Sunil Jalihal's BLOG

How IDEAS, COMMUNITIES and empowered ACTION create a better world!

Jan 24, 2012

Romancing the Chilli

Have been off Blogging for a while, was working on having this published..... Its now published, by Rupa Publications and available in leading bookstores in India and online at http://www.flipkart.com/ . Do buy a copy and let me know your comments. Happy Reading!!

Romancing the Chilli is a book about the enduring heritage of the chilli in India and across the world. Visually and intellectually stimulating, this book traces the history of the chilli in the Indian subcontinent and around the world, along with its morphological, genetic and farm-to-plate journeys.



The effect of the chilli on Indian and world cuisine, popular culture, the human body, its science, biology and applications are described in detail. Accounts of Chilli Bombs, Pepper Sprays, chilli colour extracts in cosmetics, influence on brands and movies such as Woman On Top & Mirch Masala will fascinate readers on the chilli’s far reaching influence on lives globally.
More than forty varieties of chilies from India, Mexico, China, Africa and their applications have been photo-documented. The Habanero, Jalapenos, Santaka, Peri Peri, Byadgi, Guntur and the world’s hottest – Bhoot Jolokia and many more are covered in this book.
The book includes more than forty-five traditional dry and wet chutney recipes from different parts of the country and a few from Mexico, Africa, China and Thailand. Each chutney is illustrated with snippets of history, gourmet tips and traditional health benefits of each.
Chutneys from across India, from traditional vegetables, fruits and oil seeds - flax seeds, niger seeds, pumpkin, gongura, dal, garlic, brinjal, kokum and many other chutneys will spice up the palate of readers!
Each chutney has been photographed in its historical and traditional context. The book has been thoroughly researched by locating traditional recipes, talking to grandmothers, gourmet chefs, chilli PhDs, chilli traders and farmers from various parts of India.

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Oct 16, 2011

Of Living on a Farm

Three years ago we decided to live on our farm at Lohegaon near Pune for a few months, while our home in the city was getting ready. Could we live on the farm – could kids go to school from there and will it be safe? Are you crazy? Don’t try to get this rustic – its OK in the movies and to stay for a weekend, but for longer – forget it! Advice, admonitions and opinions came pouring in from friends and family. We ended up living there for just over a year and learnt so much that’s worth sharing –

Waking up to dynamic mornings
As we settled down, and started waking up to those dynamic mornings, hearing different birds, the squirrels and absence of the doorbell ringing every 15 minutes, it was evident that it was going to be different! We needed to get used to natural sights and sounds and learn to appreciate the sound of silence! Each morning would be different, hearing a different set of birds depending on the time we woke up at.
As we started getting used to the new sounds, the sounds of man’s greatest and meanest machines – the Boeings and the Sukhois made us feel at home. At least it wasn’t the mundane sounds made by man – honking cars, two-wheelers, washing machines and mixer-grinders. Thank God for big monstrous mercies! We would wonder if we saw the same birds the day before – our daughter pulling out her Salim Ali book on Indian birds, trying to get the ornithologists term for the birds that we saw each morning.

Conveniences & Supplies
Where do we get our regular grocery supplies – the most frequently asked question was soon answered by some disciplined planning of weekly supplies. The small errands to call the grocer for the fresh coriander and mint leaves became unnecessary, all of it available in the kitchen garden a few steps away from the house. Fresh milk from the nearby gotha, the newspaper being delivered at the front door and the kids being picked up and dropped at our doorstep by a private van, made it easier than living in the city. I must admit that it helped that the farm is just behind Pune airport right next to a prominent Sukhoi squadron base of the Indian Air Force.

Gol Market – and the one shop wonders
The air-force base close by helped with a few more conveniences – complete with national integration of supplies from across the country – at the local Gol Market – the ubiquitous markets found in most defence colonies around India. The Gol Market has one shop for each commodity and service we required – one florist, one sweet meat shop, one grocer, a barber and a newspaper shop that - come Sundays had newspapers in at least 15 languages available for the people from all over India posted at the air force base to feel at home!

