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Meet the man who introduced the ‘exotic’ broccoli to India

Born into a farming family, Jitendra Ladkat brought the first few seeds of broccoli all the way from Kenya during the Gulf War around 1990. He started cultivating the vegetable at his farm in Pune.

more lifestyle Updated: Sep 27, 2017 10:19 IST
Meenakshi Iyer
Meenakshi Iyer
Hindustan Times
Jitendra Ladkat,Broccoli,Avocado
Jitendra Ladkat, a young farmer from Pune, learning various agricultural techniques in Israel in 1978.

Did you know vegetables such as lettuce, avocado, baby corn, red and yellow bell pepper, and celery have been available in India since the 1940s? In those days, only the privileged members of the society (mostly British) could afford to buy them.

Cut to 2017. Every neighbourhood ‘sabziwala’ stocks up on these ‘exotic’ vegetables; and they’ve become a staple in our diet too. But how did these vegetables make it to India, a country considered too hot for these to thrive?

Meet 63-year-old Jitendra Ladkat, who runs one of the most popular vegetable shops in Crawford Market (Mumbai) and owns a small farm near Pune. His father, Arjun Rao Ladkat, was a part of the Royal Indian Air Force. When he retired after World War II in 1945, his British bosses asked him what his future plans were. “My father said, ‘I am a farmer. And that’s what I’ll be doing.’ They suggested that he cultivate some ‘English’ vegetables for them,” says Ladkat.

Ladkat wants to launch an app-based retail platform to keep up with millennial customers.

Thus, celery, lettuce and flat parsley began growing at the family’s farm in Pune.

In 1975, Ladkat, a fresh graduate joined the family business. “In those days, a dozen lettuce would sell for 16 ānās (Rs 2) and celery was sold for 2 or 3 ānās. These vegetables were called as English vegetables,” he says. Today, one kilogram sells for Rs 260.

Growing business

By the 1980s, India’s hospitality industry started picking up. Five-star hotel groups like the Taj and Oberoi were expanding rapidly. This also meant more demand for exotic vegetables as they often entertained expats and foreigners. However, these vegetables thrived well in cold climates as seen in Europe or mountainous regions. Thus, Ladkat set out to Israel to learn more about greenhouse farming.

“Israel is steeped in agriculture. The conditions there are similar to Rajasthan and Kutch; dry and arid. So, the most important lesson I learnt during my trip was that any kind of vegetable can be grown anywhere,” he says. Armed with this new-found knowledge, Ladkat’s quest for good quality seeds took him to Kenya.

“That’s where I picked up seeds for broccoli and started growing it back home,” he adds. This was a first for India. “There were a lot of restrictions on carrying back seeds; we could only carry seeds worth $500. I’d pack them in plastic bags and store them in the fridge for the rest of year to maintain the cool temperature.” The seeds were then sown in summer and the crop was covered in old sarees to keep them safe from the scorching heat, a practice still followed at the Ladkat farm. Broccoli is a cool-weather crop, which grows best when exposed to an average daily temperature between 18°C and 23°C.

Ladkat has won several awards for his produce, including Friends Of The Trees, an annual award for growers.

More demand

Around the 90s, the Indian consumer — fresh from his tryst with liberalisation — started travelling a lot more and experiencing different varieties of exotic vegetables abroad. Thus, demand for vegetables such as lettuce, broccoli and baby corn grew. “I remember the time when an Israeli dignitary was visiting India. I was asked to source artichokes in the month of February, a highly impossible task,” says Ladkat. He managed to get 5kg of artichoke, all the way from Ooty. This feat — at a time when transportation routes were not as robust as today — encouraged him to source avocados from Kodaikanal and lettuce from Himachal Pradesh.

A lot has changed since then. Vegetables can be ordered at the click of a button and nothing is ‘exotic’ anymore. Seeing this trend, he wants to launch an app to keep up with his millennial customers.

Four reasons broccoli should be a part of your diet every day:

• Broccoli is a rich source of Vitamin C, K and fibre.
• It could prove to be a wonder drug to treat breast cancer and uterine cancer, as it removes extra estrogen from the body.
• It also helps detoxify the body with the help of sulphur and certain amino acids.
• Broccoli is very rich in fibre or roughage,which helps with constipation.

Follow @htlifeandstyle for more.

First Published: Sep 27, 2017 10:18 IST