All this talk of travellers having stomach issues: they clearly have not been to Kodaikanal and
stayed at Organic Brooklyn. I want to make the case for volunteering at Organic Brooklyn as a
great way to experience the southern Indian food culture and the environment it is both
produced and savoured in.
Located in Kodaikanal - an old British hill station nestled in the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu -
Organic Brooklyn is a home away from home. Hosted by Navin, a kind and entrepreneurial man
with a bounty of dreams and a multitude of projects in reality. This includes a spa, organic farm,
volunteer homestay, business school, eco-building projects and guest houses.
As a volunteer, most stay on the organic farm for a week or so and then help with a diversity of
other tasks - jam making and cooking to website development - at Navin’s home. A combination
of both gives you a unique ‘farm to fork’ experience: you truly are immersed in every single part
of the food culture of Kodai; the growing, cultivating, cooking, buying, eating (and washing up!).
You live with an Indian family
The meals are all freshly prepared and very light. Steamed rice dumplings, or idli, with dhal
(lentils) and vegetables is the main breakfast food. For lunch and dinner, rice infused with
coconut is complemented with more hot vegetables and pickles, but also a freshly made salad
of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and a sweet dressing.
All can be eaten with your right hand in the traditional Indian way, making balls of food with your
thumb and forefingers and shoving it moreishly into your mouth. Chapatti and chai also help to
finish the meal off, using the chapatti to mop up any extra juices left on your plate.
You can get involved with cooking the daily meals alongside Navin’s Mum, but also in
entrepreneurial activities such as jam making. On my first day, I helped make a wild strawberry
jam, combining the fruits with sugar and water and simmering for 45 minutes to make a thick,
intensely sweet and chunky condiment. We opened a jar of it in the afternoon, and used our
fingers to pluck out the sticky strawberries and devour it in the sunshine.
You can visit the markets and streetstalls
Sunday is the day off for volunteers, and if you venture into town you will see residents of Kodai
getting on their motorbikes and zooming to the local food markets.
Men and women sit on the ground behind their products: cloths are filled with potatoes, carrots,
tubers, beetroots, papaya, passion fruit… Carts carrying fresh grapes, pineapple and apples
amble up and down the busy streets, amidst local and international consumers alike. Just
outside of the market, you can find street vendors stirring great vats of peanuts and fresh
vegetables, which they mix into a spicy, nutty light lunch. To the passer by, each vendor seems
to be selling the same food, but if you take your time to truly explore each one you will see
differences in the aromas and crispness of vegetables. This gastronomic tour of Kodai doesn’t
end with street stalls. After just two days of being here, I’ve found fantastic chocolate stalls and
a coffee shop nestled above the busy markets. By staying at Organic Brooklyn, you get a 5%
discount at the coffee shop: not much, but once you try their delicious carrot cake and
cheesecake, you’ll be thankful for it.
You can help in the garden and on the organic farm
At Navin’s house, you can go and spend your day in the garden: weeding, planting, watering,
picking produce. You don’t need experience; just taking off your shoes and getting your feet and
hands dirtied with the warm soil is enough of a reason to be there. The organic farm gives even
more opportunity to get your hands dirty. Located outside of the main town of Kodai, volunteers
stay for up to a week helping out with sowing, harvesting and maintaining the terraced plots of
land. All is rainfed and organic, and produce tastes all the better for it. With no internet or phone
reception, the only thing you are connected to is nature, helping appreciate how important good
ecology, soils and agriculture is when it comes to enjoying our food.
I’m looking forward to going there in a few days, continuing my ‘farm to fork’ exploration of Kodai
and then rewarding any manual work with another slice of carrot cake…