Feline Parenting
The farm had a sample of a few domesticated animals – one dog, a cow, a cat and a turtle and some fish in the well! Our cat, Mani soon got pregnant after the visit of a boka (male) cat from the neighbourhood. Our caretaker announcing that we will soon have a bunch of kittens to give us company. The cat soon became fiercely protective of the young ones in its belly, not allowing us to touch her any more. She soon disappeared and we found her up on the shelves of our store room with a litter of 4 kittens. Looking for her and the kittens the next day - they were missing and we found them in another corner of the house on a higher shelf and a few other places in two weeks until she settled with her kittens in a closed store-room. In about 3 weeks the suckling kittens began to play with each other and the mother protecting them nearby. After about a month, we found Mani, the mother of the newly born kittens relaxing and stretching out on a cushion on the chair in our verandah! A few of the kittens came along trying to get close to their mother – who gently pushed and shooed them away, getting them to learn to face the world. Her fierce protection of her kittens lasted one full month by which time she had taught them to hunt for mice and other food and then shooed them away to face the world on their own! In these days of human helicopter parenting, it’s something to learn - how we could be bringing up our children limiting our fiercely protective care to the human equivalent of the one month!

Cats & Dogs
Mani, our cat – relieved of her motherly duties was back playing with the dog Chikoo. Teasing him, running with him and angering him to end up in a hot chase where Mani landed up on the top of a 20 feet light pole with Chikoo trying to figure out how he could get up on the pole or bring her down from from her machan like perch – the helpless tiger waiting for Mani (a relative of the tiger species) at the base of the pole for more than half a day. The next day they were at it again running and teasing each other!

Learning about the Rains
Schools teach us all about the South West Monsoons – or do they? The rains began and the first burst of pre-monsoon showers with thunder and lightning helped accumulate some water in the bunded tank that we had cleaned up a month earlier. As I wondered whether the tank would fill up in the next rains our caretaker explained to me the 15 day periods during the rains – each governed by a nakshatra as he explained what he had known for many years and learnt in his vernacular school many years ago. Each nakshatra and its rains have its own characteristics – some have heavy rains and water flowing in from a distance – the type that can be bunded for storage but not good for the crops, some nakshatras the trickle yet percolating type – good for the crops as the water gets to their roots. The season ends with rains coming from the East, preceded by thunder and lightning – a reference to the receding monsoons that recede from East to West while most of the rains uptil then come in from the West.
This traditional and scientific knowledge seems to be lost on us now, where neither we nor our kids are ever taught about the season that is the lifeline of our (yet) agrarian country!

Watching plants grow
The kitchen garden with @ 20 types of herbs – sweet and normal mint, Italian and Thai Basil, Camphor Tulsi, Jaipatri/Cinnamon, Kachai, Turmeric lovingly planted – were in shock for a week, then stabilized and started growing. As they grew in different ways, it was a pleasure observing them as they grew slowly but surely and were then on their own. Patience, individual care and then wonderment - at how they all grew, giving us our herbs in the kitchen. Some of the ignored potted plants around the verandah grew by themselves without us noticing how they were doing, until we saw them one fine day flowering in full glory screaming – I can do it too, all by myself! We did our bit by putting together a list of native trees that we bought from a nursery run by Ketaki & Manasi – two eco-conscious entrepreneurs who run Oikos – they have grown beautifully without much care over 3 years; we still struggle with the names of these trees - and our guests were not impressed!

Seeing the seasons change
As the rains come pouring everything is green – for a few months; everything grows including the weeds. It’s impossible to remove the weeds, unless we used a de-weeding chemical. Do we need to use it is the question that we ponder on! We decide that it’s best done after the rains recede, taking care to de-weed just a small part of the garden. Come October, the sun shines in full glory, some of the trees bloom, in this mini-spring referred to by city folk as October Heat! The winters are cool, the green starts to brown and then yellow, some of the trees are in bloom, some have leaves that have turned white and some red. The Kate Savar (Silk Cotton tree, Bombax malabaricum), sheds it leaves, the tree is in full bloom with pink flowers, hardly any leaves remaining and then the flowers and the leaves are all gone. As we get closer to March, the well is almost dry, the Indian Laburnum is in full bloom with its brilliant yellow flowers and the Gulmohar and the Jacaranda the African imports are in full bloom too. The leaves start sprouting again in the heat of the summer, waiting for the pre-monsoons and then the rains that turn everything green again and - when the tank and the well will be full again! We are done with watching one full cycle of the seasons wondering if it’s the British who taught us to hate our “hot” summers ignoring everything that is in bloom during Vasant Rutu that had our poets write about in the days gone by.

