The slow food movement finally sets foot in India to the rescue of dying indigenous food cultures of the Northeast
It’s the captain worm,” said chef Joel Basumatari, as he ladled yet another cup of crunchy insect onto my dry leaf plate. The fat saffron-coloured worm looked like a mini yarn as it lay still on my plate, waiting for its turn to be tasted. At ₹2,000 a kilo, it was as priceless as good quality saffron. But was it worth a try? Having eaten a beetle and the silkworm earlier—which tasted rather like stiff prawns—it seemed like yet another test of guts, which the Taste Theatre had been so far, with mixed results. I kept inhibition aside as I popped the insect into my mouth like a tablet, with the other hand firmly wrapped around a cup of water, just in case. Then, I instinctively bit the flesh—it was gooey with a burst of flavour, rivalling any good paté at a fine-dining restaurant.
Was it the setting that made insect eating—the second time in my life—such an exhilarating experience, or was it the beauty of being surrounded by indigenous tribes whose traditional diets encompass these foods with ease? I guess both factors were at work. I was, after all, at one of the biggest food events India has ever seen—the Indigenous Terra Madre (ITM) in Shillong, a city that boasts of a robust ethnic cuisine. In spite of the advent of pizza and burger chains, Shillong remains fiercely rooted in its approach to food—be it the early morning breakfast of laal shaa and red rice pancake, the meal of shaaq, smoked pork, pithal and jadoh in the afternoon or the spicy egg noodle soup dinner at night. If you’re lucky, you may even find home-brewed rice beer or wine.
But none of that exhilaration even batted an eyelid that November evening when a rather exhaustion-inducing 12-hour journey took me from Bhubaneswar to Shillong via Guhawati. Sitting in the car with dusk catching us early, the mind wondered: Why choose Shillong for an event so grand that even the Guinness Book of World Records was reviewing it as the largest gathering of indigenous people in the world? Wouldn’t Delhi or Mumbai have been better choices, connectivity-wise at least?
The opening ceremony at the green expanse of the North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU) complex, complete with men and woman in their tribal best, did little to clear that fuzzy head. Day One ended with a lot of beautiful faces and dresses, a brief preview of a coffee table book called Meghalaya: Shifting through the Clouds, an official, extremely addictive anthem of Ko Mei-Ramew (‘Mother Earth’ in Khasi) composed by musicians from different Northeastern states using traditional instruments, and, of course, plenty of chatter on the need to conserve the indigenous tribes and their culture. What stood out was the Native American activist, Winona LaDuke’s narration of how the Anishinaabeg tribe worked tirelessly to protect the 800-year-old seeds of wild rice, found at an archaeological dig in the US, from being genetically manipulated and patented. The rice, which grows wild under water around the rainy season, is native to the land, and rich with nutrients. Did Day One bring me some clarity about what the gathering was all about? It certainly scratched the surface and a little reading up on Slow Food cleared up any residual confusion.
Back in 1986, when Italian journalist Carlo Petrini began the slow food movement aimed at protecting the food culture of Italy, it was a reaction to the opening of a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome. Petrini saw it not only as a blot on a historic urbanscape but also as a threat to the local food culture. What resulted was a mass protest against the global industrialisation of food. These protests eventually led to the birth of the Slow Food movement on 10 December, 1989—a day which is still celebrated by small-scale farmers and Slow Food practitioners across the world as Terra Madre (Mother Earth) Day.
Meghalaya became a part of this movement in 2010, thanks to the efforts of Dr Phrang Roy, chairman of NESFAS (North East Slow Food & Agrobiodiversity Society), whose reaction to the entry of Domino’s and KFC in Shillong was identical. Since then, the day has been observed as Mei Ram-ew, bringing together those farmers, fishermen, chefs and orchard owners who, despite markets forces, still practice age-old and nature-friendly styles of growing and cooking food. Their reward is the legacy that they are leaving future generations to enjoy. The Northeast, and especially Meghalaya, was a natural choice for host destination, therefore—where else would you find 250 odd tribes still practicing their culinary heritage with such pride.
Meghalaya’s lack of connectivity, in fact, has been a blessing in disguise as people have not abandoned their culinary heritage in spite of rampant development and the accompanying winds of change. The food is extremely localised, seasonal and fresh. This does not mean you will not get Arunachal’s thukpa in Shillong or the famous Naga pork curry in Guwahati. Or vice versa. Given the close proximity of the seven states and Sikkim and how the boundaries fuse together, food like people travels seamlessly. But the culinary culture has remained intact, and that is fascinating.
Take, for instance, the food culture of Meghalaya, a state known to produce the best ginger in the country. Blessed with squash, wild ferns and a variety of chillies, the food is mostly flavoured with these three ingredients with the addition of bamboo shoot, which serves the same purpose akhuni (fermented beans) does in Naga cooking. Another aspect of Meghalaya cuisine is the use of pork, which is had smoked, cured, pickled and fresh. In fact, the signature rice dish, jadoh, which is also a ritualistic dish, is still made with pork blood and local sticky rice, and is served with a generous helping of pork on top.
