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Sarah Khan


New York City, New York

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Sarah K. Khan, a two-time Fulbright Scholar (2001-02 & 2014-15), writes about food, culture, climate and sustainability. She grounds her work in clinical and ethnobotanical research and curating. She has researched in South Asia, China, North and West Africa, Europe, and USA, has multiple language abilities, formal training in Ayurveda and Hatha yoga education—For her second Fulbright, she will travel in South and Central Asia for a year (2014-15) and tell the stories of women farmers as they contend with a rapidly degradeed agricultural landscape, gender inequlity, poverty and climate change. She will document their challenges and victories in multiple media. To follow her journey, visit her website.

Her work has appeared in The Art of EatingModern Farmer and Yahoo India. She employs multiple media (photography, video, audio) to convey her stories. Her recent visual journey eBook entitled  ”West Africans Hands Create Cultivate Cook” is a beautiful tool for teaching about biocultural, agricultural, and culinary diversity.

She was a Fellow at The Dana Meadows Sustainability Institute from 2009-10 where fellows worked to accelerate the shift to global sustainability, and learned to address social, economic and environmental issues at their root causes while benefiting from a global network of colleagues. Her academic research has appeared in The American Botanical Council’s Herbal Gram, The Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, Integrative Medicine by David Rakel MD, and in The American Journal of Health Education.

Sarah earned a BA in Middle Eastern History and Arabic from Smith College, two Masters (public health and nutrition) from Columbia University and a PhD (plant sciences) from the New York Botanical Garden and City University of New York.

Articles by Author

Discover America’s Hidden Farm Treasures Image

The demographics of the United States reflect an increasingly global world, and so do the demographics of our farm operators. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released the nearly complete Agriculture Census for 2012, a database that is completed every five years.


 A three-part series to make visible the lives of the invisible

Part 1: Data, maps and a history of exclusion from land ownership.

Part 2: Female farmers of color.

Part 3: In moving pictures, farmers of color talk about their work, challenges and dreams in three short videos.

With each update to the census, the type of statistical information available increases, in particular in the area of farmers of color. Yet, a simple Google search on basic statistics and stories about Native American farmers or African-American female farmers, for example, uncovers few detailed stories.

More often than not, the information that can be found is about those who dominate the agriculture industry — white male farm operators. Numbers often determine what and who is covered in depth. But equally true is that this country has a long history of institutional exclusion and racism against Native American and African-American farmers, other farmers of color and women. Yet it is Native American and African-American farmers and their ecological knowledge of farming traditions that built this country.

Data on farmers of color in the United States

In the United States, the vast majority of farmers continue to be white men, but the number of farmers of color is increasing.

More than 80% of all principal farm operators in the U.S. — the person primarily responsible for the on-site, day-to-day operation of a farm or ranch, as defined by the USDA — are white men (1.7 million out of a total of 2.1 million), according to the 2012 Census. Of the total principal operators nationwide, 95 percent are white, including 96% of male farmers and 93% of female farmers.


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Credit: Sarah Khan

Between 2007 and 2012 — the period included in the 2012 Agriculture Census — every category of minority principal farm operators increased. Latinos farmers increased significantly, followed by American Indian, African-American, Asian, multiracial and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders.

Where are these farmers of color — in what states and counties do they farm? This series of  four informational maps shows the top five states where farmers of color – Native American, African-American, Latino and Asian — are growing roots by county and state.


Credit: Sarah Khan


Credit: Sarah Khan


Credit: Sarah Khan


Credit: Sarah Khan

Historical exclusion of farmers

Civil rights abuses in USDA state offices existed from the agency’s inception, based on a 1997 USDA-commissioned investigation,”Civil Rights at the United States Department of Agriculture” and the General Accounting Office’s 2008 report “U.S. Department of Agriculture: Recommendations and Options to Address Management Deficiencies in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.” More recently, the nation witnessed the Pigford I and II settlements, class-action racial discrimination lawsuits filed by black farmers who were denied loans and other federal aid between 1981and 1996. Many farmers included in the settlement are still awaiting disbursement.

The Pigford settlements, which lately have been mired in accusations of fraud, highlight the country’s ongoing divisive stance about race and reparations. Meanwhile, other groups, including Latino, Native American and female farmers are seeking compensation and awaiting judgment or payment.

