Imtiaz Awan is a man on a mission. As the owner of the first-ever restaurant that serves organic food on the banks of the River Neelum, he is well on his way to fulfilling it.
“The food we serve is from those farms where no pesticides, no chemical fertilisers of any kind are used,” he says confidently.
The popularity of the hotel, located in Pataykha, the small, scenic town that serves as a gateway to the 200-kilometre-long Neelum Valley, indicates the trend towards organic food in Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
Awan believes that rising ailments amongst the masses can be curbed by the provision of ‘purer’ food. This is why he is striving today to revive the ‘dying culture’ of organic eating across Azad Kashmir.
Dr Riaz Sheikh, a nutritionist working in a private hospital, agrees with Awan.
According to Sheikh, the time has come to bid adieu to all non-organic food, which he labels as the main reason behind illnesses such as cancer and ulcer.
“Besides non-organic food, processed foods like chicken, mutton, bread and milk – foods now available everywhere in the country – are also hazardous. Chemicals are mixed to enhance the flavour of these products, which must be discouraged,” he explains.
Besides the health benefits, visitors and tourists are drawn to the organic for the flavour, as well.
“I have never enjoyed food with such taste,” remarks Altaf Ahmad, a businessman from Islamabad, on a visit to the valley. “I think food such as this reduces health risks, as well. We should promote the usage of such organic foods in urban areas of the country.”
Environmentalists also emphasise the need to eat organic. According to them, recent research has proved that organic items are lower in nitrates and higher in antioxidants.
The trend is on the rise, indeed, and has reached the upper parts of Neelum Valley. Many people have converted large portions of their homes into guest houses that serve herbal vegetables and local, organic foods to tourists.
Back to the basics
In years past, the people of Azad Kashmir would gorge on local vegetables and chicken – healthy and tasty at the same time. Thus, this move towards organic is not a novel concept but a return to roots.
Awan is determined to stick to Kashmiri basics. His menu is typical of the area: maize bread (makai roti), leafy vegetables (saag), local chicken (desi murgi), curd, fresh white butter, and fresh lettuce cultivated in the nearby kitchen garden. The prepared food is then served in clay pots which are in use in the kitchens of in remote villages of Kashmir.
Muhammad Saeed, a senior teacher working in Neelum Valley, is excited to see people returning to organic.
“The dilemma is how to get the basic necessities to far flung areas of AJK, where pre-packed milk and farm chicken (broiler) are readily available,” he says. “We have to promote organic foods and their cultivation to save human lives. Our forefathers had an average age of 100 years. Today, we do not live more than 60 or 70. This is because of non-organic sustenance.”
Published in The Express Tribune, July 13th, 2013.