In this chapter of ‘Why Cook’, Archana Pidathala tells us about Vishalakshi Padmanabhan, founder of Buffalo Back Collective in Bangalore. Vishala’s guiding principle for the organic store is rooted in the food ethic she grew up with: to waste nothing, and cherish everything.
For author Archana Pidathala, cooking and writing about food has been a way to make sense of the world. Whether it’s about understanding urgent global issues like hunger and inequity, or more personal ones, like her own body and friendship, she has turned to cooking to live with more connection and meaning. It is this deep appreciation for the role food plays in engaging with the world around her that inspired Why Cook, a collection of stories and recipes from 16 women—friends of hers who are artists, musicians, farmers and entrepreneurs—exploring why they cook.
The following chapter from the book is about one of these women, Vishalakshi Padmanabhan, her work with small and marginal farmers in Karnataka, and her grandmother’s kozhukkattai.
Founder, Buffalo Back Collective, social activist
Archana’s introductory note
When my son, Arjun, was a toddler, we had a mid-week ritual. Every Wednesday, I would strap him to my chest and walk down, basket in hand to our favourite organic store—Buffalo Back. Vishala would pamper Arjun with tiny bowls of jaggery and jackfruit and share ideas of social change and economic justice with me. I admire and respect Vishala for many things—her Gandhian values, environmental advocacy, tenacity to eradicate plastic packaging, dedication to community-supported agriculture and annual kozhukkattai ritual.
Of the many nuggets of wisdom I have collected from her over the years, the one about the “bee principle” is my favourite—a worker bee produces one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime, which averages six weeks. It’s a philosophy I live by: Every individual choice and action, however small or big, can make a difference in battling a wide range of issues, from inequity to climate change.
“In the eighties, if you ever came to our house when my grandmother was around, she would have something ready for you to eat in 10 minutes,” says Vishalakshi Padmanabhan. When guests dropped by, little Vishala would help her grandmother stir up rice flour and buttermilk porridge, swiftly fry sun-dried lotus stems, assemble sweetened sesame balls or simmer rasam with fresh moringa flowers.
For Ganesha Chaturthi (a festival that celebrates the Hindu god, Ganesha), grandmother and granddaughter would sit side by side and fill dozens of rice flour discs with coconut and jaggery, deftly pleating the edges to form little purses, before steaming them to make the festival favourite, kozhukkattai. Decades after her grandmother’s death, Vishala continues to keep the ritual alive. “My kitchen is filled with generations of recipes and wisdom, because I learnt so much from my grandmother.”
Vishala grew up in an old, sylvan neighbourhood in Bangalore. Her mother was a school teacher and her father worked for the Indian Railways. “I had a typical Indian middle-class upbringing,” she says. At an early age, she learnt to work hard, not to waste things, and not to buy anything that wasn’t necessary. “Come to think of it, I imbibed all these life lessons by observing my mother and grandmother manage our home kitchen.”
Every Sunday, she accompanied her mother to Russell Market (one of Bangalore’s oldest markets) to shop for vegetables and fruits and was initiated into the art of cooking and kitchen gardening by her grandmother. “At one point, my only aspiration in life was to have a dosa cart on Kamaraj Road, around the corner from our home!” she laughs.
Vishala says she was the kind of child who was more at home among trees than the four walls of a room. A cycling expedition to the Bannerghatta forest—a vast tropical deciduous forest an hour away from the city—when she was 15, strengthened her resolve to do “something” with forests and conservation. “I was introduced to farming during our courtship days,” Vishala says, speaking of her farmer-actor husband, Kishore. In the late 2000s, the couple started growing fruit trees, finger millet, peanuts, sesame, pigeon peas and black gram on an eight-acre plot of land, bordering the Bannerghatta forest.
Splitting time between their home in the city and the farm, they soon discovered that organic farming was more physically demanding and challenging than they anticipated. “It was especially hard because of the farm’s location,” Vishala adds.
The farm is situated in the elephant corridor (a strip of land that allows elephants to move between habitats) and is regularly raided by the tuskers. This opened her eyes anew to how critical it is to protect the natural world and find ways to reduce human-wildlife conflict. The couple has since turned over half of their farmland into a forest interspersed with water bodies in an effort to coexist with the elephants, and provide them safe passage.
Vishala launched the Buffalo Back Collective in 2013 to bring together small and marginal organic farmers and connect them directly to consumers. The goals of the collective include guaranteeing market access, fair price and better livelihood for farmers, and offering traceability to consumers.
Over the years, Vishala has devoted herself to seeking out and preserving endangered ancient grains and seeds. “India had more than 100,000 types of folk and native rice before the advent of the green revolution in the late sixties. We have lost tens of thousands of climate-resilient varieties of rice in the last half century alone,” she explains.
At any point in time, there are at least a dozen heirloom and folk rice varieties available at Buffalo Back. Katari Bhog, Dudheswar, Rajamudi, Gobindobhog, Mapillai Samba, Thooyamalli and Karuppu Kavuni are just some of them. “I insist on using the correct names to raise awareness among consumers. When you start asking for specific varieties by name, it encourages farmers to grow more of them. This is a small attempt to try and reclaim the food diversity we’ve lost.”
Women’s work—unwaged domestic labour that has been performed for centuries but never acknowledged—is another constant preoccupation with Vishala. It’s why she rescues every abandoned mortar she sees on Bangalore’s streets—objects that occupy the inner universe of homes and speak of women’s labour. It is also why she started an all-women bakery at her farm.
“With very few, and sometimes no decision-making opportunities in their own homes, this bakery liberates the women who work here,” she explains. “This space belongs to them. The grains, the salt, the heat and every element of nature belongs to them. They decide, they bake, and at the end of the day, when they pull out trays of cookies and loaves of bread, it’s food that tastes of social justice.”
“I cook…what’s your superpower?” Vishala asks, as she hand pounds fresh coconut, shallots, garlic and green chillies for her grandmother’s puzhukku—a dish of lentils and root vegetables. Bins of heirloom grain, fragrant fruits, and vibrant green, red and yellow vegetables are readied for market day. The produce is so fresh, they tinge the air with the scent of the earth that they were picked from. Vishala’s chippiparais (Indian sighthounds), Shakti and Mahalakshmi, and the resident ginger cat, Tara, vie for her attention. Scarlet clock vines and rescued mortars and pestles dot the courtyard. Sunlight streams onto the red oxide floor of her home on a nippy February morning. The past comes alive.
Archana Pidathala is a writer and publisher based in Barcelona. Her first book, Five Morsels of Love, a cookbook based on her grandmother’s 1974 Telugu cookbook, Vanita Vanṭakālu, was shortlisted for the 2017 Art of Eating prize. She spent over a decade working in technology before quitting her Product Management job to recreate her grandmother’s recipes and venture into writing and publishing. Her recent cookbook is Why Cook.
The Buffalo Back stores across Bangalore (including one at Vishala’s home) offer organic vegetables and fruits, heirloom grains, flours, oils and spices. The larger organisation, Buffalo Back Collective, works with small and marginal farmers who follow sustainable agricultural practices and makes their chemical-free produce available to urban consumers. The collective also promotes an all-women bakery.