To quell growing discontent about reporting civil rights complaints, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack produced a civil rights fact sheet on “USDA Accomplishments 2009-2012.” As of July 2014, the USDA has announced grants to help veteran and farmers of color get started in the industry. Despite these efforts, a profound distrust of USDA offices and officials continues.

Reparations and the white environmental movement

Ta-Nehisi Coates recently published a piece on “The Case for Reparations” in the May 2014 issue of Atlantic. Coates begins by explaining how government programs, instituted from the end of slavery to the present, systematically denied, stole or swindled African-Americans out of their land and home ownership.

In June 2014, Carolyn Finney, a geographer at the University of California Berkeley, published Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African-Americans to the Great Outdoors in which she redefines African-Americans’ long and profound relationship to the environmental movement, though it has largely been invisible or ignored. Through her own family’s story of land dispossession and those of others, Finney has collected the stories of unseen pioneering African-Americans and their diverse connection and commitment to the great outdoors. Her research reinserts African Americans back into the predominantly white environmental movement narrative in the United States.

And finally, the Green 2.0 Working Group published The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations & Government Agencies in June. The report concluded that a green ceiling for people of color; unconscious bias, discrimination, and insular recruiting practices; and a lackluster effort and disinterest in addressing diversity still exist in environmental organizations across the country.

Finney’s book, Coates’ article and The State of Diversity In Environmental Organizations Report reveal a historical context that have allowed exclusion to persist to this day. Both Finney and Coates begin and end with land ownership and dispossession, and both elegantly shine a light on African-Americans and other people of color. They make visible the invisible, and they make people of color the main story.

Main photo: Cynthia Hayes is the founder of the Southeastern African American Organic Network, or SAAFON, based in Savannah, Ga. Credit: Sarah Khan

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Corn, Mexican Culture And Why Free Trade Threatens Both Image

Mexico is at the center of corn biodiversity, which strengthens the ecosystems that sustain the land and its inhabitants. Just as indigenous people, like the native Californians, possessed a deep knowledge of oak management and acorns, in Mesoamerica the same is true for corn. Zea mays, the Latin binomial for corn, is the literal foundation of many Mesoamerican cultures. Maize is at the core of many creation stories from pre-contact time to the present. Individuals are not only made of corn, but people make corn. Corn is one of the few staple crops that require human intervention to reproduce. Yet corn’s biodiversity is under siege.

“Dignity. Good white corn is part of a dignified life,” declared a Mexican store owner about the importance of corn in her culture, according to Elizabeth Fitting. Fitting is the author of “The Struggle for Maize: Campesinos, Workers, and Transgenic Corn in the Mexican Countryside.” She conveys the nuanced layers of the transgenic corn debate. And she shines a light on the disadvantages of neo-liberal trade policies in Mexico. Since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, she reveals — through story and data — how small land holding farmers’ ability to maintain biocultural diversity of Mexican corn varieties (criollos) is threatened.

Blue corn posole. Credit: Sarah Khan

Blue corn posole. Credit: Sarah Khan

Since the start of NAFTA, Mexico imports U.S. yellow corn to meet the appetite of its growing livestock industry. When local farmers do not grow enough of their preferred white corn — due to a lack of rainfall or access to well water or the effects of climate change — they purchase yellow corn, normally meant for animal feed. Making matters more difficult? Studies in Mexico have identified genetically modified corn strains mixed into the local (criollo) landraces. If transgenic corn spreads to multiple local landraces, the potential to wipe out the biodiverse base, and the corn industry, is real, according to Sin Maiz, No Hay Paiz. (“Without Corn, There Is No Country” is a campaign, founded in 2007, that supports food sovereignty, in particular non-GMO foods, and the sustainable revitalization of rural Mexico.)

Mexican corn farmers fighting to keep traditional methods

The debate about transgenic corn has only escalated since the 2011 publication of Fitting’s book. Activists in the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas declared 2013 the year of anti-GMO corn. To that end, a judge recently disallowed any trials of transgenic corn in Mexico.


This is the latest in a series on the importance of biodiversity.

More on corn:

Nixtamalized white corn, an alkaline soaking process to improve the nutritional quality of corn, is a sophisticated practice developed centuries ago and not transferred to Asian, African and European countries when corn colonized those lands.

