You can go organic and stick to your budget. Penelope Walsh learns how with tips from local expert Renu Ojha.
Now is the season where locally produced organic food is most abundant and Dubai’s farmers’ markets have started up again. An organic lifestyle, however, is typically considered beyond the means of the average household. According to Renu Ojha, owner of organic grocery store Blue Planet Green People in JLT, with a little know-how, it doesn’t have to be. To help you find a way of going organic that is accessible and affordable, Renu shares her tips to shave the dirhams off your bills.
Buy from a farmers’ market
There are now several regular events run on weekends, where you can buy directly from the farmers who grow the produce. For example, regular stall holders at the Friday market outside Blue Planet Green People include Greenheart Organic Farms, who stocks the likes of NKD Pizza, Karma Kafé and Comptoir 102 with organic fresh produce, grown in the UAE.
There is a ‘big difference in price, and I think that is part of the attraction of the farmers’ market,’ Renu explains, telling us that it can work out cheaper even than buying conventional (ie not organic) vegetables in a supermarket. ‘The supermarket supply chain for most vegetables is out of season, so it is stored in chillers, and then distributed to various outlets around the world. The vegetables at farmers’ markets come straight from the farm, in season, so there are no storage or chilling costs, transport costs are minimal, and there is also no wastage.’
Renu adds that it even works out slightly cheaper to buy vegetables from the farmers’ markets, than one of the organic vegetable boxes available on other days of the week from Blue Planet Green People, since some costs incurred by the shop are then passed on in the price of the vegetable boxes. ‘Not everybody wants to come at 10am on a Friday and queue up,’ she laughs, so essentially the consumer has the choice in their own hands between convenience and making a saving.
Start with some basic ingredients
‘What most people do, when they come into an organic store, is they don’t spend money on the raw ingredients. Instead they head straight for little treats and snacks [such as crisps and biscuits], which you would spend more on in a conventional supermarket too’ she adds. ‘Look at the groceries you need every day in your kitchen cabinet.’
She suggests buying items you would regularly use to make a meal, such as rice, flour, spices and lentils, instead of buying ready-to-eat items, which will ordinarily cost more than cooking from scratch, regardless of whether they are organic or not.
Go for the local version
Beyond opting for locally grown produce, Renu suggests an excellent way to make a positive, sustainable and organic change, at a lower cost, is to also start eating the local ‘variety’. ‘In Dubai, we all come from different parts of the world, and we have our own favourite types of vegetables. The other day at the market in Al Ain, there was an American lady looking for zucchini but found them to be a bit expensive. She didn’t know there was also a vegetable being sold, that looks different, but belongs to the marrow family and is very much like a zucchini when you cook it. Because it is a local variety, it was also cheaper.’
Renu adds that there are several options where vegetables may look different in colour or shape, but will have the same familiar taste and texture when you use it in cooking. ‘Open your mind, and try out different varieties, you will find you don’t need to search out a specific recipe to cook these varieties, you can cook the recipes you know and treat them just like the vegetable varieties you know.’ Local varieties of squash, capsicum, zucchini, okra and aubergine are all good options to look out for, she tells us. Other local gems include green vegetables such as molokiya (popular in Egypt), chard (which is more nutritious than spinach) and amaranth (a local variety of red spinach, which is available throughout the year). Renu also recommends local herb purslene: ‘You can use it like spinach, and it is a quarter of the price of other greens. You can get it all through the year and it’s abundant.’
Grow your own
‘If you have a garden, you can easily convert one third of your lawn for vegetables that could sustain you for one year.’ The issue with growing your own organic vegetables and fruit, Renu explains is ‘dedication’ and not financial outlay. ‘Maybe in your home country, because the soil is so fertile, you can just throw a seed bomb and see where things grow. You can’t do that here, there is no actual soil as such. What we have is a sort of sand, so you need to build it up. There are no farms in Dubai because the soil is too alkaline, but you can farm in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain because the soil is sweeter.’
As such, Renu advises adding sweet sand to your soil, which along with other necessary items such as sacks of potting soil and organic manure, can be bought very cheaply from garden centres. Once you get the foundations right, you can grow a wide variety of edible plants in this climate. Plants such as marrow, parsley, coriander, basil, purslene and amaranth, all thrive in Dubai, Renu says, as do fruits such as papaya, figs and chickoo, although she warns the outlay for fruit trees is more expensive, and a long term investment.
If you don’t have a garden in a villa, however, Renu says there is no reason why you can’t grow most vegetables in a container on your balcony, adding that herbs will even do very well indoors. ‘You could easily buy fresh basil in little packets every single week at Dhs10 a time. I have a basil plant from last season, and it has survived all summer and it is still there. And I now never buy basil. You can get one big plant for Dhs5.’
Planting vegetables and herbs from seed, Renu says, is extremely cheap (‘you can probably get around 17 varieties of seeds for Dhs100!’), but if you are really keen to save your dirhams, you can dry out the seeds from your first crop and keep them for the next season. ‘You can even take an organic tomato that you bought in a store and dry out the seeds and use those. Or buy the bunch of organic spinach or kale that is dirty and has roots (instead of looking for a clean one), and you can plant these.’
Buying organic meat doesn’t have to be expensive, again, if you buy the local version. For example, Blue Planet Green People sells local whole chickens for approximately Dhs40 during the winter season, compared with over Dhs100 for an organic chicken from France in leading supermarkets. But you can also choose to consume proteins in a more considered way.
When we ask Renu about proteins, she says that as a vegetarian, her favourite protein is actually lentils. However, Renu points out that ‘lentils are the best, cheapest protein’, and nutritionally, a meal containing lentils can replace the protein content that would be provided by meat. Another option is to reduce your consumption, according to seasonal costs. ‘During the summer in the UAE, chickens barely eat, and so they lay less eggs. In winter, they are outside, and there is a higher yield of eggs in winter, so the price drops. That’s how it should be, the price should go with the season.’ The number of chickens slaughtered for meat also drops during summer and the supply increases during winter and therefore the price also drops.
Cosmetics and cleaning products
If you want to go organic in an all- encompassing way, Renu says there is a ‘much, much cheaper way of doing it’, than buying commercial organic products for cleaning and cosmetics. Fruit peelings make an excellent replacement for some commercial cleaning agents: ‘The bio-enzymes will clean everything in the house.’ ‘If you make juice, you can actually use the pulp as a fantastic face pack.’
Other options include grinding red lentils into a powder to use as a face scrub, mixing brown sugar with honey as a body scrub and using shea butter as a moisturiser.
Blue Planet Green People runs gardening workshops and a regular Friday farmers’ market outside its store in JLT. 10am-2pm. Al Seef 2, Cluster U, JLT (04 369 5209).