered dishes in restaurants, Indians are going the whole hog.

A boy eats roti at a slum in Mumbai. Tens of millions of Indian children suffer malnutrition. 
PHOTO: Reuters

Experts say the biggest villains are India’s estimated 10 million weddings a year which contribute significantly to the country’s annual food waste. According to the NGO Feeding India, 10 to 20 per cent of the food served at weddings is wasted.

Be that as it may, austerity is far from the minds of India’s rich, who fly in exotic raw ingredients, meats and Michelin-star chefs from abroad to treat guests to stellar spreads at their nuptials.

Last year, at the wedding of Akash Ambani, the son of India’s richest man, tycoon Mukesh Ambani , tables creaked under the weight of gastronomic goodies from all corners of the globe prepared by an army of chefs.

For one gala function, fresh burrata, ricotta, asparagus and black truffles were flown in from Italy alongside Italian chefs. The desserts were crafted by luxury Parisian bakery Laduree, owned by French billionaire Francis Holder, according to an insider.

Experts say Bollywood has played a catalytic role in fuelling this trend of opulent weddings. “Indian movies set the benchmark for lifestyles in India – be it weddings, travel or fashion,” elaborates Delhi-based wedding planner Aditi Rathore. “Conspicuous consumption is no longer frowned upon as it once was under India’s earlier socialist ethos. This is an aspirational new India, with new value systems, where nothing succeeds like excess.”

Appetite for change

The problem of excess has become so acute that the Delhi government drafted a policy last year under the Supreme Court’s guidance to keep a tab on all aspects of weddings – the venue size, number of guests as well as food wastage.

Ground up movements are also trying to raise awareness about mindful consumption.

From communities setting up fridges for people to deposit their extra food for the needy to food apps that crowdsource data on hunger spots in India to facilitate surplus food donations, responsible attitudes to food are being encouraged.

A Robin Hood Army volunteer in Bhagalpur.
PHOTO: Robin Hood Army

The Robin Hood Army, a volunteer organisation staffed by ‘robins’, taps restaurants for leftovers, surplus food and materials such as leftover dough that can be repurposed to make dishes.

The robins, mostly young professionals, identify and distribute food to clusters of people in need – such as homeless shelters and orphanages.

The Roti Bank set up by the world-famous dabbawallas of Mumbai who have been delivering tiffins in India’s financial capital for the past 125 years (and currently service about 200,000 people daily), collect leftover food from weddings to feed the city’s homeless.

Restaurants, one of the biggest sources of food wastage in India, are also launching sustainable initiatives to control food wastage. Food controllers are being employed by some while others are adopting zero waste techniques to promote frugality.

“One big takeaway for all of us from the pandemic has been that we all need to become responsible consumers. Covid-19 has been a wake-up call, ” says Vijay Sethi, Brand Chef of Lite Bite Foods, a food and drinks conglomerate operating 156 restaurants worldwide. “At all our restaurants, we take several measures to stem wastage. We plan our production daily. All our cooking is done in batches by chefs handling different shifts to avoid bulk cooking which risks wastage.”

Strict rules are adhered to in the kitchen to make optimal use of ingredients before they are discarded. Stalks and peels go into making stocks; or are dehydrated and frozen for use in curries later. Plate portions are monitored and doggy bags allowed to minimise leftovers.

Excess food is sent to nearby orphanages after being checked for spoilage in the company’s lab.

Vijay Sethi of Lite Bite Foods.
PHOTO: Vijay Sethi

Plats, an award-winning European restaurant in New Delhi, owned by the husband-and-wife chef duo of Hanisha Singh and Jamsheed Bhote, relies on inventive culinary techniques to whittle down wastage. “We use fruit and vegetable peels to make vinegar or kombuchas [fermented drinks] which have a high prebiotic content. Our popular ‘pepache’ [pineapple kombucha], for instance, is crafted from pineapple peels bought from vendors who throw them away. Vegetable peels and stalks are recycled to flavour sauces and soups. Prawn shells are used to make prawn oil, etc,” says the restaurant’s Operations Consultant Manav Verma.

Plats is run by the husband-and-wife duo of Hanisha Singh and Jamsheed Bhote.
PHOTO: Plats

The restaurant also has a tie-up with the Robin Hood Army to donate their surplus food to the underprivileged. “Our communication to the staff is very clear – check wastage at every stage and plan the menu smartly so that one ingredient can be used for several dishes in various ways. In the current environment of food insecurity and deprivation, every step counts.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

Asia One

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