For additional reading resources on corn cultures in the Americas, check out:

» "Masa Offers the Kernel of a Culture" by Julie Moskin

» "Retreat to Subsistence" from The Nation

» "Risking Corn, Risking Culture" by Hope Cummings

» Sin Maiz No Hay Pais

More from Zester Daily:

» Holiday tamales: A mail-order review

» Summer-perfect corn

» Mexico’s best mercado

» With a wealth of nutrients, acorns vital for Indians

Activists, farmers, academics, scientists and multiple non-governmental organizations know this is only a momentary victory. They argue the transgenic corn debate is a symbol of many unfair practices. Farmers, for example, want fair-trade reform so local white corn varieties are not more expensive to grow than imported yellow corn. They want to continue growing their preferred criollo corn varieties for the sake of taste and culture. Local farmers argue they are experts at growing and testing numerous corn varieties in multiple microclimates; they are fully aware that distant specialists belittle their traditional ecological knowledge. Finally, farmers and their families do not want to migrate, or work in maquiladoras, factories in Mexico run by foreign companies and exporting products to the country of that company. They want to remain on the land, in their homes, and make a livable wage.

Despite the extra expense, many, especially elder, farmers still grow their own corn in the milpa system for food security. (Milpa is defined as a field intercropped with three principal species: maize, beans and squash, often with other minor species, and in which edible leafy weeds, locally called quelites, are tolerated and harvested.) In a recent phone interview, Fitting reminded me of her conversation with the Mexican storeowner in the cradle of corn diversity, the Tehuacán Valley in the state of Puebla, north and west of Oaxaca and Chiapas, respectively. “We grow [white] corn because we want to have good, soft white tortillas. They do not turn out the same in the city. In Mexico City (where yellow corn or non-nixtamilized yellow corn is used), a truck carrying masa (dough) comes around as if it were mud. It’s even uncovered! They say we live like animals here in the countryside, but in the city, they eat like animals!” Her words resounded with taste, dignity and self-reliance.

So the tortillas you eat, whether in Mexico or North America, might not be made of white corn flour anymore. Moreover, the nixtamilization process has been essentially eliminated in mass-produced masa flour. Not only do you get a different-tasting corn, but you also eat tortillas with less bioavailable nutrients.

Two Chicana professors, Luz Calvo and Catriona R. Esquibel, founded the Facebook page Decolonize Your Diet. During a Skype conversation with both professors, I learned their Facebook page grew out Calvo’s desire to help a student eat a more healthy diet and learn basic cooking skills. The page quickly exploded, and a blog followed. Calvo, an associate professor of ethnic studies at California State University East Bay in Hayward, Calif., says her students are predominantly first-generation Americans. On campus one day, students were selling Krispy Kremes to raise money.

Corn on the cob at a street festival in New York City. Credit: Sarah Khan

Corn on the cob at a street festival in New York City. Credit: Sarah Khan

Shocked, Calvo countered, “I’d love to support you, but how could you sell and eat such unhealthy food?” Her students rebutted, “But this is healthy, professor, there are no transfats!” From these exchanges, Calvo decided to teach a new course called Decolonize Your Diet. She described the class as “simply beautiful.” For example, she told of two Chicana sisters, originally from the state of Guanajuato in Mexico. “They made delicious sour tamales for a class requirement,” Calvo recalled. “Shaped like jelly rolls, the tamales overflowed with chilies and cheese.” Suddenly Calvo’s idea that only a few types of tamales could exist expanded.

Her partner of 16 years, Esquibel, an associate professor of race and resistance studies at San Francisco State University, reminded me that in the Mexican codices, specifically the Florentine Codex, there are multiple descriptions of tamales with chia seeds, pumpkins or peanuts, shaped like seashells, or rounded. “There is no one way to make tamales in the codices,” she emphasized. “In fact there is a feeling of experimentation and joy in food expressed throughout. We both seek to remind, teach, revitalize and celebrate our ancestral foods.”

A gift that grows

Those same sisters gifted Calvo red-dent corn to grow in her Oakland garden. (You can hear Luz on a recent Latino USA podcast talk in her garden and kitchen.) Calvo is growing them out, drying most and saving some for the next planting season. Soon she will prepare nixtamalized red-corn masa for tortillas. If you can’t wait, read their article on how to nixtamalize your white or yellow corn and make tortillas. And like Calvo, a cancer survivor, perhaps connecting to your food from inside the earth to inside your body will nudge you just a bit closer to health and healing.

Top photo: Corn on the cob at a street festival in New York City. Credit: Sarah Khan

This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.

