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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Home grown solutions: the rise and rise of the microgreen

We look at the growing trend driving a new foodie revolution

Kale plants at the Organic Oasis farm in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
Kale plants at the Organic Oasis farm in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

Forget soggy egg and cress sandwiches cut into triangles. That fleck of green in an otherwise beige lunchtime snack is no longer the preserve of the 1970s housewife. Cress and other fast-growing mini vegetables are so hot right now. The microgreen, as it is now better (and more fashionably) known, has likely been served to you as part of an elegant plate on a multi-course serving menu in a fancy restaurant. It is those tiny leaves delicately handled with tweezers that you see chefs use on programmes such as Netflix’s Chef’s Table or MasterChef, adding a final note of decoration to an expertly composed dish.

“As a part of an entree, microgreens are one of the most important ingredients to make the plate more beautiful. To better serve our clients, we started growing microgreens since 2017,” says Sheikha Al Muhairy of Organic Oasis, an organic-certified farm in Dubai. Touted for their high nutritional value and pot-to-plate efficiency, microgreens are now catching on in circles beyond the cheffing world. The definition of a microgreen is a germinated plant seed with developed roots and shoots of the plant’s first true leaves. “Microherbs provide health benefits because they contain essential fatty acids and fibre,” Al Muhairy says. Typically harvested 14 days after germination, they are fortified with the power needed for the full plant to develop.

“They are packed with flavour as well as a very high concentration of minerals and vitamins,” says Gebran Shoujaa from Italian Food Masters, an importer and distributor of Urban Cultivator’s grow-your-own-at-home microgreen appliances in the UAE. “Researchers have found that in some cases microgreens contain 40 times the level of nutrients than the fully grown plant’s counterparts.”

Working on a new research study with the University of Alberta, the team behind Urban Cultivator maintain that microgreens are well worth incorporating into our diets. The red cabbage has been found to typically contain six times more vitamin C, 40 times more vitamin E and 69 times more vitamin K micro form. Coriander micros are higher in free-radical-fighting, antioxidant-rich carotenoids. Sunflower sprouts are made up of 30 per cent protein, while the winners in the battle of the microgreens are mini lettuce seedlings, boasting the highest antioxidant capacity across all varieties, especially if you harvest them seven days

after germination.

Coriander, basil, beetroot, broccoli, buckwheat, chia, celery, dill, flax, kale – the list of options is lengthy when it comes to the microgreen. Perhaps this is why chefs have been using them for years to garnish with and add a note

of flavour.

“Chefs primarily use microgreens to enhance the attractiveness and taste of their dishes owing to the delicate texture, colour and distinctive flavours of the young vegetables,” says Peter Green, head of food development at Jones the Grocer in Dubai. Now the trend is working its way beyond the fine-dining restaurant scene, into health conscious cafes such as Jones the Grocer who are keen to offer food that is healthy and tastes good. “Microgreens are growing in popularity in the UAE market, with a couple of companies even growing them in Dubai,” Green says. “One example is Badia Farms, which boasts the UAE’s first urban vertical farm cultivating gourmet greens.” Society Cafe & Lounge, Common Grounds, Comptoir 102 and OneLife cafe are among the eateries leading the charge in spreading the microgreens message.

It isn’t just the nutritional value of these mini veggies that is making this particular food trend catch on. Dubai blogger and photographer Samantha Louise Marshall first began growing her own microgreens to use as stylish garnishes on her food shoots, finding the simplicity appealing.

“I grow wheatgrass and cress from time to time in a really simple glass sprouting jar using packets of seeds,” she says. “I love that you just need water and no soil and that they grow fairly quickly and last a few days. If you use them up and want to take a break, you can just clean out your jar and restart when you want. It’s not like a plant you have to maintain, and a packet of seeds is enough for a few batches.”

New shoots need much less growing space to flourish, making growing microgreens and using them in our cooking a practical way of adding an extra dose of the good stuff into our diets. Unlike most vegetables people choose to grow at home, microgreens are as painless and low-maintenance as they come. All you need is a packet of seeds, some minerals to add to them and a jar – and you’re good to go.

“I find growing microgreens to be a great way to unwind and relax in today’s fast-paced environment,” Green says. “Additionally, they are quick to grow and require minimal cost, time and effort. I suggest sourcing a home microgreens kit and growing easier crops such as coriander and basil if it’s your first time.”

If you want to give it a go, companies such as Urban Cultivator are now making it easier for people to grow their own microgreens at home. Hailing from Vancouver, Canada, the team behind Urban Cultivator have developed small-scale indoor hydroponic units to bring the benefits to the masses. “It allows consumers to grow their own organic microgreens indoors, thus obtaining the freshest and most sustainable microgreens someone can get their hands on,” Shoujaa says. Supplying indoor gardens to UAE homes and internationally, the company is helping to catalyse the trend for growing microgreens at home.

Microgreens may well be reducing our carbon footprint, too. Easy to grow, fast yielding plants offer a homegrown solution to climate-damaging imports. “We call it the zero-mile diet because the microgreens do not have to travel halfway across the world to reach the end user any more,” Shoujaa says.

This also means that the microgreens you grow at home are the freshest you will find anywhere, because you consume them minutes or even seconds after harvesting them. They haven’t been air freighted across borders or shoved into the backs of lorries and darkened trucks – you see them grow from seed to shoot. “The freshly cut herbs straight from the punnet are always the best in taste,” Al Muhairy says.

If you are in need of further convincing to give your green fingers a flex, The Micro Gardener blog also highlights the convenience of the microgreen, affirming its adaptability to all climates. When growing microgreens at home, you can’t be let down by adverse weather conditions. All your seedlings need is access to good light, and you can harvest them year round for use in salads, sandwiches, soups and garnishes. As well as being a sustainable, nutrient-dense source of green goodness, your homegrown microgreens can add that final flare of finesse that will make your dish just that bit more flavourful and stylish. Your dinner guests – and Instagram followers – will thank you for it.

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