The vanishing flavours of the Earth – Deccan Herald
In recent centuries, the impact of human activities on the biosphere has been significant enough to constitute the ‘Anthropocene’, an epoch of our own making, with far-reaching consequences. From rising sea levels to an impending mass extinction of species, the impacts are being felt and assessed at a global level. In the midst of all these, our diverse food plates also have begun to shrink and become more homogenised. The uniqueness of our diverse foods and their societal reflections has started to lose significance. At present, with aggressive marketing by food companies and with smartphone apps, social media channels are abuzz with cooking shows and advertisements for food products. Even remote villages have access to fast-foods through app-based delivery.
The degradation of natural ecosystems, forests and grasslands, impoverishment of biodiversity, and the increasing incidence of climate catastrophes significantly challenge human health and the food and nutritional security of indigenous communities, such as in the Nilgiris. The access to food is extremely compromised, primarily due to their low incomes and rising costs of living. It is therefore of serious concern to note that in this process, the indigenous communities who had secure access to wild foods and productive livelihoods were affected and altered. Since the 1950s, with the beginning of the industrialisation of agriculture, the scope for alternative foods, especially foods coming from the forest, has reduced drastically. This has led to an overdependence on certain food items such as polished white rice, the choice of which may be dictated by the lower costs of sourcing them and not necessarily their nutritive value.
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The Nilgiris is home to six indigenous communities and tribes. For long, these tribes depended heavily on forest produce for food. During the rainy season, they used to eat tubers, leafy greens, moss like plants, various varieties of mushrooms, minor fruits like kokka pazham, njaval pazham, wild bananas, custard apple, etc. Some tribes used to hunt and consume wild rabbits, rats, squirrels, pigs, boars, etc. Yams and tuber crops took care of the carbohydrates needed in their diet; the diverse leaves and fruits supplied the vitamins and iron; and meat and fish catered to their fat, calcium and protein needs.
The first edition of the Nilgiris Wild Food festival recently gave an idea of the local foods of the indigenous communities, brought the forgotten foods back on the plate, and reminded us of the need to protect forests in their true form, promoting ecological conservation and keeping the connection with the earth alive.
At the Community Centre of the Irula tribes at Banglapadugai, the community leader Kannan emphasised its efforts in bringing back what they are losing — from local crafts to local foods. Their centre had an envious display of different musical instruments and baskets made from bamboo and cane.
The Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyinar Producer Company Limited, Bangalapadugai, incubated by the Keystone Foundation, had a collection of products such as coffee, silk cotton, millets, honey, amla, shikakai, soap-nuts and berries from their farms and protected forests within the buffer zones to sustain their livelihoods.
The Irulas of Aadhimalai treated us to a delightful lunch cooked with local ingredients like millets (samai, thinai, ragi), country chicken, jackfruit, local beans, bananas, locally grown spices, pepper and kantari chillies. It captured the essence of mother earth, of living off the land and celebrating fresh, natural and joyous tastes, where the wild vegetables came foraged from the forests, cereals and spices came from the previous summer, and meat from the countryside.
The display of uncultivated food samples at Keystone Foundation, Kotagiri, included uncultivated greens like mullu sunde, gulkai, paravarad sunde, sogade beru, nela sunde, muste soppu, tuber species, samples of local dishes like dhal with thalu (greens), chutneys and pickles. Along with the lunch of wild ragi, beans, wild greens and crabs, millets made into sweet and spicy savouries were yet another set of delicacies.
A member of the Badaga community offered an exquisitely curated full course meal at Riverside Dreamscapes in Aravenu. Millets like ragi and saamai used to be a staple in Badaga homes before rice and breads took over. The menu included ragi dishes called ergihittu, baccanai mottai methaisoppu, cowpeas and jackfruit, batha rice, bithukudi (bamboo shoots), dried pork meat cooked with eggs, hatchikai (bathiki with coconut and milk) and bella ganji (bathiki with jaggery).
Chefs Abhijit and Arup Kakati collaborated and offered a fusion of local, seasonal ingredients for a meal prepared in European style at the festival. The menu included wild mushrooms, povikeerai, sweet potato, bamboo shoots, country chicken, tender jackfruit, wild avocados, local beans, finger millet, and wild bananas.
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Festivals like these remind us of the role that forest food plays in the culture and identity of communities. Due to deforestation, forest degradation, displacement and the intense climatic variations, the availability of wild foods are threatened. The cultural richness is being eroded and many local foods that played a major role in health and nutrition are becoming rare.
These festivals need to bring the voices of the communities to the forefront, discuss some of the policy gaps in the present system, enhance attention to the issues of the communities, and explore their food systems more. In this era of climate change, it is important that we find time for conversations on wild and uncultivated foods and to emphasise the importance of the sustainable food systems of these threatened communities.
There is a lot for us to learn from the ways of living of these communities, which is a true response to the land and its tempestuous nature. This adaptability is something which our urban lifestyles have made alien to us. There is no better time than now for us to pause, reflect and learn from the people for whom the sky and the earth form the shelter and the animals and plants their companions. As they say in the aboriginal land rights movements, “There always was and always will be”!
(The writer is the Editor, Agriculture World magazine)