More than a garnish...

Lithe and flavourful powerhouses, microgreens in diet give a world of strength. And India’s green thumb has begun to celebrate this vegetable confetti

Sango raddish microgreens

They look delicate, pretty and small. But don’t let their appearance fool you. These tiny leaves and shoots are known to be nutritional powerhouses. They’re said to have four-to-40 times more nutrients than their mature counterparts and deliver big on flavour. No wonder we have health gurus and fine dining chefs rooting for the mighty microgreens. And now, joining hands with them is the home-growers brigade.

Most of us would have sampled microgreens at an upscale restaurant where the food came garnished with itsy-bitsy sprigs. Or we’ve seen many a MasterChef contestant add drama to the plate with these tiny greens. But did you know myriad varieties of microgreens are also making their way into our homes and our everyday diet? From wheatgrass to watercress, beetroot to broccoli, radish to red cabbage, pak choi, peas and more, our plates are getting healthier and prettier than ever before.

High on nutrition

Microgreens are edible seedlings of vegetables and herbs that are usually harvested within one-three weeks after germination, just after the first true leaves have appeared. But what sets them apart from other leafy greens is their high nutritional content.

Shonali Sabherwal, celebrity macrobiotic nutritionist, author and chef, says, “Research has shown that microgreens are clearly more nutrient-dense, in that, more concentrated in vitamins and minerals.” For instance, red cabbage microgreens were found to have 40 times more vitamin E and six times more vitamin C than mature red cabbage, while cilantro microgreens had three times more beta-carotene than fully-grown cilantro plants.

Luke Coutinho, globally renowned holistic lifestyle coach and nutritionist, adds, “Microgreens are teeming with incredibly high levels of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A, B, C, K, and minerals like manganese, copper, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium.” He adds, “Microgreens are super-alkaline and feed your immunity like magic. They are rich in live enzymes and are full of nutrition that is bioavailable because when the seeds germinate, the nutrition is heightened.”

Sabherwal adds, “Since in macrobiotics we look at the ‘energetic component’ of foods, microgreens, with their shorter growth period, bring in new ideas, growth and quick-moving energy in our thoughts and action. I consume microgreens, especially when I’m writing my books and preparing for something new; they’re also a great way to get kids used to greens, they’re attractive, and add an element of fun to food presentation.”

 


Grilled fish avocado and microgreens.

But the question that arises here is, can we eat enough of these tiny shoots to make a difference? Coutinho says, “Even a handful of freshly snipped microgreens is good enough to load up a plate with nutrition.” At the same time, he advises, “Eating more of these greens doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy… moderation is advised. One should also focus on their gut health so that microgreens are appropriately digested and assimilated.”

Microgreens not only score high on nutrition, looks and taste, but also require very little space to grow. They have a short crop cycle and yield profitable returns for the new breed of urban farmers.

New-age farmers

Six years ago, Hamsa V and Nithin Sagi broke away from their conventional careers to set up Growing Greens. They started with the space available on Sagi’s terrace at home and later moved to a farm on the outskirts of Bengaluru. Hamsa was an IT professional, while Sagi was a food photographer, with an IT background. A strong urge to start growing their own food, coupled with the lure of moving away from the humdrum of city life, led them to microgreens farming.

When they started off, Hamsa says, microgreens were not easily available in India. And thus, when they introduced the concept of live microgreens to the hospitality industry, it was instantly well received. “Besides the visual impact and nutritional value, chefs were able to snip it from a live tray just before serving the guests. This added an element of freshness to the dish, and brought about an opportunity to showcase microgreens in restaurant spaces,” she adds.

Currently, Hams and Sagi grow about 20 different varieties of microgreens including pea shoots, sunflower, mustard, red beet, purple radish, arugula and more. Their client base comprises star hotels all across India, some as far as Guwahati. They also cater to a few retail clients within the city. “The market is still limited to hotels and restaurants,” admits Hamsa, but she does add, “Due to the awareness of the nutritional benefits of microgreens, we should soon be able to see a more stable space in the retail sector as well.”

Akash K Sajith is another urban farmer in Bengaluru who believes, “We are what we eat.” Sajith had a successful career going as a customer experience strategist when his life took an unexpected turn. A health tragedy that struck both his parents led him to re-evaluate the food choices that we make. He realised that there was a dire need “to take control of our food production systems.” And in a bid to “provide food that we can trust,” the Living Food Company was born.

Unlike a traditional farm setup, Sajith, along with co-founders Niranjan and Shikha, designed a climate-controlled indoor farm within the city itself. To eliminate soil contamination they opted to grow microgreens using hydroponics — a soil-less farming technique.

With a subscription-based model in place, the Living Food Company delivers to some of the top hotels and restaurants in Bengaluru, and claims to have more than 1,000 subscribers in the city. “All our products are delivered alive with roots intact and our customers get to harvest and use them real time,” says Sajith.

One regular subscriber is food stylist, photographer and award-winning blogger Farrukh Aziz Ansari. She says, “I add microgreens to soups, snacks, salads and also make them part of my Indian breakfast/s like parathas, chillas, upma, and omelettes as well. But what she likes best is to simply grab a handful of greens and munch on them whenever possible. Ansari has opted for a monthly subscription where she gets to try two new varieties every week.

