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Saturday, March 29, 2008
Eco designs and the power of beans
By ANGELA JEFFS
Anand Mehta, who lives four stops out of Kamakura on the Enoden Line, quotes his hero when called to ask when we might meet: "Gandhi said, 'What can be done tomorrow can be done today. What can be done today can be done right now.' So, jump on the train."
Several years ago, Mehta declined to be interviewed. Now he has changed his mind. Because, as he explains, the state of the world is more important than he is.
"I want people to know that I am here, that they can come to buy our products and talk about nutrition, that I am willing to go and talk to schools, organizations, anyone interested in health, food and ecology."
Waiting for Mehta on Gokurakuji's red bridge, there is a sense of deja vu. As he walks back to the traditional Japanese house that is the hub of his business enterprise as well as home to his family, I realize that I have been here before: a previous interview, four years before, with an American potter.
A ceramic, reading Anan, greets visitors as they step into the garden. Anan Corporation is the name of Mehta's business, selling a wide variety of Indian foodstuffs — beans, herbs, spices — throughout Japan.
His Japanese wife is away, enjoying a reunion. Their two daughters are at school. Son Baharat, aged 24, who was schooled in Geneva and could have been an astronaut had he so aspired, chooses to work in the family business; he too is out for the day, but delivering orders. Which means that his father can change pace.
"I was supposed to be at FOODEX at Makuhari Messe in Chiba," Mehta explains cheerfully. "But I woke up this morning and having participated for 30 years, decided to stay put. It takes energy — man-made electricity and my own reserves — to get there, and what would I have found: a mini battlefield with everyone competing for space, time and air. Anyway, we would rather Anan stay small, a family affair. And we are doing very nicely as is."
"Also, he adds just as amiably, "you called, then another woman rang to ask if I was in and I thought, ah, karma. So now here we are, sitting in the sunshine. Much nicer, don't you think?
Locally, Mehta is a familiar figure, dressed in hand-woven Indian khadi cottons, spreading the word that protein-plentiful pulses are good for us. Asked if he knows that roundabout he is known as "the bean man," he laughs uproariously. "I'm Mr. Bean? Funny."
The Other Woman arrives to buy spices to make her own chai tea. Bringing a plate of spicy patties into the garden for us to nibble, Mehta explains how he had just fried them quickly in a little olive oil.
"It's like making pancakes without wheat, sugar, milk. Just a mash of garbanzo bean, rice and cashew nut powders, Italian tomato, black olive paste, chopped spring onions, salt. Oh, and a little yogurt to make the mixture fluffy. Bacteria in yogurt love beans; they multiply like crazy. Very good for our digestion."
Beans are so easy to prepare, he instructs: soak them for 10 minutes, cook them for 10 minutes, allow them to stand for 10 minutes. Then use them any way you like.
The patties taste delicious. As does the potage of beans mixed with almond powder and spices that follows, together with a herbal infusion in sparkling glasses. Can we identify the herbs selected to make us feel happy and relaxed? My companion is spot on: hibiscus, lavender, camomile, a few others. . .
Mehta knows the medical properties of all the herbs and spices in his kitchen. Cardamon — good for blood circulation. Fenugreek — for combating diabetes. "Traditional Ayurvedic Indian medicine works on the premise that the body can be helped to repair itself once it has calmed down."
He is, however, wholly disdainful of the idea of creating a traditional cookbook. Books are antiecology, he says. Instead he had created what he calls, "no-nonsense edible cookbooks" — flat packs that open up to contain all the basic elements required to make up a dish. He prefers not to call them recipes, as cooking is flexible, a creative act, not set in stone.
Anan's range of Curry Books, as he calls them, include eight with beans. There is also a Tandori chicken kit. A spinach kit (to make sag). A chai spice kit (though ground mixed spice can also be purchased in jars). A dip kit, for avocado, or whatever.
Then there are the bottled goods. You need to look around Mehta's well-stocked genkan to appreciate the diversity of products available, and the simplicity of recycled and recyclable packaging with instructions in Japanese and English.
Or negotiate his Web site, which under Cooking Classes shows Mehta and his wife navigating through their kitchen in what looks like perfect smiling harmony.
Born in Bombay and moved to Gujurat on the border with Pakistan, he thinks his mother and grandmother would be happy to see what he is doing. So would his father, who brought him to Tokyo for four days in 1958 to attend a Lions International meeting (no one else from India wanted to come) and stayed four years.
"I was 12 when I went home. By then, Japan was in my blood, so I came back. "
Nor would God or Buddha be surprised at his activities. Fifty years in Japan, wearing khadi, eating vegetarian. (Refusing to kill other animal species in order to live.)
"You know what makes me crazy? Coming out of Kamakura Station and lines of taxis spewing exhaust gases into the air. I don't have a car. If I need to go somewhere in a hurry, I get a taxi, but I'm choosy. If I break a leg, I call an ambulance. I'm not so puritanical. But I do believe in finding a balance."
Mehta believes we must all "chip in for ecology." He regularly visits schools to tell children that we can all do something. Use glasses rather than paper cups. Carry one's own chopsticks. Walk instead of being driven to school.
"The problem is that children see their teachers driving to school, so the teachers are embarrassed and don't like my message. It's a pity we can't all learn and move forward together."
Anan Corporation has over 2,000 outlets for its products, including hotels, cafes and ski resorts. Where in Kamakura? Union (supermarket) and the cafe/restaurant La Journee in Yuigihama. Also I want people to come here to the house to buy, to talk, to do yoga, relax. We also exhibit and sell khadi cottons and clothes."
A small group gathers for yoga on a regular basis. On occasion, there are impromptu lectures on subjects like the advantages of eating genmai as opposed to white refined rice.
Back in October, the weather was nice enough for everyone to sit in the garden while a musician from Kyushu played sitar, with all the engawa windows slid back for a natural stage. "We had lots of young people here, lying around on the grass, listening."
Describing himself as, above all else, a "food designer," he dismisses any attempt to classify the food he cooks as curry. As the word is used in India, curry simply means a sauce. He blames Britain for causing the term to now mostly be used to mean almost any Indian dish.
"When you cook, you have your staple ingredients. Then you tweak here and there — add, subtract, improvise — depending on what taste you want on a particular day, your mood or what is seasonally available.
"Do we say Renoir's art is French, and paintings by Picasso are Spanish? No, they are universal."
In Mehta's book — his edible curry book — food has no nationality.
Anan Corporation: 860 Juniso, Kamakura 248-0001; Mobile: 090-9835-4207; Phone: (0467) 25-6416 Fax: (0467) 25-6437; Web site: www.e-anan.net