Dealing with the dust!
Having travelled frequently to the sanitized, asphalted and cemented environs of Europe and America and living in gated communities in Bangalore and Pune where dust is at a premium – where you need to go to the ‘wilderness’ to find it – dealing with it on the farm next to dusty roads and a brick kiln – was quite a task. As the trucks passed the farm, clouds of dust seemed to settle on everything in the house. Getting the house cleaned every day was more than a chore! The dust got worse in summer, reminding us of the ‘dusty Indian plains’ often described by the British and that made them ‘go dullaly” – in Deolali, near Nasik, just @ 200 kms from our farm!

Satellite TV and the Dialup Connection to the Internet!
When we moved to the farm, we thought we could do without an Internet connection or Cable TV. We soon started missing both and work demanded that I needed an Internet connection – I could get one courtesy Reliance NetConnect, even though it was as slow as the erstwhile Dial-up connection operating at the lower KB range. TV connection was courtesy – the other wireless wonder – Satellite TV from Tata Sky. These two modern technologies helped us be in touch with the material world and could one day help people move to live on farms!

Inviting people home to the farm
Our friends and relatives came visiting once in a while. Most of them were curious to see the farm and see us living there! The usual questions – where are the lawns, the manicured trees and flowering plants – expecting a resort! Some questions about mosquitoes, dust, snakes and the dog that was not tied up! Some suggested we convert it into a proper resort, manicured and maintained, with the ACs, how it could be used for corporate get-aways to the manicured lawns and AC rooms. Some were interested in the trees and the kitchen garden trying to recognize what they were. They wanted more fruit trees that would yield an income. Those who were more inclined wanted to know which paddy was being grown and how it’s harvested! All were relieved that they did not have to drink well; hard-water and that we had some bottles of mineral water handy. “Fence it up and keep the villagers and snakes away” said many.

No more say the kids
Our 10th floor house in the city was now ready, with a small garden and a lawn to go with it and a functional farm next to our building. The kids were relieved that they were back in the city, but missed their long bus ride to school! They sometimes missed the openness of the farm but vowed not to visit the farm for at least a year! We did not go back to the farm much for two years; we are visiting more often now in the last few weeks, getting it back in shape – for guests who were expected to come from the big cities! Our caretaker - Jadhav, is happy that we visit him again and spend time on the farm. This year we are looking forward to spending the Diwali week at the farm; the kids sure that it won’t be for more than a week!

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May 22, 2011

Whats Organic About Food!

A few years ago, after having spent many years, in the “virtual” IT industry, I decided to take a sabbatical and do some “real” things. Having been an IT entrepreneur for a while, I thought the best way to do it was to setup a green business. It was becoming fashionable too!, was close to the earth! and the world seemed to need it? Or did it, really? Most friends were wondering what I was trying to do – they thought I was crazy, Indians did’nt care about Organic Food, it was only understood in Europe and in the US and even there it was purchased by a small percentage of the population! Thanks mainly to some good PR by large chains like Whole Foods that imported organic food all the way from New Zealand!

We invested in a Organic Food Store Chain concept and set out setting up franchise stores in Bangalore and Pune. We had to compete with the conventional food chains in the city, make the store “appealing” with good décor and setup all the “cold chain” equipment to preserve food and make it “look good”. So far so good. Friends showed up for the inauguration of the stores both in Pune and Bangalore. Sales on inaugural day were good, we thought we had hit a gold mine of a venture! Good press coverage, lots of curiosity and a pat on the back for our “noble endeavour”

A few weeks into the venture, with friends having tried our “organic groceries, ice-creams, salads, bread and fruits and vegetables” already, the new and curious customers came, asked many questions, enquired about prices and why there were no “Kurkure” like products in the store and never came back.

