Back to the Roots: Growing Gourmet Eats from “Garbage”


Behind that stream of steaming hot coffee pouring into your cup is a waste stream of coffee grounds. Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez of Back to the Roots (BTTR) view the huge amounts of coffee grounds waste coming out of coffee shops as a huge potential for urban mushroom farming. The UC Berkeley students were in their final semester with corporate job offers in hand when they heard about growing gourmet mushrooms from coffee grounds and independently reached out to their professor for more information. (Read a Q&A with Arora after the jump.)

The professor put them in touch and they got to growing their business idea. They asked Peet’s Coffee for used coffee grounds and set up ten test buckets in Velez’s fraternity kitchen to try out mushroom farming. Only one bucket grew a crop of mushrooms.

They took the single success to a famous Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, to get those mushrooms checked out–they were sautéed and deemed good. (If you’re wondering, mushrooms grown in coffee grounds do not pick up a coffee kick to their flavor.) The two budding entrepreneurs took the same bucket to Whole Foods and caught the interest of store employees. Their idea also caught the interest of their university, which awarded them a $5K social innovation grant.

Continue reading

Desi vs. Desi on Wall Street

610x.jpgS. Mitra Kalita’s Wall Street Journal article, “Desi vs. Desi” frames the news of the largest hedge fund insider trading case in history as part of a broader story of desis immigrating to the United States, developing networks with other desis, and their progress in the technology and financial industries (desis might have found hedge funds to be more of a meritocracy than the “cozy world of investment banking”). Those industries are at the center of the allegations that billionaire founder of Galleon Group Raj Rajaratnam, conspired with director of consulting firm McKinsey & Co. Anil Kumar and Intel Capital’s Rajiv Goel, among other executives and hedge fund managers.

Media reports included coverage of the downward effect of Rajaratnam’s recent arrest on the Colombo Stock Exchange in Sri Lanka, where “even rumors of his trades can send the stock market up or down” and transcripts from wiretaps of the illegal conversations at issue. But “Desi vs. Desi” brings up another interesting angle on the story about the case’s prosecution. Continue reading

The New Wave of Filmmakers in Bollywood

Oh, sh*ts. I’ve been remiss about so much. I’ve got a backlog of things both shiny and smart to share with you, so please bear with me as I suddenly haunt the mutiny.

The first thing on my list: MTV Iggy’s special feature on Bollywood’s “new wave” of filmmakers. The idea is that, much like the French new wave of the 50s, Indian cinema is facing a radical change, with auteur directors leading the way with a new influx of talent, money, professionalism and creativity. And the audience in India is ready for it. 11smoking1-200x200.jpg Anuvab Pal (friend of Sepia alum Manish Vij) is now a screenwriter in Mumbai, and his funny, engaging, and very revealing article is a must read:

In fall 2003, I was asked by a friend of mine, the director Manish Acharya, to co-write a film with him. It would be about a Bollywood singing contest in New Jersey. We were influenced by the movies of Christopher Guest and Woody Allen, and had lived in New York for a numbers of years. At some point, in various coffee shops in Manhattan, as we wrote, I asked Manish who our audience might be. He intelligently remarked that we shouldn’t write with audiences in mind but just try to tell a good story. That’s the sort of answer auteur film directors give at film festival Q&As and grave audiences nod in agreement. It had a sort of nobility to it. I was far more interested in a petty middle-class answer.

“Still, who?” I insisted.

“Whom” he corrected, adding, “New India. This is a film for new India.”

Continue reading

Perrier, Evian, or B’eau Pal?

bhopal water 3.jpg

A few days ago, I received a press announcement for a new line of luxury bottled water: B’eau Pal. (Oo la la!) But the fine print was a little less enticing:

The unique qualities of our water come from 25 years of slow-leaching toxins at the site of the world’s largest industrial accident. To this day, Dow Chemical — who bought Union Carbide — has refused to clean up and whole new generations are being poisoned.

An explanation? Suffice it to say that The Yes Men have been at it again. Continue reading

The new face of Air India (UPDATE)

There’s something awkward about Air India trying to be hip, sort of like the uncle with the hennaed hair who knows all of the hottest club dance moves. The last time I flew Air India, I was on a 30 year old used Korean plane with an Italian flight crew and Indian flight attendants. Homey, yes. Fashionable and cutting-edge? Hardly.

So when I saw the images from Air India’s award-winning new campaign, I was a bit taken aback. I was used to the fusty maharaja, retro in a very unhip way, a character that was probably dated from its very inception. What was I to make of this mixed race family, desi female sitting openly in her white husband’s lap? (There’s another shot with a desi man, a white woman and a hadesi child)

The Maharaja was from an era of arranged marriages, when nobody spoke of dating, let alone across the colour line. I’ll bet he never looked once at a non-desi air hostess, no matter how flirtatious.

The new Air India, on the other hand, simply says “look, we’re just happy that you’re married and that you’ve given us a gorgeous grandkid! Now please visit more often.” (Yes, the campaign was created in India) It’s not really stylish, but it is most definitely contemporary. Maybe AI isn’t so dated after all. Now if only they could do something about their service, I’d really sit up and take notice.

UPDATE A few comments (thanks El Nino and Rishi ) have argued that these ads were designed just to win awards and haven’t (and wont) actually be used. People also pointed out that the idea is a straight lift from an earlier (proposed?) Air France campaign.

Continue reading

A turbaned executive? Priceless

First there was Indra, then Vikram, then Sanjay and now there’s Ajay: the new President and COO of Mastercard. Ajay Banga will be the number two man at the number two piece of plastic;”the heir apparent to Chief Executive Robert Selander.”

