Column | Forest foods and its people

As a chef dedicated to unearthing the roots of our culinary heritage, my journey across India in the past decade has been humbling. The most cherished lessons have come not from bustling markets or home kitchens, but from interactions with various Adivasi communities and understanding their unique relationship with the land. From broiling wild crab on an open fire with the Angami tribe in Nagaland to tasting fermented fish chutney with the Mishing tribe in Majuli, each encounter has been a revelation.

These experiences also went beyond the discovery of ingredients. I was learning to substitute salt with banana stem ash from the Apatani tribes in Arunachal Pradesh, or discovering the use of queen sago flour and shatavari among Kerala’s Kadar and Malayar tribes. They revealed the deep connection these communities have with their environment, something that’s often overlooked in mainstream culinary narratives.

Chef Thomas Zacharias learning how to prepare mahua fruit in a home in Palghar

Chef Thomas Zacharias learning how to prepare mahua fruit in a home in Palghar

Tapping wild knowledge

This connection to nature and traditional knowledge was echoed during my visit to the archives of the Sarmaya Arts Foundation. Amidst the pages of rare 19th-century books, I encountered botanical artwork that illustrated a different aspect of India’s natural heritage. The British fascination, as captured in works such as Robert Wight’s Indian Botany and Flowers of the Bombay Presidency, melded curiosity with conquest, meticulously documenting the country’s rich flora.

Yet, most of them overlooked the critical contributions of Indian illustrators. They were uncredited, except in rare cases such as Nathaniel Wallich’s Plantae Asiaticae Rariores, an 1830 compendium of plants from eastern India that credits three local artists: Vishnupersaud, Gorachand and Rungaiah. This discovery resonated with me. As a chef, I have always valued the unseen hands behind our food — the farmers, foragers, and artisans. And seeing these artists acknowledged reminded me of the countless unnamed contributors in our culinary world.

Mango, Flowers of the Bombay Presidency, 1884, Mary Elizabeth Butt and William Butt, Hardcover Folio with 202 watercolour paintings

Mango, Flowers of the Bombay Presidency, 1884, Mary Elizabeth Butt and William Butt, Hardcover Folio with 202 watercolour paintings
| Photo Credit:
Sarmaya Arts Foundation

The modern fascination with ‘wild foods’ among chefs and food enthusiasts mirrors this colonial botanical quest in some ways. The current trend, for instance, often lacks depth as it doesn’t acknowledge the cultural and traditional knowledge associated with these ingredients. Tribal communities are relegated to the shadows.

During the monsoon of 2022, my platform The Locavore, which champions local food movements, along with OOO Farms and a team of 16 volunteers embarked on the Wild Food Project in Palghar, Maharashtra, to document the culinary wisdom of the Kokni tribe. The Wild Food Zine, published in late 2022, highlighted over 24 different wild ingredients offering a glimpse into the tribe’s traditional knowledge and culinary practices. Inspired by this project, we are now planning another zine to further explore these rich food cultures.

The Locavore’s Wild Food Zine

The Locavore’s Wild Food Zine
| Photo Credit:
Thomas Zacharias

At Sarmaya, each meticulously crafted British-era botanical illustration serves as a bridge across centuries. Their precision and artistry bring to life an era where exploration was entangled with exploitation, yet they now stand as invaluable assets in the preservation of our botanical treasures. The art, along with the rich tapestry of oral culture and folklore, forms a crucial link in documenting the diversity of Indian food cultures.

Lal Mirchee (Red Chilli), Flowers of the Bombay Presidency, 1884, Mary Elizabeth Butt and William Butt, Hardcover Folio with 202 watercolour paintings

Lal Mirchee (Red Chilli), Flowers of the Bombay Presidency, 1884, Mary Elizabeth Butt and William Butt, Hardcover Folio with 202 watercolour paintings
| Photo Credit:
Sarmaya Arts Foundation

Drumstick or Moringa, Illustrations of Indian Botany, 1840, Robert Wight

Drumstick or Moringa, Illustrations of Indian Botany, 1840, Robert Wight
| Photo Credit:
Sarmaya Arts Foundation

Empowering the community

Working with forest communities has been eye-opening. They have co-evolved with the flora in their landscapes and possess extensive knowledge: on which plants are edible or medicinal, and how to detoxify them for consumption. Our appreciation and awareness of diverse wild foods can help empower these communities and ensure the conservation of wild plants. But it requires prioritising their well-being.

Through my travels, I’ve seen how external influences can lead to the overharvesting of resources, like wild honey in the Himalayan belt and wild mushrooms in Goa. In these regions, the communities’ voices and concerns are often overshadowed by external commercial interests. This imbalance has led to a worrying trend where the sustainable practices are ignored in favour of more lucrative harvesting methods.

Yet, it is within these same communities that sustainable harvesting continues to thrive. This situation highlights a crucial point: that the insights and solutions we need today are often hidden in plain sight, deeply embedded within indigenous food cultures. As culinary professionals, we must create narratives that go beyond the ingredient and tell the stories of the Angami, the Mishing, the Apatani, and the countless other Indian tribes. Our duty extends beyond mere creation.

The writer and chef is founder of The Locavore.

The third in a series of columns by sarmaya.in, a digital archive of India’s diverse histories and artistic traditions.

Crime Today News | Lifestyle & Fashion

Source | Powered by Yes Mom Hosting

Crime Today News

Welcome to Crime Today News, your trusted source for timely and unbiased news coverage. Since our inception in 2014, we have been dedicated to delivering the latest updates to our valued readers and viewers across Telangana.

Related Posts