A lawyer, walked in asked all types of legal questions and wanted to know how some of the food in the store can be preserved without preservatives! “I have done work for some food companies and defended them in court, they tell me food cannot be preserved without chemical preservatives”. Reminded that our grand-mothers preserved jam with the concentrated sugar or jaggery itself being the preservative or the lime and salt in the pickle being the preservative, the judge in the lawyer wasn’t too convinced with the argument.

Another customer wanted to know what the “free ranging organic eggs were”? If they are free ranging and the hens and cocks are free ranging too, are the eggs still “vegetarian”? Wont they be “fertilized”. We had to go back to the supplier who explained that some of them could be fertilized, (explaining it in Marathi with terms like “Safal” and “Asafal” meaning successful or unsuccessful fertilization”) and the only way to know is to check out the yolk and look for the presence of a “dot” (Safal). Oops, the “vegetarian” egg eaters never came back to buy these eggs which were in any case beige in colour.

A husband and wife, walk in enthusiastically, twelve year old daughter in tow, wanting to know “whats great about organic food”. We diligently explain about toxic chemicals in food, the Cancer Express as a train in Punjab that is known to take cancer patients to a famous Cancer Hospital in Rajasthan is called and the excesses of pesticides usage during the green revolution that has caused this. Not convinced, the husband quickly says “But hasn’t life expectancy gone up since we started eating conventional (non-organic) food?” I repeat my cancer story and explain how the incidence of cancer has gone up in modern times. Not convinced, the customer retorts “Oh so many people died so young in the olden days, people didn’t even know how they died, maybe many died of cancer even as they ate only organic food those days”

A lady walked in one day, very serious about wanting to eat only organic food, was convinced that its good and how she would thenceforth eat only organic food. Lifting a bunch of Palak, turning it over she notices a few “holes” and asks “But wont there be insects in Organic Food, especially Palak”. We try to explain that its possible, but why its not entirely bad, she says solemnly “ Well I would love to eat Organic Food, but it wont be quite appropriate with the possibility of insects in my food. We are Jains you see! “

Organic Food and Prices, the most commonly asked question – “If no chemical fertilizers or pesticides are used to produce all this, why is it so expensive, you don’t even bother to spend on these basic inputs” And there were those who walked in and asked “Whats the fuss all about? Is’nt all food in India organic? Explain all about excessive pesticide usage to them and they would say “Hey farmers in Vidarbha don’t even have money to buy fertilizers and pesticides”. Tell people why we didn’t have (organic) apples in the rainy season, they would walk away telling us that everybody in town had them but us!

An elderly couple walk in with a bottle and some carrots they had bought the previous day, demanding to know how the carrot juice is reddish orange in colour! Perplexed and thinking that its what it should be we try explaining that its natural! Not able to convince them, we recruit our farmer supplier who happens to be in the store at that time to explain to them, hoping that they will be convinced by the farmer who’s closer to nature than us. The farmer is perplexed that he needs to explain this, and is even more so when the couple are not convinced, as they repeat their allegations about the carrots being “artificially coloured by chemicals”

Talk to people about the film “Super Size Me” that shows what happens when a person has all his meals at McDonalds for a few weeks and how it makes the person obese and they look at you as though we are one of those orthodox Swadeshis! Talk about the book “Fast Food Nation” and what it has done to America’s health and they tell you “But America is the most powerful nation on earth” and you are not so sure you want to answer any more questions about the “naturalness of food”

The last laugh was by a farmer whom I visited in the Konkan, near Murud Janjira. When an accompanying friend told him that I was into organic food, the farmer looked at me and said “Oh we know all about it, I’ll show you what we do”. After we had seen all the conventional farms (using the forbidden inputs) in the area including his own, he took us to a ½ acre plot right next to his home. There he showed us what they grew and ate, “This is where we grow OUR food, without a drop of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The other fields that you saw we grow crops to feed you guys in the cities”

We soon started pointing to the poster in the store that explained “Why Eat Organic Food” hoping that the poster with its “scientific data” would convince customers better! And I am now back in the IT industry, keeping my views on food all to myself! Here’s the information from the poster for all those who would still like to be convinced!
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Why eat Organic Food?
Most people agree that they would like to buy organic and biodynamic food. Yet, instead of prioritizing certified organic food, the majority stick with old, inferior buying habits of processed or conventional food. These non-organic foods are nutrition poor, contain toxic residues, taste inferior and are potentially harmful to the environment, you and your family. So why eat organic food – can you really afford not to!