Chef's best friend

The other name for microgreens is vegetable confetti. With their pretty colours and intense flavours microgreens have become a chef’s best friend in many a hotel kitchen. As a result, plenty of star hotels and restaurants have now started creating their own green zone.

“Food is sensory, and microgreens help us engage with several senses simultaneously whilst adding vibrancy to food,” says chef Balpreet Singh Chadha, director of culinary operations at AnnaMaya Andaz, Delhi, a Hyatt property. “We grow our own microgreens, so that our guests may enjoy these zero-mile greens at their freshest,” he adds.

Rajdeep Kapoor, executive chef at Sheraton, New Delhi, says, “The introduction of microgreens has brought about a dramatic improvement in the way India plates up. Today, a large number of ITC hotels grow microgreens out of seeds that are easily available in our kitchens, such as mustard, radish, chillies, amaranth, and beetroot.” More exotic varieties, however, are outsourced.

At Grand Hyatt, Kochi, microgreens are grown within the restaurant space at the rooftop grillroom. Guests get a chance to interact with the chefs and see how the tiny greens are nurtured. “We grow several varieties of microgreens, namely mustard, red amaranth, kohlrabi, beetroot, onion, radish, basil, peas, green gram sprouts and more,” says Prakash Sundaram, chef de cuisine at Colony Clubhouse & Grill.

“It has brought our guests closer to understanding the value of the food they consume and made us more conscious about food trends across the globe,” he adds.

Commenting on the shift in the global culinary scene, Shagun Mehra, celebrity chef, wine connoisseur and director, Food & Wine at Coco Shambhala, Goa, says, “There’s a massive trend all over the globe with conscious chefs who need to know what they’re feeding their guests. If I had my way, I would grow everything that I serve on my plate. I’m trying to do as much as possible to know the source of each and every ingredient that I serve, and microgreens were my first step towards learning this.” Mehra, who grows different varieties at the villa hotel property, adds, “Microgreens are the quickest, easiest and simplest to grow.”

At ITC hotels, among other dishes, microgreens are used to garnish open-faced avocado & bocconcini bruschettas, enoki & roasted pepper pizzas, charred broccoli & pine nut soup, and lemon & tender pea risotto. At Grand Hyatt, they have a signature dish using microgreens, called the tea-smoked tofu & sprouts salad.

Apart from that, microgreens also adorn the rack of lamb, smoked duck, ancient grain risotto and beef tenderloin.

As for Mehra, she pretty much uses microgreens in everything, including Indian mains, Asian dishes, cocktails, and juices. “I use them in my desserts as well,” she says. “I love the element of using something savoury in a dessert.” One of her favourites is caramelised pineapple with fennel and sesame seeds, presented beautifully on a bed of creamy coconut rice pudding, topped with mustard microgreens.

At AnnaMaya, most of their recipes use microgreens as an essential ingredient. A retail microgreens starter kit is also available for guests to take home and create their own little patch of green.

House projects

The only downside to microgreens, perhaps, is that they’re expensive. One can expect to shell out anything between Rs 150-400 for about 100-200 gm, depending on the variety and the city you buy it in. The good news, however, is growing them at home is a relatively easy task. And definitely works out cheaper.

Savio Souza, founder, Green Education Organisation (GEO), has spent the last five years conducting workshops across India to promote organic microgreens farming. He aims to encourage and empower people with the knowledge to grow their own food, which he feels has become a necessity today. “You have complete control over the elements that go into the growing of the crops, and you know for sure that there are no pesticides or chemical fertilisers added,” he says.

It was after attending one of Souza’s workshops in Mumbai that Anita Singh discovered the many benefits of this superfood. Singh has always been passionate about baking sourdough bread and today is equally enthusiastic about growing microgreens. Apart from sharing pictures of her harvest on social media, she often encourages students who come for bread baking classes to set up their own green corner.

 


Arugula Microgreens

Similarly, inspired by an online food network, Nidhi Aggarwal, in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, started growing microgreens on her windowsills and balconies. “I grow mustard and flaxseed hydroponically; I don’t use soil, instead I grow them on a bed of sterilised cotton,” she says. While for other varieties like fenugreek, peas, spinach, wheatgrass, chana, and moong, she uses a mixture of potting soil and coco-peat. By getting her children involved in nurturing the plants, Aggarwal has devised a perfect way to get them to start eating their greens. She regularly adds them to their sandwiches, salads, smoothies, vegetable juices, fruit chaat, bhel puri, and raitas.

Aggarwal’s enthusiasm doesn’t just end here. She also has a dedicated Facebook page where she often shares recipes and motivates her followers to grow microgreens along with her. “We post photos of our day-to-day progress and encourage others to embrace a healthy eating lifestyle.”

Microgreens have certainly caught the attention of home-growers across India, and it would be safe to say, this is one trend that is here to stay. Or as Souza puts it, this is a trend that gradually turns into a lifestyle choice. “That’s because a synergistic effect takes place when you start to grow your own greens and then slowly form a relationship with them. It becomes a meditative, mindful process, which helps your overall health.”

And with that, it’s evident that microgreens have everything going for them. All that’s left now is for you to exercise your green thumb and reap the benefits of growing your own food.

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