Have you heard of Thavasi keerai, a type of sweet spinach that is packed with vitamins and helps reduce blood pressure? Or Chukka keerai, with its broad leaves, which has a sour taste, but works wonders for your digestive health?
When it comes to greens, most people in urban India cannot think beyond the ubiquitous palak (spinach), methi (fenugreek), coriander and curry leaves. Or recent trendy imports like kale. But beyond these exist a whole range of indigenous greens that are just as wholesome and, often, just as versatile.
These forgotten greens are the focus of Keerai Kadai, an e-commerce portal and physical store in Coimbatore started by engineer-turned-agriculturist G Sriram Prasad. Keerai Kadai, which means greens shop, sells more than 100 types of greens and herbs, several of which have almost disappeared from public memory.
In its stocks can be found Manathakkali or Black Nightshade, Kasini or chicory leaves, Bhringraj or False Daisy, Ponnanganni or Sessile Joyweed, Pirandai or Adamant creeper, Red Amaranthus, and Chakravarthy keerai or Chenopodium album.
When Prasad opened Keerai Kadai in 2017, the idea was just to sell greens, but consumer feedback propelled him to focus on forgotten indigenous varieties. Several of his older customers would reminisce about the native greens that were available when they were young, and how scarce they had become.
“This got me thinking that if someone should work on bringing them back, it should be us,” said the 35-year-old. “Native varieties are so much more powerful, flavour-wise, something that we did not know ourselves until we began working on them. Just one mint leaf of the native variety can give you the flavour equivalent of a few leaves of the hybrid one.”
Some of the varieties Prasad sells are Keelanelli or Bhumyamalaki (gale of the wind), which is used in Ayurveda for jaundice treatment, and Mudakathan or Balloon Vine, which is “extremely good (to alleviate) joint pains and bone-related issues”. Also in its stock is Adathoda Elai, or leaves of the Malabar Nut plant, which look similar to mango leaves, are bitter to taste, but are helpful in the treatment of bronchial problems. There are also some greens like Pudina Thulasi and Pepper Thulasi for customers looking for some novel additions to their rasams and green teas.
Prasad’s father and grandfather were involved in agriculture, and he too was naturally drawn to it. In 2014, he set up an e-commerce platform for groceries, but quickly realised that his passion lay in the field. He started working on his friend’s farm near Coimbatore and soon grew his first batch of keerai. After spending about 18 months learning techniques and meeting farmers, he set up Keerai Kadai with his brother Sriram Subramanian.
Keerai Kadai sources greens and herbs from about 75 farmers in and around Coimbatore. The team works with the farmers on a contract basis, gives them food and accommodation, provides them with seeds and trains them in natural farming techniques, such as using cow urine, cow dung, sugarcane juice, sugarcane pulp, and chickpea flour to grow plants. Finally, the produce is bought at market price and sold directly to the customers.
In the last year and a half, the Keerai Kadai team has delivered fresh greens and herbs to over 25,000 customers across Coimbatore. “Our USP is that post-harvest, we deliver the greens within two to three hours,” said Prasad. The greens are harvested twice a day and are sold in the store as well through the website and the Keerai Kadai app.
Apart from Coimbatore, Keerai Kadai is also present in Madurai, where it has a store and a restaurant, which was opened in October 2018. The restaurant serves dishes such as keerai rasam, palak biryani, keerai vadai, and keerai pakoda. “Madurai is a city of food lovers, so we thought it would be the right place to see if a restaurant based on greens would be appealing to people,” said Prasad.
On his own farm, Prasad grows green leafy vegetables and conducts trials on older varieties of greens. He recently came across a herb with brittle leaves, which lends an onion-like flavour when added to food. For now, it has been named “Omelette Keerai” because they “think it will be a good addition to omelettes”.
Prasad hopes that in the future, more farmers will join him to help create a robust supply chain for greens across south India. “Farming and technology in agriculture today need an upgrade,” he said. “We have to provide the right opportunities if we want people to come forward and choose agriculture.”