Mineral Content of Food
A question that often gets asked is "Is organic food better?" Common sense says that it must be. Surely eating food without chemicals and harvested in a more natural manner is better. But is it? The answer is clearly yes. A Study from Rutgers University USA clearly showed this to be true.
Before these studies were carried out the idea that organic crops were nutritionally superior was widely accepted on faith alone. People hoped that the effects of organic cultivation were better for the earth. In recent years this has been proven time and time again. Researchers at Rutgers University in the USA, intrigued by the emphatic claim that "Organic is Better", decided to shop around for some answers. They went to a supermarket and purchased a selection of produce, which they analyzed for mineral content. They then went to a health food store and purchased the same products but grown organically and carried out the same tests. The Rutgers' team expected the organic produce to be slightly superior in this comparison, but the results were incredible! e.g. The amount of iron in the organic tomatoes and spinach (1938 and 1584) compared to the non-organic varieties (1 and 49). There is a huge difference. And we always thought we ate spinach for its iron content!!

Many other essential trace elements are completely absent in the non-organic foods whereas they occur in abundance in the organic varieties. Other studies came to the same clear conclusion.

Naturally Good Taste
Organic food is produced as nature intended. Crops and livestock are grown and reared naturally, at their own pace, without artificial fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, chemical feeds, growth promotion drugs or routine antibiotics. Because organic produce is allowed to develop more slowly, it generally contains less water (upto 70% less) and more solid matter, which means more nutrients and more flavour.

Would you like (70%) diluted taste of conventional food and the taste of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in your food?

Baby & Children's Health
Standards for safe pesticide use in foods have been based on adult tolerance levels. When selecting foods to feed your baby and children it makes sense to avoid foods with pesticides, since babies and children are far more vulnerable to the toxic effects of pesticides because of their small size, high metabolisms, immature digestive and detoxification system.
"More than 1 million children between the ages of 1 and 5 ingest at least 15 pesticides every day from fruits and vegetables. More than 600,000 of these children eat a dose of organophosphate insecticides that many federal governments consider unsafe, and 61,000 eat doses that exceed benchmark levels by a factor of 10 or more."
Surely, we all care for our children’s health!!

Its Better for the Environment – The Secret is in the Soil
Intensive farming exhausts the soil, depleting the natural minerals and trace elements essential for nutrient rich food. THE SOILS of many nations on earth - are low in levels of organic material; 80 percent of many nations’ soils have less than one percent organic matter. This reality is reflected in many countries like China, the United Kingdom and most European Union nations. Countries lose estimated billions of dollars worth of agricultural soils to degradation every year.
It is this degradation of our farmlands, which is the single greatest threat to sustainability. Farming is a mineral extractive industry, which progressively removes from the soil not only the organic fraction, but also minerals and trace elements. In India, the process of degradation of our soils costs us thousands of crores of rupees per year as a nation. Ironically, at the same time one of the factors in this degradation, chemical fertilizer is constantly rising in cost, both to the farmer and to the broader community. India’s fertilizer subsidy bill is Rs. 12,500 crores annually and keeps growing!
For the organic farmer, the soil and its natural fertility are paramount. Various non-artificial methods, such as mixed farming systems that integrate a range of crops with rearing livestock and crop rotation, green manuring are used to keep the soil in good health and replace essential nutrients.
Appropriate varieties, beneficial predatory insects and companion planting help build resistance to pests and diseases. Naturally strong crops grown in fertile soil take up a richer nutrient supply.

Wouldn’t we all like to safeguard the earth for our children and future generations?

