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India@75: GI-tagged Indian foods and agricultural produce

Although India started getting Geographical Indication or GI tags only in 2004, it has nearly 400 of them now, with more being added regularly. What could be a better celebration of India’s diversity in its 75th year of independence?

According to the World Intellectual Property Organisation, “A geographical indication (GI) is a sign used on products that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities or a reputation that are due to that origin. In order to function as a GI, a sign must identify a product as originating in a given place.” It further elaborates: “In addition, the qualities, characteristics or reputation of the product should be essentially due to the place of origin. Since the qualities depend on the geographical place of production, there is a clear link between the product and its original place of production.”

According to this definition, the case of the Dharwad peda is certainly peculiar but more on that later. 

Dharwad peda
The delicious Dharwad peda from Karnataka. Image: Shutterstock

Governments around the world have protected trade names and trademarks of food products which can be identified with a specific region since at least the end of the 19th century. One of the first GI systems to come up was the appellation d’origine contrôlée (‘appellation of origin’) or AOC in France in the early part of the 20th century. It is a sub-type of GI where “quality, method, and reputation of a product originate from a strictly defined area specified in its intellectual property right registration”. Examples of products that have AOC certification include Gruyère cheese (from Switzerland) and French wines like Bordeaux, Beaujolais and Champagne. 

Darjeeling tea
Darjeeling tea was the first Indian food product to get a GI tag. Image: Shutterstock

It was a full 57 years after Independence that India got its first GI-tagged product: Darjeeling tea. 

“In 2004, Darjeeling tea was awarded a Geographical Indication as a special product that is linked to the unique terroir of a region,” says Husna-Tara Prakash of the Glenburn Tea Estate in Darjeeling. “Glenburn Tea Estate is one of only 87 tea estates that produce this special brew, its terroir defined by its distinct soil, topography, latitude and climate. These 87 Darjeeling tea estates are all located in the Eastern Himalayas, between 600 and 2,000 meters above sea level.”

What makes Darjeeling fascinating as a tea-growing region is the fact that the same bush produces four different flavours through the year—first flush, muscatel and so on. The bushes are still hand-picked every five-seven days. “It would be sacrilege to replace this skill with mechanical harvesters as other regions have done due to a lack of manpower,” says Husna, “Each delicate ‘two leaves and a bud’ plucked by these skillful ladies determines the quality of the final batch of tea. The high quality leaf is then simply preserved in the factory through a series of mechanical processes that create our delicious whole leaf, orthodox, Darjeeling tea—floral, fruity, muscatel—and unique in every possible way.”

Husna-tara prakash of glenburn tea estate
Husna-Tara Prakash of Glenburn Tea Estate

From Darjeeling tea we have come a long way. Cut to 2021, and India has almost 400 items on its GI list. The latest to get a GI tag is Assam’s Judima rice wine. Made from sticky rice and requiring about a week to prepare, the wine is brewed by the Dimasa tribe. It is also the first traditional brew from Northeast India to get a GI tag. Earlier in September, the Tamenglong orange and Hathei chilli from Manipur were granted GI status. Even something as iconic as Kashmiri saffron got its GI tag only last year. 

Kashmiri saffron
Kashmiri saffron got the GI tag only in 2020. Image: Shutterstock

While the GI list includes handicrafts as well, among food products and agricultural produce some noteworthy items are Tirupati laddu, Maghai paan, feni, Bangalore blue grapes, Nashik Valley wine, Naga mircha, Odisha rasagola and Gobindobhog rice. Mysore pak is yet to get a GI tag but is definitely a strong contender. It’s worth noting that GI tags are not granted automatically; someone has to apply for them. 

