In the 1920s, the chief commissioner of the Andaman Islands, Lt Col M.L. Ferrar, wrote to his cousin Rev. Harry Ignatius Marshall, head of the American Baptist Mission in Burma (now Myanmar), about the need for a “self-contained group of people to settle in the islands as labourers and cultivators”. Soon a clutch of families—from the Karen ethnic community—was heading to the Andamans, ready to make the thick forested areas of the archipelago’s middle island home. They took with them five-six rice varieties, including chowchiminai.
Saw John Aung Thong’s family was part of this group. Today John, 49, who was born in the Andamans, and his wife, Doris, run a home-stay, Koh Hee, in Mayabunder tehsil. They showcase these varieties on their menu, with dishes such as moloyebau, or boiled rice balls soaked in sugar water, and meiseepaw, rice cooked in bamboo. He is also supporting a Karen cooperative society in a bid to keep alive the community’s food, arts and culture. The initiatives include a restaurant.
The Andaman and Nicobar islands, where the indigenous tribes remain reclusive, have seen waves of settlers from the mainland and parts of South-East Asia: Labourers from the Indian mainland, ferried there by the British to build the Cellular Jail, preceded the Karen, and refugees from what would become Bangladesh were given shelter on Havelock, one of the islands, in 1971.
The cuisine, quite naturally, reflects these myriad flavours, with recipes passed down through generations and ingredients tweaked to adjust to what is available locally. Today, a handful of restaurants and home-stays are going beyond the usual Oriental-Continental fare to create a map of local flavours for travellers, adjusting to the safety requirements mandated by the pandemic.
Varun Sankaran Kutty and Kirti Kalyandurgmath of the boutique hotel Jalakara, on Havelock island, have even created a sensitive dining experience for guests in collaboration with one of the families living in the interiors of a forest. They got to know them through one of their cooks, who used to visit this family, the Mridhas. “They were very warm and had not been exposed to tourism much. The house had a wooden and tin roof, one could find charpoys around with suparis (betel nut) drying on them, chicken being cooked on a wood fire and chutneys made out of locally grown chillies. I thought of sharing this with my guests but in a way that was not touristy or disrespectful to the family,” says Kutty. So, small groups are taken from Jalakara to the forest for this experience.
The Taj Exotica Andamans, too, showcases indigenous produce and flavours. Customised meals have replaced the typical city-style buffet format. The local cuisine at The Settlers restaurant is a tribute to the communities from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and West Bengal that have made the islands their home. “We travelled to different parts of the islands, such as Mayabunder and Diglipur, to understand how cooking evolved in the islands. These insights have informed the six-course menu at the restaurant,” says Brij Bhushan Rajpali, the hotel’s general manager.
There is, of course, seafood on the menu. There are dishes of raw banana, which is found in abundance on the islands. The two-acre farm on the property, managed by two locals of Bengali origin, grows indigenous ingredients such as vine spinach, a type of chilli typical to the Andamans that rates quite high on the Scoville measure, fragrant wild coriander and wild curry leaves.
Kutty is one of the first to have started working with home cooks—women whose husbands work as labourers—to create a thali of authentic cuisine for the staff of 16 at Jalakara. “We have also put this up on our hotel menu.”
The women, initially hesitant, use ingredients such as the banraj, a tough country chicken, which is immensely flavourful and is made into a spicy dish. “Most guests enjoy it. And this helps motivate our home cooks. Guests also take cooking classes from them,” adds Kutty.
The local cuisine is ever-evolving. Earlier, when it used to be difficult to get ingredients from the mainland, communities learnt to adapt to local ingredients, incorporating coconut, papaya, the elephant ears plant, nalli leaves and local pineapple in their dishes. “In the Andamans, you will find a huge bhindi that looks like it is on steroids. The one essential cooking item is mustard oil, which is brought in from outside,” says Kutty.
Everyday fare is heavily influenced by Bengali cuisine and the typical breakfast is panta bhat, or fermented rice soaked overnight, with small fish. On a festive occasion, this is paired with aloo bhorta.
The islanders eat three-four meals a day. “People on the island are very laid-back. Lunch consists of rice, veggies, dal with fish head or some curry. Dinner is the most important meal as the entire family eats together. It usually comprises a fish or egg curry, a raw banana preparation, aloo chorchori, or thinly sliced, deep-fried potatoes, cabbage and pumpkin. It is rare for Bengalis to eat coconut-based gravy but one thing they eat is the khatta saar, or tamarind fish curry,” says Kutty.
Fish is an essential ingredient in the cuisine of the Karen community as well. “In the eyes of the other settler communities of the Andamans, the Karen identity is closely associated with food items such as ngapi (fermented paste of dried shrimp or fish)...” explains a chapter, Place, Space, Identity And Transforming Cuisine Among The Karen Of The Andamans, in the 2020 book Food And Power: Expressions Of Food-Politics In South Asia, edited by K. Mukhopadhyay. The chapter has been authored by Shiba Desor, Manish Chandi and John of the Koh Hee home-stay.
The chapter highlights how the Karen in the Andamans developed their own markers of identity. For instance, the me-to-pi, a typical Karen dish in Myanmar that is made by pounding glutinous rice, is not common in the Andamans. On the islands, a typical Karen meal would consist of soup, ngapi, taado (raw, boiled or steamed veggies), fish or meat. “The Karens in Andamans cultivate 14 varieties of rice, 31 types of trees, 42 kitchen vegetables and herbs and 14 medicinal plants. These figures indicate that unlike common perception, the Karens are not only paddy cultivators, but also avid gardeners dependent on kitchen gardens and orchards for many supplementary, medicinal and flavouring additions to their cuisine,” notes the chapter.
For Smita Madhusoodhan, an architect and artist based on Havelock, the ability of Karen families such as John’s to forage medicinal ingredients from the forest and use them in cooking with spices, Burma dhaniya, plant shoots is simply delightful.
“The families here are proud of hosting and cooking for people,” notes Kutty. “They have protected the recipes, passed down from generations of original settlers.” This, he believes, is what will save the unique island cuisines of the Andamans.