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How Native Americans Are Rescuing Our Food Culture Image

Indigenous foods and animals are the backbone of North America and the global food culture. Native Foodways magazine is a new publication that gives voice to the rich diversity and resilience of native people. Young and old are reviving their lost biocultural, agricultural and culinary traditions, one meal at a time. They are paving a way for all to eat, live and grow in the world sustainably. It’s time to listen.


About 5,000 copies of Native Foodways are distributed free to native wellness programs and communities. The magazine is published by Tohono O’odham Community Action, a nonprofit  dedicated to creating a healthy, culturally vital and sustainable community on the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona. An additional 2,000 are available for retail sale.

» For more information on Native Foodways magazine or to purchase a copy, check out this link.

More from Zester Daily:

» Acorns helped sustain indigenous groups

» What to do with squash

» Five types of Pacific salmon you need to know

» It’s easy to eat local for Thanksgiving

The organization Renewing America’s Food Traditions, or RAFT, created a Regional Map of North America’s Place-Based Food that redraws the continent’s borders. North America transforms into a series of distinct food nations: Clambake, Maple Syrup, Wild Rice, Corn Bread & BBQ, Gator, Bison, Chile Pepper, Pinyon Nut, Abalone, Salmon and Moose. The creators sing us back visually to the continent’s native legacy. They revitalize our memory and reimagine our notions of borders and boundaries. It reminds us, we North American citizens, of the region’s indigenous food foundations. With the visual map embedded, we suddenly see the people, the foods and the cultures that came before us.

Indigenous foods of the Americas make up 60% of the global food supply, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These foods include mainly corn and potatoes but also chilies, beans, squashes, tomatoes, pineapples, avocados, manioc, chocolate, peanuts, vanilla, wild rice, cranberries, maple sugar, chewing gum, turkey and the beloved clambake.

Yet worldwide biodiversity loss continues with no change in rate and with an increase in the factors that increase loss, according to Science in 2010. North America is no exception. The mountains, canyons and deserts of the Southwest United States and northern Mexico form one of the richest biologically diverse regions. The area is home to more than 40 distinct indigenous communities alone, and within those communities reside important agrobiodiversity knowledge systems. It is not surprising that with the destruction of cultural knowledge also comes the loss of biodiversity and ecological knowledge. Today these declines are only exacerbated by climate change.

Luckily, descendants of native farmers and the culinary carriers who nourished the first settlers up to the present are actively revitalizing their foods, and not just for Thanksgiving. According to Mary Paganelli Votto, founder and editorial director of Native Foodways, “Too often, the focus in the mainstream media is on the health problems in native communities. Native Foodways focuses on the positive efforts taking place to address these issues and seeks to share practical and useful information and to inspire.”

First up, Native Foodways spotlights two chefs

I spoke with two chefs featured in the summer 2013 edition of Native Foodways Magazine: Lois Ellen Frank and Nephi Craig. Frank is a culinary anthropologist with master’s and doctorate degrees. Along with Walter Whitewater, she runs Santa Fe, N.M.-based Red Mesa Cuisine. She is of Kaiwo ancestry on her mother’s side and Sephardic on her father’s side. Her book, “Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations,” received the James Beard award in the Americana category. It was the first Native American work to win the award.

Frank left cooking school and became a commercial photographer for eight years in Los Angeles. Her thought was, “Why study cooking in an institution that championed one cuisine over the rest of the globe, let alone disregarded indigenous cuisines?” But she returned to her passion and the kitchen, this time on her own terms. “I need to work in diverse native communities across the country, especially with those suffering from diabetes. I cannot run a restaurant when I travel so much, an absent chef is just not productive,” Frank says of why she runs a catering business instead of a restaurant.

Her catering kitchen is filled with women. Native and non-natives, they find her. “It is only since the 1980s that a shift in the gender balance began in the kitchen.” Put plainly, when women are not in the kitchen, you lose. “In my kitchen, in our circle, we call in the ancestors to guide us. We do not just feed; we provide sustenance. We are powerful vehicles of cooking and techniques. And then we take the ancient foods, and we embody their knowledge, and present them in a contemporary form.”