Banga comes to Mastercard from Citibank, where he had been in charge of their Asia-Pacific business and had been considered by the board for CEO before they turned to Pandit (one of the 20 worst CEOs EVAH!). Given that Citibank shares are down 85%, Banga must feel like he dodged a bullet by ending up at a smaller ($5 billion vs. $50 billion in revenues) but profitable company. While business is much harder for credit card companies than it used to be, Mastercard is just a middleman collecting fees by processing transactions and so it less likely to be affected than the banks and investors who hold now questionable credit card debt.

I’m also quite chuffed to see that a man in a turban and beard can phase through the corporate glass ceiling, especially in banking. In that respect, I think it helped that Banga’s career has been mainly international. In the US, minority executives and white executives follow different tracks (HBS study), but 14 years ago Banga was Marketing Director for Pepsi in India where he would not have been an outsider.

I saw my very first episode of Mad Men last night (while working on this post) and I found myself unable to empathise with the characters because I couldn’t relate to any of them. That was a world that I and most of my white friends (who are non-WASPs) would have been excluded from instantly, no matter what our credentials. Nor was this permeating predjudice limited to the 1950s: I heard Dershowitz recall that he couldn’t get a job at a top law firm in the mid-60s after clerking for the Supreme Court because he was Jewish!

So here’s to Ajay Banga and the others who will come after him, because a crack in the glass ceiling … is priceless.

Continue reading

In Argentina, Turbans=Maharajas?

If you want royal treatment at nightclubs in Argentina, maybe you should consider investing in a turban!

While playing golf in Buenos Aires recently, R. Viswanathan, the Indian ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, had an interesting experience: the Argentinian players asked him where they could buy a turban and how to wear it. When the ambassador probed the reason for their interest, they pointed to a home within the country club complex and said:simmarpal2.jpg

‘Here lives an Indian maharaja. He looks handsome with his turban. When he goes to the night clubs, he gets premium service and gets it free because they think he is a maharaja.’

When Viswanathan tried to explain that turbans do not equal maharaja status, the Argentinians asked him to shut up and not reveal this secret at the night clubs.

Turns out the “maharaja” they were speaking of is Simmarpal Singh, the “peanut prince of Argentina,” an employee of Olam, a 5.6 – billion dollar NRI company and a leading global supply chain manager of agricultural products and food ingredients!

Singh cultivates 12,000 hectares of peanut farms and another 5000 hectares of soya and corn in Rio Cuarto area in Cordoba province, about one thousand kms from Buenos Aires. His target is to take his company Olam among Argentina´s top three peanut players in the next few years. When he came to Argentina in 2005, his company was 28th in ranking in peanuts and he has already made it as sixth this year.

Viswanathan’s story, which profiles Singh’s work, ran in various Indian papers, including the Hindustan Times Punjab and The Asian Age, this past week. It examines the farming industry in Argentina and its potential to assist agriculture in India which is going to face shortage of land and water in coming years. Read it in full here.

Continue reading

Hated by desi brides worldwide

The advertising campaign for BritAsian sausage company “Mr. Singh’s Bangras” (a pun on bangers and bhangra) recently won a major award. The concept behind the ads is simple enough to describe in pictures:

That’s right – they used edible ink to print the casing in “henna patterns” and create the first ever “branded sausage.” I’m waiting for the UK government to start printing health warnings directly on foodstuffs that are bad for your heart such as “eating this weiner will make yours a little limper.”

I really hope Daljit Singh, the company proprietor, is married already because he has just earned the enmity of every desi bride around the world. If this campaign gets widespread airplay, what do you think most people will think of when they see a chubby brown hennaed calf peeking out from underneath a red lehnga?

You can see the video version directly on the company website.

Continue reading

The perfect blend of East and West

On my way to the East Village last night, I stopped by a store which is arguably ground zero for shameless Orientalism in NYC, East-West books.

This store is exactly as over the top and ridiculous as the name suggests. It’s the kind of place where one (White) salesman was dressed in a very handsome lime colored Chinese silk jacket while another (white again) had 3 sandalwood malas on one arm, several around his neck, and at least one on the other arm. Their list of books and other offerings is very left coast, the sort of thing I encountered regularly when I lived in the Bay Arya, but rarely see in skeptical, ironic NYC.

Soon after I entered, in the CD rack, I found Jaya Lakshmi’s “Jewel of Hari.” I love the blurb that introduces the album: Yoga! Mantras! Flamenco! Veils! It’s nearly a perfect listing of New Age clichés, it has everything except Zen, Native Americans and gnostic wisdom.

Continue reading

In a Recession, H-1Bs Get the Boot

I’m a life-long Democrat, but one aspect of the Democratic party message that has at times bothered me in recent years is the tendency towards protectionism. It was one of the things (among many) that annoyed me about John Kerry’s campaign, and I was somewhat relieved that Obama wielded this axe a bit more lightly during his campaign, at least after Iowa (notice how most of that talk about NAFTA disappeared too?).

During a bad recession with spiralling unemployment, of course, any earlier caution we might have seen from politicians regarding protectionism is going to be in danger. Congressional politicians from both parties are increasingly turning to populist language to ensure their own political survival. And the easiest group to pick on politically in recent years, by both Republicans and Democrats, has been immigrants, since they can’t vote anyway.

As many readers may already be aware, the recent American economic stimulus bill contained explicit language concerning foreign workers in the U.S.: Continue reading