Traditional cuisines of India’s tribes are nutritious and balanced, and can be developed to reduce growing pressures on the environment. Sangeeta Khanna delves deeper into the nuances of these food heritage.
The menu of the day was dal, rice and tungrymbai. While the first two, staples at almost all Indian homes, were familiar, it was the third that roused my curiosity. I was on the outskirts of Shillong, Meghalaya’s picture-perfect capital, and had stopped for lunch at a Kong shop or local food joint. The lady manning the stall heaped sticky rice on a clean plate, along with a little dal and two ladles of a dark and thick curry. “That’s tungrymbai. It’s very tasty,” advised my girl guide. A paste of fermented soybean, slow-cooked with sesame seeds, pork and tungtap or dried fish chutney, tungrymbai is common in homes of Khasi tribe members in the state. The dish has a strong aroma, but the flavour stays with you long after the meal is over. A local delicacy, this dish is nutritious and easy to prepare. These two features are common among most traditional food items favoured by tribal communities in India.
India is home to several tribal communities, with each one boasting a cultural heritage that includes a rich repertoire of flavours, which reflect a fine distillation of the community’s geography, climate, history, religion and folklore. Natural and nutritious, cultivated and uncultivated forest food is what these tribes have been dependent on since ages. Cooked with very few spices and mostly had raw, semi-cooked, roasted or fermented – these tribal dishes preserve the flavours of the ingredients. “Simplicity of ingredients and cooking methods are the mainstays of tribal cuisine. Traditionally, tribal communities have lived around forests and rivers, and sourced their food from around them. The dishes, thus prepared, are not only nutritious but also balanced and have evolved according to the local climate,” says nutritionist Kavita Devgan.
In Northeast India for example, rice, which is cultivated in abundance, is a staple, with many variations – steamed, cooked like a stew or in bamboo tubes (the process being called kholam). The most popular, however, is the wild sticky rice. In Meghalaya, a popular rice dish is jadoh, made with pig liver. In Assam, the onla wangkhrai, a rice powder and chicken stew, is common in Bodo homes. In Arunachal Pradesh, dung po or steamed rice cake is very common.
As these communities were mostly hunters living near forests with abundance of wild animals, meat is an integral part of their cuisine, with stress on pork. The meat is often fermented or smoked to preserve it over several days between hunting sessions. However, Northeastern cuisines are heavy in vegetable dishes as well, with fermentation being a predominant cooking method. Sinki, a fermented dish made of radish, is very common in Sikkim. In Meghalaya, the Garo tribe members love their vegetables, with yam and fresh greens used in large quantities. Fish too is very popular in this region, with fresh water catch being barbecued in banana leaves in several states. Dishes made with fish intestines and dried fish pickles are relished as well.
In northern India’s hilly regions, lentils and wheat are common in traditional rural cuisine. For the Jaunsari community (a tribe of Uttarakhand), koproti (millet roti) with fresh dahi and pahadi namak (salt) is a complete meal, accompanied with mountain lemons called galgal. These meals are served in plates made of dried leaves pinned together with sticks or kansa thali (bell metal plate) and best enjoyed sitting on a wooden floor. If you are traveling anywhere in Himachal Pradesh and come across an outdoor feast, feel free to join the diners relishing the eclectic dhaam (a festive or wedding feast cooked by the local community called bothi). The menu will be the same in each of these — teliya maah (black lentil curry), chane ka madra (chickpea curry), maahni (sweet and sour split black gram curry) and mittha (sweetened rice garnished with nuts). There are variations of the Himachali dhaam among communities but what remains a constant is the religious reverence for the earth and sacredness of the local produce.
In fact, all the tribes across the country consider their food to be sacred – a true reflection of the tribal culture that has protected their sacred groves and nurtured forests even though they procured all their livelihood from there. The perfect balance of reaping the land and resources and yet nurturing it religiously is something that is reflected in tribal and rural cuisines.
States like Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh too have interesting tribal cuisines. The local paniya roti that is made with cornmeal, patted on the local butea leaf and baked in an open pit-style oven, makes a hearty combination with wild fowl curry and red ants chutney. Another such combination is bafle — whole wheat dumplings that are first steamed and then baked to achieve a unique texture, along with a dal made with various lentils and ghee. The dal and bafle combination has become popular in urban homes too.
One of the most prolific produce of forests all across central India is mahua (or Indian butter tree). The flowers of the tree when fermented produce an alcoholic drink. Its fruit is highly nutritious. The raisin-like sun-dried mahua flower is used as a sweetening agent in desserts and snacks like kheer and meethi roti or mahue ki pakodi (fried fritters). In Madhya Pradesh’s tribal areas, a porridge-like dish is made with mahua along with either soaked gram or wheat.
A variety of mushrooms are also used in tribal cuisines. The katarua mushrooms are extremely flavourful. Also known as Indian trufles, these mushrooms are used for a curry known as katarua ki subzi in the Himalayan terai regions. It is as meaty as the rugda mushrooms of Jharkhand that is harvested after monsoons.
Gond or Gondwanas, the largest surviving tribe in India, are traditionally forest dwellers and live in complete harmony with nature. This is echoed in their food habits that consist of varieties of grains and pulses, and their unique cooking methods also reflect this balance. Gond diet has two staple millets – askodo and kutki. Packed with proteins, they are often cooked like a broth or served like dry cereal with vegetables. The madia tribe of Maharashtra forage for moth larvae and roast them along with basic seasoning wrapped in wild leaves. This becomes a snack or a meal with rice or even millet porridge.
With rapid urbanisation and constant population migration, chefs are realising the relevance of these balanced traditional cuisines. As these cuisines depend on local produce, pressure on the agricultural sector can be reduced. Also as stress is on using every part of a food produce, there is very little wastage. A reason why tribal cuisines are being talked about today and promoted at food festivals acrpss the country. Chefs are trying to preserve these tribal cuisines and modify them for urban platters.
The tribal affair
Indian subcontinent is inhabited by over 53 million tribes belonging to over 550 different communities under 227 ethnic groups, who reside in about 5,000 villages in different forest vegetation types.
Indian tribes utilise over 9,500 wild plants for various purposes including medicinal, fodder, fiber, fuel, edible, essence, cultural and other purposes. Out of this number nearly 3,900 wild plants are used as edibles.
Wild Food Festivals
BAIF Food Festivals, Maharashtra (July-September)
Bihar food festival, Patna (December)
Unying Giidi at Boleng, Arunachal Pradesh (February)
Reh Festival of the Idu Mishmi tribe at Roing, Arunachal Pradesh (February)
Nyokum festival of the Nyishi tribe at Yazali and Seppa, Arunachal Pradesh (February)
Slow Foods Festival at Kotagiri (Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve), Tamil Nadu (December)