Like Frank, but of a younger generation, Chef Craig invokes the circle. The four directions represent different and equally important aspects of the kitchen. “We work in a circular fashion instead of from the top down. We veer away from fear- and intimidation-cooking in the kitchen.” Craig added, “We work like ants, or in the Apache way, we activate ‘Ant Power’ where we are all equally strong and each is essential to the creation of the whole, that is the imagery we choose to use.” Craig, 33, is the executive chef at White Mountain Apache Tribe’s Sunrise Park Resort and the founder of The Native American Culinary Association. His core crew of eight is half men and half women, half elder and half younger and all native Apache. The elders in the crew distinctly remember the old hierarchical ways of running the back of the kitchen. Now, though, Craig proudly says he is actively “decolonizing culinary themes and the kitchen brigade by using the circle, White Mountain Apache values and qualities of leadership.”

In each instance, these pioneers of native cuisines are constructing a space to cook and create on their own terms. And they are up against not just a competitive environment but also historical odds. In the midst of fighting to use local, regional, indigenous foods sustainably, they work in and among populations that have had their education, cultures and lands stolen. Yet they plow forward with the confidence that they possess great cultural richness. Amid these obstacles, they symbolize grace, hope and possibility of inclusion for all at the big table. I know I want more.

Top photo: Chef Nephi Craig’s culinary crew includes, from left, Stephanie Dosela, Nancy James, Juwon Hendricks, Vina Reidhead, Herman Skidmore, Craig, Randall Cosen, Tamara Gatewood and Vincent Way. Credit: Courtesy of Nephi Craig

This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.

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Pickled Eggplant Adds To A Seductive Legacy Image

Canning, preserving and putting up the summer fruits and vegetables are in full swing. In September, we turn to salty, sugary, slightly oily and extra spicy brinjal achar, or eggplant pickle. It’s a nice contrast after we preserved tangy pickled onions in August and sweet apricot chutney in July.

Eggplant a favorite in many cultures

Aubergine and brinjal are just some of the names for the common eggplant, Solanum melongena. A part of the Solanaceae family — the deadly nightshades — in which tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and tobaccos reside, eggplants have seduced cooks and eaters alike in nearly every culture.

Eggplants are probably native to tropical Asia and domesticated there, with varieties and global culinary uses too numerous to mention all. On a trip to the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City a few weeks ago, I spotted six eggplant varieties at one stall alone.

The alchemical seduction of eggplant is so complete that Imam bayildi, or “the Imam fainted,” is the name bestowed upon a popular Turkish dish with eggplant at its center. Besotted with its exquisite taste, the Imam literally swooned from the intensity and beauty of flavors, with tomatoes and onions intensifying the dish’s effect.

South Asians know how to cook and preserve this versatile fruit. They roast it, stuff it, sauté it, fry it, preserve it — and hope to protect it. (For a quick look into the controversy that has trailed genetically modified eggplant, check out the sidebar below the following recipe.)

Brinjal achar enhances any non-spiced meal. As a child, I gobbled this pickle by the tablespoon with plain rice or chapatti or with a bit of yogurt. Don’t be intimidated by the number of ingredients; just make your list and find your spices. If you want complex flavors and multiple layers revealed to your senses, then jump right in.


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Jars of brinjal achar. Credit: Sarah Khan

Brinjal achar

This takes 45 minutes to an hour to complete and will yield about 12 ounces.

1 cup sesame, mustard or olive oil (Sesame oil is nutty and mustard oil is strong and pungent; olive oil has a more neutral flavor.)

3 ounces whole dry red chilies; heat varies, so adjust according to taste

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

2 teaspoons black mustard seeds

2 teaspoons fenugreek seeds

1 pound Asian eggplants (small, purple-white striated) long variety (Ping tong, for example), chopped into small pieces with the skin intact

3 to 5 cloves of garlic

2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated

¼ cup water

1 to 2 tablespoons vinegar

1 to 2 tablespoons tamarind paste

4 tablespoons salt

½ cup to 1 cup sugar, depending on desired sweetness

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 tablespoon fennel seeds


Spice grinder

Blender or food processor

2 large pans to roast spices and sauté garlic-ginger paste and eggplant

Three 4-ounce Mason jars


1. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a pan and roast the dry chilies on medium-high heat, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove and cool.

2. In the same oil, add cumin, black mustard and fenugreek seeds and roast while stirring, 2 to 4 minutes, on medium-high heat until mustard seeds start to pop and fenugreek seeds turn brown. Remove and cool. Use this pan with remaining oil for Step 6.

3. Place cooled roasted chilies and seeds in a spice grinder and grind. Save for Step 8.

4. In another pan, place 1 to 2 tablespoons oil on medium high heat, add chopped eggplant and stir occasionally until eggplant reduces to about half the amount, 15 to 20 minutes.

