These days organic food and sustainable food packaging are the focus of much attention. However, what is often overlooked is how we prepare what we eat. Needless to say, if the cooking itself is not planet-friendly, we would be falling short in our effort to switch to an environmentally responsible lifestyle.
So how do we ‘green’ our cooking?
Let’s start with the kind of energy we use to cook, and how much of it we consume. Typically, most of us in urban India use LPG, which comes in a cylinder or PNG that comes as piped gas into our kitchens. Both serve the same purpose, but the less of either that we consume, the better it would be for the planet. Several of us also use electric cooking aids like an induction stove, oven, a microwave, kettle or a rice cooker. These too consume energy more often than not generated from fossil fuels, as do our refrigerators, air conditioners, coolers, fans, geysers and heaters. Once again, the less we use of this energy source, the better for the environment.
So, the first rule in the kitchen is to be aware of how much energy is being consumed for cooking and to minimise it with a variety of tweaks and tricks. For green cooking a simple step like cutting vegetables or meats into small pieces before putting them on the fire can go a long way. The smaller the pieces, the faster they will heat and cook, thus making you spend less energy and time on cooking the dish.
Be attentive to your cooking. This will not only ensure that you do not overcook but will also save energy. Most vegetables, chicken and fish release water while cooking. So sprinkle water gently and close the lid while the cooking is on. This will enable retention of the heat to allow slow cooking. In fact, this is a great method if you are calorie conscious and keen on experimenting with minimum oil or oil-free cooking.
Indians save energy by soaking their legumes overnight and using the pressure cooker to speed up the cooking process. But using a solar cooker for cooking, especially if you have access to a garden or a balcony in the current hot months could make you a green cooking champ.
I recall going to a family friend’s house in Yol, close to Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh. While we basked in the evening sun sipping tea, we were treated to a gorgeous cake baked in the solar cooker at the edge of the lawn. This was years ago when solar powered cooking was not even a talking point as it is now. I marvelled at the ingenuity of the lady of the house who told me she never fails to impress guests with dishes cooked in the sun.
The solar cooker works on the best renewable energy we have — the sun. It can be useful for simple, everyday one-dish meals. It has its plusses and minuses just like all other methods of cooking. Let’s list the advantages first: There is no fuel required at all. The solar cooker is built with the mechanism to convert the sun’s rays into heat energy that is used for cooking. Once you invest in it and cook at least one meal a day when the sun is shining, you could be saving fuel and money in the long run.
The disadvantage is obvious — no sun, no cooking. So, a solar cooker can best be seen as an energy saving alternative to your LPG or PNG connection when the sun is benevolent. A traditional gas stove is essential when you have to cook in a hurry.
Green cooking also needs a bit of out-of-the-box thinking as well as planning. Working couples who are strapped for time will benefit by thinking of more than one meal when they begin to cook. For instance, when preparing dishes such as rajma, sambhar, dal, channa, lobia, chicken or fish, cook twice the amount at one go. The moment the dish cools, transfer half of it into an airtight container and place it in the freezer.
On a day when there is no time or inclination to cook, take it out, leave it to thaw and presto, there is a good homemade dish that can go with boiled rice and a quick sautéed vegetable. Through this practice you save energy as it was cooked in bulk. You also save on time, toil, and expense on ordering from a restaurant. Not to forget the packaging that comes with the food order, which generates extra garbage.
The way you use the refrigerator also reflects on how environmentally responsible you are. Never place food hot in the fridge, wait for it to cool or else your refrigerator will have to work harder and consume more energy. Also, make it a point to periodically check if the rubber seal in the fridge is intact and insulation is at its optimum in order to save energy. Though these actions may seem small, they are important when it comes to reducing your carbon footprint.
The material you use while cooking also adds up. If you need to use aluminium foil for baking or packing, try to get the recycled variety. The less plastic covering you use the better. Reusable refrigerator bags keep vegetables crisp and your shelves plastic-free.
The rules are the same for a green meal, it does not matter if you are a vegetarian, a vegan or a meat-eater. Food causes 20–30 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, though meats cause higher emissions than plant-based foods. But all meats do not have the same impact. The Climatarian.com website would be best to refer to if you are looking for further information on this.
However, it is best to make plant-based foods as the main focus of your meal. The cereal and the meat can be the side dishes that are lesser in quantity. And if the vegetables can be sourced locally from farmers and the meats be free-range, you would have helped in doing both — reducing greenhouse gas emissions and greening your diet.
The type of cooking vessels used also have a big role to play in green cooking. But I will delve into that next time.
The writer is a senior journalist who writes on environmental issues