Slipping into a waterproof jumpsuit, Jacek Plewa gingerly steps into the calf-high water of the aqua kale tank. Floating all around him are thick sheets of thermocol punched with holes housing small cups in which grow one of the most nutritious plants on the planet – kale.
Gently pinching a few leaves from a plant, he hands them to me. ‘Go on, you can eat it,’ he tempts.
I’m a tad apprehensive. ‘Watch me,’ he says, stuffing a few leaves into his mouth and chewing with a hint of exaggerated relish.
I examine the leaves, and when he is not looking, wipe them on my jeans before chewing them.
The taste is, erm, a bit like spinach with a hint of bitterness. ‘Green’ and ‘earthy’ come to mind. Since I’ve not tasted this before, I guess this is what really healthy stuff would taste like.
That kale is a mega superfood is well known. But I was gobsmacked to learn its nutrition profile: 100g of uncooked leaves equals just 33 calories (compare this with an average chicken burger that contains 250 calories).
That’s not all. A 100g portion will give you 700 per cent of your daily requirement of vitamin K (excellent for bone health), more than 130 per cent of vitamin C (to boost your immune system), and 200 per cent of vitamin A (a powerful antioxidant). So you need to eat it just a few times a week to get your required dose of nutrients.
‘What’s even better is that the kale we are producing here can be easily incorporated into your diet in the form of salads, juices, shakes or just kale tea,’ says Jacek, general manager of Sharjah-based Global Food Industries (GFI) which has set up a farm on the outskirts of Dhaid to grow this superfood. ‘We can produce around 24 tonnes of aqua kale annually here. What makes this project quite literally green is the fact that the farm uses 100 per cent recycled water.’
The kale raised here is processed and frozen, and is available in single portion sizes for ease of use. ‘This product – frozen aqua kale – won the award for best fruit and vegetable innovation at Gulfood 2017, the world’s largest food industry exhibition, in Dubai,’ says Jacek proudly.
Extending the product line, the company has started manufacturing kale chicken burgers.
‘We’ll be serving you a few varieties of kale-chicken burgers,’ he says. ‘They are really healthy, guilt-free meals. You’ll be amazed by the taste.’
Seated in a small office at the aquaponic kale farm deep in Dhaid, I can hear kale-chicken patties sizzling on a grill in the adjoining room.
‘Raising kale, or any leafy vegetable for that matter, in an aquaponics farm is no easy task,’ says Madan Raju, farm manager at GFI.
The soilless system of crop raising, aquaponics, he says, is in simple terms the integration of aquaculture and hydroponics.
To give us an idea of how it all works, Jacekk and Madan lead us to the starting point of the farming process – the fish tanks. Under controlled water and temperature conditions, fish – mainly tilapia because they are hardy and their reproductive rate is high - are raised in tanks and fed high quality organic food. The water with the fish waste goes into filtration tanks where the waste breaks down and releases nutrients for plant growth.
‘The three main nutrients that aid plant growth are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium,’ says Madan. ‘Nitrogen helps leaf growth, phosphorus for flowers and roots, and potassium for fruits. ‘Here, we get around 95 per cent nitrogen from the fish waste break down; a reason aquaponics is best suited for commercial cultivation of leafy vegetables.’
After filtration, the water is pumped into the tank where kale, spinach and mustard plants are grown in cups on thermocol boards with their roots dangling in the water.
‘Since there is no soil we do not have to use any chemical fertilisers. The plants absorb the nutrients they need to grow, and at regular intervals the water is pumped back into the fish tanks,’ he explains. ‘Because the water is pumped back into the fish tanks, we do not use any kind of chemical pesticide. So the farm is completely natural and organic.’
Although the process may appear simple, Jacek says that it is very important to constantly monitor the nutrient levels in the water and ensure that the biomass (the weight) of the fish and plant population is balanced. ‘If the nutrient level in the water is too high, it could kill the plants; if it falls below a certain level, the crop would not be a healthy one,’ he says.
While the largest crop raised in the farm is kale, baby spinach, baby mustard, basil and roca are also grown here.
Crops are harvested in eight to 10 weeks. ‘The number of harvests in summer is less than those in winter,’ says Madan, explaining that the cooler clime aids kale growth.
Once hand harvested, the kale is rushed to the company’s warehouse where it is processed and flash frozen within 12 hours into smaller portions that have a shelf life of a year. The portions can be added to shakes and salads.
‘Frozen is much better than fresh vegetables bought from a store,’ says Madan, ‘because usually it takes about five to seven days for the produce to reach the shelves by which time 50 per cent of the nutrients are lost. In fact nutrient depletion begins to occur as soon a vegetable is harvested.’
Jacek is convinced kale could help address conditions such as diabetes and obesity which is assuming alarming proportions in the region.
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‘The zero-fat superfood kale, part of the cabbage family, is high in protein, vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, fibre and antioxidants,’ he says. ‘Kale contains nearly twice the amount of vitamin K as most of its fellow cruciferous vegetables. Proportionate servings of aqua kale have more iron than beef, more calcium than milk, and more vitamin C than spinach.’
An assistant enters the room carrying a tray with a platters of juicy burgers. ‘Try these kale chicken burgers,’ he offers. I sink my teeth into one and I’m pleasantly surprised by the taste. It’s quite like a regular burger with the kale taste barely noticeable.
‘A chicken patty with kale and quinoa has 12 times less saturated fat, 10 times less transfats, 50 per cent less carbs, 60 per cent less calories, 40 per cent less sodium, and most importantly four times more dietary fibre than a regular fast food chicken burger in town,’ says Jacek. ‘And, it’s free from artificial flavours, is gluten free, has no MSG and is totally natural.’
Listening to the nutritional values makes me reach out to have another. With obesity and diabetes rates rising across the world due to the overindulgence of fast food, this product could be just the food to sink our teeth into.