This article was first published in the magazine - Reading Hour (http://www.readinghour.in/) in their inaugural issue in Jan 2011

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Dec 19, 2009

JustDial - the successful multi-channel search service

(via Business India, December, 13th, 2009 issue) First remember coming across the JustDial service, in the year 2000. We started using it extensively in Bangalore and continue using it after we have moved to Pune a few years ago. Always found the service to be very well run, with continuous improvements every few months and a prompt and courteous service. From giving information on the phone, as read out by the operator, they moved onto emailing answers to your queries, sending SMSes to both the enquirer and the businesses that were referred to the caller. A Caller database was added and they began to greet customers by name based on the caller-id.

We were once looking for a professional photographer for a book that we are working on. Called JustDial, got names and numbers of @ 10 photographers over email & SMS in a few seconds, started calling a few while we were called by a few of the photographers themselves in a matter of a few minutes. After some qualifications, reference checks and face to face meetings with two of the short-listed photographers, the deal was closed! I guess a committed and serious customer, a well qualified and hungry service provider and the (technological) swiftness with which a deal can be closed makes all the difference.

As I saw the progress of their service over the years, would always wonder how they were doing, here's how they have done over the years:
  • 10 million monthly telephone callers seek information from their database of 4 million clients (up from 86000 in the early part of the decade)
  • Now adding directions information to the business addresses through geo-coding
  • Serves information over a number of service channels - telephone, SMS, WAP, Internet
  • 100 Crore annual turnover
  • Now ready to go global having acquired 1-800-JUSTDIAL in the US, Canada and Australia
  • Has moved Indians who are not a predominantly DIY society to become one - now Indians do not hesitate to pick up the phone and ask for help
  • SMEs have been big beneficiaries of their service and are ready to pay for the service
  • They can answer pretty much any questions - sending flowers to friends, movies in town, nearest hospital, home delivery restaurants
  • Available in 240 Indian cities
  • Its website registers more than 5.6 million hits a day (up from 72,000/day in July 2008)
  • Service also gets 700,000 SMSes and 300K WAP messages a day (up from 100K and 6K from a year ago)
  • Dominates the 500 Crore SME market - directories, classifieds, ad-spends - providing SMEs a national platform with just a phone call
  • Started with a seed capital of Rs. 50,000/- and Sequoia Capital is now investing $8 million; the company valued at Rs. 500 crore
Are they ready to take on the US market which has over 1000 telephone search engines? Keep following the progress of this company. They are the guys who (instantly) connect "seriously opted in customers who look for specific services" with "SME businesses that are hungry to close deals"!

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Dec 10, 2009

Tata Swach - better than the Nano?

(via Business Standard) The Tata's announced their latest product, this time in the water purifier space, recently. Two variants of the "Tata Swach" water purifier, one priced at Rs. 799/- and the other at Rs. 999/- will be available in the market by the end of the month. This will enable the Tata's to take a larger share of the Rs. 10,000 crore water purification market.

The Swach purifier, has a life span of 3000 litres, which will last a family of 5 a full year. The filter uses paddy husk ash as a matrix, bound with microscopic silver particles to kill 80% of the bacteria that cause diseases. And India produces 20 Million tonnes of paddy husk ash a year, known for long to have water cleansing properties.

A great product, has all elements of "frugal engineering" and a great collaborative effort:

  • Needs no electricity, and uses local materials
  • Doesn't need running water like most other electricity powered water purifiers do
  • Complies with US EPA standards
  • Collaborative effort between three organizations - TCS, Tata Chemicals and Titan Industries (try getting 2 organizations in one company to work together!)
  • Great combination of nano technology, precision engineering and CAD technologies

This one is a coup. And notice the way Tata's launch their products - free press, stir the imagination of consumers, get their distribution networks in place, make consumers "line up" to book/buy the product. Many other companies would have done this after blowing up tens of crores.

Here's a toast to a great green product, to frugal engineering and frugal marketing. I am queueing up to buy this one!

PS: Here's my previous article on Water Management - Jalyatra - http://www.blogger.com/previous

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