Planting A Seed At Haoma
In partnership with Food Made Good

Planting A Seed At Haoma

A passionate chef marries his commitment to sustainability and a love for the food of his native land. Haoma farms fish and grows greens in the heart of busy Bangkok.

Chef Deepanker Khosla is a man with passion in his voice. In the pre-dinner calm in Haoma, his restaurant and urban farm in the heart of Bangkok, Chef DK sat down to chat about his unique spin on Indian food, winning Sourcing category at the Food Made Good HK Awards and his journey since he opened Haoma almost four years ago, excitedly explaining how he raises fish under the garden or how he unearths centuries' old recipes from across his native India with equal delight. 

He cites David Attenborough documentaries - “the only thing we were allowed to watch on a Sunday afternoon” - as planting the seed of environmental awareness in young Deepanker's mind. “His mesmerising voice has been telling us to look after the planet since we were kids,” he says, recalling memories of his childhood in Allahabad in the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India.

Related: How to Cook, Eat and Order Climate-Friendly Meals

Haoma founder, Chef Deepanker Khosla. Photo: Haoma

When Khosla, today aged 31, was still studying for his future career, he worked for ITC Hotels, the first luxury chain in the world to be certified LEED Platinum by the US Green Building Council. The company's policies in water and waste management, energy conservation and responsible sourcing further raised awareness in the young chef-in-training. 

A few years later Khosla arrived in Bangkok to work on opening different hotel restaurants. When those projects were completed, he bought a food truck and drove around Thailand peddling an eclectic international menu of his own creation. Upon returning to Bangkok, he found the house that would become Haoma. His restaurant opened in 2017.

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The tables at Haoma look out onto the restaurant's urban farm. Photo: Haoma

Located in an easy-to-miss lane just a stone's throw away from bustling Sukhumvit Road, Haoma was built around the idea of urban farming and sustainability from its inception. “It's not a part of our business, it is what our business is,” he states simply. Khosla was eager, but by his own admission inexperienced. “The first two years of sustainability at Haoma was me walking down a dark tunnel with no guidebook and no torch,” he comments jokingly. 

At the heart of the project was the aquaponic system that today allows the restaurant to harvest its own fish — pla kapong, or farmed sea bass — from a reservoir that holds 150,000 litres of captured rainwater in the garden. That enriched water feeds the plants in the hydroponic garden that enter in the composition of every dish on the menu, a selection that currently includes cumin leaf, sorrel and dill. “The menu is ten courses that run through the ten beds of the urban farm, predominant flavors all being defined by this small piece of land,” says Khosla with pride as he looks out the window. 

A tomato patch has just been planted for a new menu that is in the works. Waste and trimmings feed the fish or fertilise the plants, completing a sustainable ecosystem in the middle of the city. “Every bee in the area is coming to enhance the biodiversity of this place,” he says. “You see snails and ladybugs every time you walk into the garden.”

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Haoma’s urban farm - every dish includes an ingredient that is grown on site. Photo: Haoma

What the small urban plot can't produce, like edible flowers and virtually all the vegetables from the non-veg and optional plant-based menus, comes from the restaurant's own organic farm outside of Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. A few ingredients, like slipper lobster and river prawn, are procured from carefully sourced suppliers who adhere to the restaurant's sustainable principles. “We are not a rich business so we can't spend thousands of dollars to get USDA, organic or biodynamic certifications,” he notes. “But we are true to what we do,” he states, adding he demands the same diligence from his suppliers.

Despite a conscious effort to place sustainability at the centre of the restaurant, the meeting with Hong Kong-based Food Made Good was a turning point for Haoma. When Heidi Yu Spurrell, CEO of Food Made Good, called, it wasn't a complete surprise. “We'd been following them for a while because Food Made Good is the beacon of sustainable ratings in the world,” says Khosla. 

What Food Made Good brought to the table was a rigorous audit that took three months to complete. Point by point it highlighted what Haoma could be doing better, providing a methodical approach to everything they do. For example, managing food waste before was intuitive; now it is weighed, ensuring the restaurant knows that they are producing enough fish food and compost for their needs as efficiently as possible. 

Related: Food Made Good HK Awards Shines A Spotlight On Sustainability

Green pea luchi, inspired by the stuffed flatbreads from Chef DK's childhood visit to New Delhi. Photo: Haoma

In three years, Khosla has found his way, honing his vision not just in the garden but in the kitchen as well. Early Haoma diners recall a promising menu with definite highs and occasional frustrating lows. But those who have followed him since the beginning know that the restaurant's culinary focus is now spot on, embracing dishes from some of India's overlooked culinary traditions, often giving them a contemporary twist while remaining true to their essence and taste.

The current tasting menu that he calls Roots, Heritage and Culture just scratches the surface of a country with over 100 distinct cuisines with 3500 years of written literature. “Why are we not talking about that?” he asks rhetorically. “Why are we talking about chicken tikka masala? What about the food of Gujarat, Orissa or Himachal Pradesh?”

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Haoma's modern take on khandvi includes bengal gram and sustainably farmed caviar. Photo: Haoma

He's on a roll, reeling off items from the current menu, each with its own story: luchi, inspired by the green-pea stuffed fried flatbread snacks from his childhood visits to the Hanuman temple in New Delhi; balchao, a dried prawn pickle preserved in oil that predates the Portuguese in Goa; or khandvi that features bengal dal - a pulse that was cultivated to feed the victims of the famine in mid-20th century Bengal - here given a lavish garnish in the form of sustainably farmed caviar from Thailand's Royal Projects.

That story of famine ties into his own commitment that led him to create the No One Hungry project that served tens of thousands of meals to restaurant workers who found themselves unemployed overnight during Bangkok's coronavirus-related lockdown that forced many establishments to close.

Related: Hong Kong’s MANA! is Changing the World ‘One Bite at a Time’

The Dying Ocean is the chef's personal take on plastic waste and pollution. Photo: Vincent Vichit-Vadakan

The conversation veers from his honeymoon in Koh Tao in the south of Thailand where he stumbled upon the disheartening sight of a dead coral reef, to memories of an oil spill he witnessed in Pondicherry, on a beach where he'd often played as a boy. Those two events collided to produce a dish he calls marnasann sagar or “The Dying Ocean”. This is his take on seafood pulissery, a classic southern soup, garnished with oil slicks of plankton and amchur (green mango) oil, a chilli-infused oil and a squid-ink black soup over lobster trapped in edible fishing net and plastic, a culinary metaphor for the plight of the sea today. The dish is stunning and packed with the flavor of the ocean. 

His good work is not going unnoticed. “I take solid pride in the Food Made Good Sourcing Award,” says Khosla. According to him, what the prize has given him is not so much added notoriety for Haoma, but a platform to reach out to others. “A lot more people will be taking us more seriously on the sustainability front,” he notes. “I want to create a prototype and hand it out to every chef for them to be able to incorporate any of this into their business.”

Related: Healthy Asian Takeaway? Fete Up Shows Us How, With The Help Of ‘Rainbow Vegetables’

 

This article was created in partnership with Food Made Good HK.

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