Business

India gets taste for 'exotic' vegetables

  • 28 January 2014
  • From the section Business

On a small farm, about 200km (125 miles) north-east of Mumbai, Murlidhar Gunjal plucks cherry tomatoes off vines, while some of his workers pick rosemary and thyme from a herb garden.

Nearby there are patches where broccoli and pak choi have been sown and a field of red cabbage looks ready to be harvested.

But this range of crops is a fairly recent phenomenon. None are traditionally Indian.

In fact here, they are considered exotic.

Farmer Murlidhar Gunjal plucking cherry tomatoes
Murlidhar Gunjal grows cherry tomatoes, pak choi and other "exotic" vegetables

"I used to grow regular vegetables like onions, regular tomatoes and bitter gourd earlier, but I earn four times more profit from these foreign ones," Mr Gunjal says.

"There are also no surprises when it comes to the rates I get for them. The prices that I can sell normal vegetables at fluctuate very widely."

Government programmes

And more farmers like him are following suit.

Asparagus and courgettes are also more common. These vegetables grow in cooler climates and so production has expanded particularly in northern Indian states such as Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Kashmir.

In some of these areas, farmers are being trained by the government to cultivate exotic crops, because they could help earn more revenue for the state.

The growth has been driven by increasing demand for exotic vegetables in the cities, which is going up by nearly a third every year.

Over the past decade, restaurants serving foreign cuisine have expanded rapidly across urban India, exposing more people to global ingredients.

'At every corner shop'

At Savita Saraf's home in central Mumbai (Bombay), the refrigerator is well stocked with both regular and exotic vegetables.

Savita Saraf cooking pasta
Savita Saraf now experiments with more international dishes at home

Three times a week, dinner is international fare.

"Most of the time, when we eat out we are introduced to all kinds of food," she says.

"I have a son who is nine years old, so when we come home, the children always demand that we make dishes similar to the ones we eat in restaurants.

"So that gave me more incentive to work on different dishes, like pasta, at home."

Until a couple of years ago, people such as Ms Saraf had to go to specific stores, mostly located in upmarket areas, to buy exotic vegetables.

"Now they're available at nearly every corner shop. That has made things much easier," says Ms Saraf.

Quick sales essential

Vendors do earn more profits from these vegetables compared with the traditional ones, but they also come with their share of problems.

Market
With demand increasing, exotic vegetables are becoming more widely available

"Exotic vegetables are highly perishable, particularly in hot and humid weather," says Kishen Gupta, who runs a vegetable stall in western Mumbai.

"So we have to make sure we sell them quickly, otherwise we could suffer losses. But more and more customers are asking for them, so it isn't a big worry."

This change in taste is limited to the middle and upper classes because exotic vegetables are more expensive than regular ones.

And with inflation soaring over the past few months, many in the country have not been able to afford even the most basic vegetables.

But, despite the economic slowdown, India's middle class has expanded rapidly and so many believe the exotic vegetable market is one that will keep on growing.

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