Chef sabyasachi gorai or chef saby
Chef Sabyasachi Gorai loves cooking with local ingredients

More than anything else, the GI tags are indicative of India’s rich biodiversity. Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, who has been using local produce long before it became trendy—he first used fiddlehead ferns in his kitchen in 1996—says he always makes it a point to use local produce, even though he may not consciously seek out the GI tag. But if the tag helps some boutique producers get some visibility and business and prevents a piece of our culinary heritage from fading away, he is all for it. “It also celebrates our biodiversity,” he says, “and preserving it is the need of the hour. Our coastal waters have been overfished and land is rapidly being deforested. We had 1,25,000 varieties of rice. Of those only 4,000 have ever been cultivated, and only 400 of those in some commercial way. And only 60 of those are cultivated on any reasonable scale now.”

Chef Gorai has been using ingredients like gongura, kokum and kachampuli vinegar in his kitchens too. Nor has the sweet side of things been ignored. “Nolengur is a big favourite of mine. I always make it a point to incorporate it in the desserts at all my restaurants. I have created desserts inspired by chhanapoda and Dharwad peda too.” 

Ashish kumar, gm, hyatt regency lucknow
Ashish Kumar, GM, Hyatt Regency Lucknow, loves promoting the GI-tagged dussehri mangoes from Malihabad

Uttar Pradesh is famed for its fruit orchards. The dussehri mango from Malihabad is GI-tagged, as is the Allahabadi surkha, a pink-fleshed guava prized for its taste. Hyatt Regency Lucknow has been doing its bit to promote the local produce. GM Ashish Kumar says: “In the mango season, we do a grand mango display of the Malihabadi mangoes that we source directly from the farmlands. We are proud to be part of a state that has the largest of 14 mango belts in the country and is the mango capital of India. We source some of the best chausa, langda, safeda and, of course, the king of mangoes—the dussehri—from thi mango lovers’ Garden of Eden.” 

Dussehri mango
The dussehri mango from Malihabad. Image: Shutterstock

“Alongside this seasonal favourite [the dussehri mango], we also get direct from source the Allahabadi surkha which is a Lucknow favourite. Its larger, fuller and tastier form and shape has made it an export favourite today, being sent across the waters to the Middle East and Europe as well,” adds Chef Abbasi, Head Chef, Hyatt Regency Lucknow.

Kadaknath chicken
Kadaknath chicken from Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh got the GI tag in 2018. Image: Shutterstock

According to travel and food writer, Anurag Mallick (he has co-authored a book on the cuisine of Karnataka among others), “GI or Geographical Indication tags are given to products that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities or reputation that are due to the region. It’s like an intellectual property right and is accorded to food, drinks, handicrafts, saris and other products. Be it Manipuri black rice or Palakkadan matta rice, Wayanad Robusta, Coorg orange, Ratlami sev or Jhabua‘s Kadaknath (that black country chicken that’s doing the rounds of hotels in major metros these days), a GI tag brings much needed attention to the diverse specialities found across the country so you know what to pick up from where, helping local artisans, farmers and weavers.” 

Dharwad peda
Anurag Mallick and Priya Ganapathy enjoy a Dharwad peda

An entire episode of Dude aur Deewani, a recent mini-series he and Priya Ganapathy shot for Zee Zest, is dedicated to GI tags. In that, Mallick recounts the curious case of the Dharwad peda. “Dharwad peda has a very interesting history,” he says, “Sometime in the 1800s, there was a severe plague and famine in Uttar Pradesh. Ram Ratan Singh Thakur migrated from Unnao to Dharwad where he started making pedas from the milk of Dharwadi buffaloes. His grandson Babu Singh Thakur opened a shop and there were such long queues for this delight that the area was named ‘Line Bazar’. Later, Mishra Peda opened multiple outlets across cities, making it a household name. And that’s how Dharwad became famous for Dharwad pedas…”

So where exactly is the Dharwad peda from then? The technique comes from Unnao, but the milk is from those robust Dharwad buffaloes. Guess there’s no clear answer. And that’s the beauty of India, a vast melting pot of foods and flavours, united in its diversity. 

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