5. In a blender or food processor, add garlic and ginger with a bit of water to make a paste. Use the same blender in Step 7.

6. In the same pan that you roasted the spices, add a teaspoon of oil and the garlic-ginger paste and sauté until brown, 7 to 10 minutes.

7. In the blender, add vinegar, tamarind and salt and blend.

8. To the sautéed eggplant, add roasted and ground spices, garlic-ginger paste and remaining oil. Stir for 5 minutes.

9. To the above mixture, add the mixture of vinegar, tamarind and salt and stir completely.

10. Finally, add sugar, turmeric and fennel seeds, continue to stir and simmer to reduce water content and until oil separates out again.

11.  While hot, place in canning jars, cover and let cool.

12. Once cool, place the jars in the refrigerator, where they should keep for up to three months.

* * *

Genetically modified eggplant

The rich biodiversity of eggplants in South Asia was challenged in India in 2010 with a request to introduce a genetically modified Bt brinjal variety. Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co., or Mahyco, is the Indian subsidiary of U.S. biotech company Monsanto, which developed the Bt brinjal. With wide and vociferous protests occurring throughout brinjal-producing states in India, the Ministry of Environment and Forests issued a moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal until further appraisal of its safety. Minister Jairam Ramesh cited the following concerns as summarized in The Hindu:

  • Lack of a clear consensus among the scientific community
  • Opposition from 10 state governments, especially from the major brinjal-producing states
  • Questions raised about the safety and testing process
  • Lack of an independent biotechnology regulatory authority
  • Negative public sentiment and fears among consumers
  • Lack of a global precedent

On the other side of the debate, advocates say Bt brinjal will boost production, reduce pesticide use and support distressed farmers. Environmental activists such as Vandana Shiva of seed keeper group Navdanya have cited holes in these arguments for supporting the introduction of genetically modified organisms. Upon declaring the moratorium, Shiva elaborated on the criteria for evaluating GMO crops before introduction, the most important being the strengthening of seed and food sovereignty on a national scale. For more on how the Indian government is addressing the introduction of other genetically modified crops, read this article in The Economic Times.

Top photo: Brinjal achar is made from eggplant and a variety of spices. Credit: Sarah Khan

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3-Ingredient Pickled Onions Make Summer Last All Year Image

Summer is bountiful. Now is the ideal time to capture that abundance in preserving jars. By doing so, the labors of your summer harvest or that of your local farmers’ can be savored in the late fall, throughout the winter months and into early spring.

Last month we captured the flavor of apricots in season. This month, let’s keep it simple with pickling just-plucked-from-the-earth onions.

Onions, one of the oldest cultivated crops, are ubiquitous in every cuisine. Where they originated is difficult to determine, especially because cultivated onions are actually layers of leaves surrounding an immature flower. Onion leaves, rich in water content, degrade rapidly and leave little to no archaeological traces. Botanists, archaeologists and food historians think onions originated in Central Asia, West Pakistan and/or Persia. Allium cepa is the Latin name for the common onion.

On the Upper West Side of New York City during the last week of August, I visited our green farmers market on 97th Street. Within the August farmers’ cornucopias, I spotted several onion varieties to pick from: basic yellow and red, long and narrow Red Tropeas, small Cipollinis and shallots. You can choose your favorite onion variety for pickling.

I grew up with this recipe. It is my and my father’s favorite summer condiment. You can make this simple onion pickle with only three ingredients: onions, salt and vinegar. Instead of brining the onions overnight, which I find makes them too salty, we salt the onions then gently mix and squeeze the mixture. This action releases the juices and gets the salt into the onions. The purpose is to have the slightly salted onions soak up the vinegar and remain crunchy, even after a few weeks in the fridge.

If you use red onions, enjoy the vibrant pink color that seeps out of the slices. Add the pickled onions as a side to grilled meats, with any rice dish or to top your favorite burger. You get the crunch and salty flavor with a bit of oniony bite on the side.


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Sliced onions in a jar awaiting vinegar. Credit: Sarah Khan

Khurshid’s Simple Pickled Onions


3 medium-size onions

½ cup salt

2 to 3 cups vinegar (apple cider or any mild and smooth vinegar)


1. Peel the onions, cut in half, then cut in quarters and slice thinly.

2. Place the sliced onions in a colander, sprinkle on the salt so it coats all the onions, then gently mix and squeeze the onions, but not too hard.