The use of local produce in the cooking stems from the age-old tradition of having a kitchen garden in the vicinity of the house. A custom that began when headhunting tribes took to settling down and domesticating animals, a kitchen garden back then would determine what would be cooked for dinner in the community kitchen, and also the food that needed to be pickled/cured and stored before winter set in. Meghalaya, like the other states of the Northeast, had little growing during the winters except for wild edibles like squash, yam, fern and mushroom, and preserving food was therefore a necessity. Things haven’t changed much since then. People still cure their meats and pickle their vegetables for a rainy day and, of course, also because they like their food that way. Now, the concern isn’t winter but the lack of good quality produce, which is essential for good food, especially when the primary source of flavouring is animal fat.
It is the same in Nagaland, where womenfolk smoke meat through the summers so there is enough meat (read: pork, beef and pigeon) to eat during the rainy season when meat and fish contamination is at an all-time high. This perhaps explains why the insect meal was designed as a pre-winter meal. Aside from the fact that insects are protein rich and work as immunity builders during the seasonal change, winter is also usually the non-agricultural season in the Northeast when fields are left to regenerate for the season. It is also the hibernating season for most insects, a time when they can be foraged with little effort. Like the riverbed beetle from Arunachal Pradesh. A tribal delicacy, the only time one can catch these quick-footed beetles, said Jimsi Tassar, an assistant professor at Arunachal Law Academy who was a part of the Taste Theatre on Insects, “is while they are hibernating underneath the stones along the riverside.” They are, added Tassar, boiled in water before being cooked with onion, garlic, chillies and tomatoes and served on rice. To an innocent palate, it will quite likely taste like a nice shrimp dish, much like the kolambi masa of Maharashtra.
But insects are not the only things that make Northeastern food indigenous. It is also the understanding of wild edibles like flowers, sweet potatoes, tapioca, blueberries and spinach. Like the blueberry juice that is served to visitors in most villages, a mix of fermented and fresh juice with locally procured honey adding sweetness to this extremely sour drink. The thing about cooking with wild edibles is that they are intense on flavours, readily available grow in abundance, but need the understanding of which one is not poisonous, said Sean Sherman (‘The Sioux Chef’), who has been working with wild edibles for almost five years now and had prepared a delicious gourmet dish made of Anishinaabeg wild rice with blueberries and maple glaze to promote wild edibles in the Taste Theatre. For the tribes of the Northeast, wild edibles like the squash that grows almost like a weed everywhere, are part of their daily meal. It is commonplace to serve pithika (mashed vegetable) alongside rice for an afternoon meal. In villages like Nongtraw, the garden, a Slow Food initiative, located in the centre of the village is often a place that educates the new generation about these wild plants. The thing about tasting a dish made of produce grown using traditional methods is that it rarely needs those extra lashings of cream and fat, which are often used to mask or infuse taste in a dish. The food in the Northeast needs little by way of spices and flavourings. In fact, Nagaland honey, which the Nagaland Beekeeping and Honey Mission presented at one of the Taste Theatres, was an eye-opening lesson in how different naturally extracted honey tastes from the commercial version, which is diluted and relies on a generous amount of sugar.
While the many Taste Theatres gave an insight into the difference that eco-friendly produce can make to food, and why chefs are required to lend momentum to this drive by creating gourmet dishes that will appeal to a larger audience (there is an Indian Slow Food Chef Association with the likes of Manjit Gill and Sabysachi Gorai, who already promote local produce in their respective restaurants, spearheading the cause), it wasn’t until the Food Festival at the Sacred Grove at Mawphlang, also the event’s closing ceremony, that one could understand the essence of the Indigenous Terra Madre (ITM). Standing in front of some 70-odd stalls, all selling tribal food prepared and served in earthen pots, with an ITM kitchen run by the top chef of the country, one could finally realise what Slow food was all about, and why it had to be Shillong.
Slow food isn’t just an idea; for India it is the revival of traditional techniques that will ensure there is food—good food—for generations to come. Not only good produce but also food that is nutritious and can sustain life, much like how Ayurveda dictated our thalis to have foods that complement each other in taste and wellness.
Walking the mile-long food street, I discovered the real indigenous foods of the Northeast: a curious mix of fermentation, curing and slow cooking of food in its own juices that was tasty, nourishing and way better than commercially produced ‘junk food’. Like the wungwut ngam, a chicken dish with a gravy thickened with rice powder instead of commercially produced cornflour. The clever use of wild elephant apples and sour spinach gives the sourness to the iconic masor tenga, and the slow cooking of garlic, ginger, chillies, makat, pee chim khim, phoi hom (indigenous scented spice leaves) led to the making of pasa, a warrior soup. Or wak gominda, a Garo autumn stew made of pork and wild squash with ginger and chillies. In fact, the pakora thongba, a delicate Manipuri version of the popular North Indian curry was almost a wake-up call on how a good curry needs less spice and better produce.
In that instant I realised what was at the heart of ITM 2015. Slow food is about conserving traditional practices that will give the Earth a chance to regenerate, so that it can sustain the next generation. And if there is one region that can truly lead by example—one you can see, smell and taste, it has to be the Northeast, and Shillong in particular, which over time has become the hub of close to 65 tribes and their culinary culture. Or, as Petrini said in the end, “you can start saving a culture, when the culture still walks the street. In Shillong, it does and happily so.”