3. Allow the onions to sit in the colander for an hour while the juices release.

4. Rinse the salted onions completely under cold water. Gently squeeze out any excess water.

5. Put the onions in two 8-ounce preserving jars. Do not pack the onions down.

6. Add vinegar up to the rims, close with the lids and place in the refrigerator. You can start eating them after they’ve been refrigerated for one day.

Top photo: Red-colored onions turn pink during the pickling process. Credit: Sarah Khan

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An Ideal Way To Add Zing To A Meal With Spicy Apricot Chutney Image

Biodiversity offers benefits on a micro as well as macro level. The first part of this series focused on three dynamic individuals working to create a more resilient agricultural landscape in Central Asia. In this second part, we look to delicious specifics: A recipe for a simple apricot chutney links us back to ancient fruit-preserving traditions.

Pull out different-sized jars, buy small batches of your favorite seasonal fruits and capture a bit of glorious sunshine and seasonal spice to savor in the autumn and winter right now. Apricots are in season this time of year. Why not make a small batch of spicy apricot and ginger chutney? Eat it along with your grilled poultry, red meats, fish or vegetables. It is an easy way to add bursts of flavor to your summer meals.

What is chutney?

According to K.T. Achaya, the South Asian food historian, chutney is the “Anglicization of the Hindi word chatni, meaning a freshly ground relish consisting of ingredients such as coconut, sesame, groundnuts, puffed Bengal gram, several dhals [lentils], raw mangoes, tomato, mint leaves and the like.”

Under the definition for relishes, Achaya states that chutney is usually a freshly ground and uncooked item, but in later colonial times it came to stand for sweet preserves that included murraba (Arabic for preserve). A murabba is similar to jams and jellies where a fruit is boiled in sugar syrup, though South Asian murabbas are often spiced. Traditional South Asian Unani healers also prescribed murabbas to treat an array of illnesses.

Why make your own chutneys?

Why introduce chutneys, cooked or raw, into your culinary repertoire? First, chutneys are the perfect method to introduce spices to your palate. Homemade condiments are a great way to keep meals simple and full of flavor. When you make it yourself, you control the origin, quality and amounts of the ingredients. Last, you can create mixtures to suit your own or your family’s tastes: sweet, spicy, sour, tart, salty or any combination.

The science of sugar in jams and chutney

Why so much sugar in chutney and jams? First, sugar acts as a preservative. It binds free water molecules so it decreases the possibility of mold growth. When there was no refrigeration, reducing spoilage was paramount. That means a longer shelf or fridge life. Second, with free water molecules bound to sugar, pectin released from the fruit binds more easily to each other to produce a loose network of the coveted gel consistency. A firm gel texture distinguishes quality jams, jellies and chutneys from watery ones. Finally, why cook chutneys and jams at a low simmer? The lowest possible heat facilitates the binding of pectin; a higher heat destroys cells irreversibly. Just make sure to use quality sugar. And relish these sweet condiments in reasonable amounts to enhance any meal.


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Apricots. Credit: Sarah Khan

If you have never made chutneys, jams or jellies, first read some basic information on safety and guidelines to home canning. A good place to start is The USDA’s Complete Guide to Home Canning.

Spicy Apricot and Ginger Chutney

Produces about 24 ounces of chutney or three 8-ounce jars.


2 pounds fresh apricots

6 cups sugar

½ cup of water

3 teaspoons salt

3 chopped garlic cloves

4 tablespoons freshly grated ginger

½ cup golden raisins

3 thinly sliced bird’s eye chilies (more if you want it hotter)


1. Wash and dry apricots, then cut in half and remove pits. Set three pits aside.

2. Crush three pits and remove the almond-looking seeds. Place 1 seed in the bottom of each canning jar. (You will need three standard canning jars). This will impart an almond flavor to the chutney.

3. Place all the ingredients in a copper or cast-iron pan with a wide bottom, bring to a boil and then simmer at the lowest temperature to reduce the water content for 45 to 75 minutes.

4. To test whether it’s done, remove the jam mixture from the heat. Pour a small amount of boiling jam on a cold plate and put it in the freezer for a few minutes. If the mixture gels, it is ready.

5. Ladle hot chutney into sterilized and cleaned jam jars and leave uncovered until cooled. Once cooled to room temperature, cover and then store in refrigerator for up to a year.

Top photo: The ingredients for spicy ginger and apricot chutney. Credit: Sarah Khan

This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.

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