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How the Nilgiris Wild Food Festival spotlights forest produce

The four-day event aims to forge a deeper interest in forest foods and start a conversation about preserving their future

Local style foxtail millet chicken biryani. (Photo: Ramya Reddy)
Local style foxtail millet chicken biryani. (Photo: Ramya Reddy)

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There is a ritual among the honey collectors of the Nilgiris. Those who go to collect cliff honey—a life-threatening expedition that involves scaling precarious heights—are accompanied by their brothers-in-law. The companion’s role is to protect the collector and ensure his sister isn’t widowed.

Ramya Reddy shares this story while talking about the Nilgiris Wild Food Festival. She is the director of the non-profit Nilgiris Foundation, which is organising the festival that aims to forge a deeper interest in wild foods, open a dialogue on preserving their future and discuss how climate change is affecting them.

The first edition of the event will take place at Udhagamandalam, from 19-23 December. The focus will be on ingredients procured from the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve (NBR), a protected forest area in the Western Ghats. Honey and millets are the two significant wild foods in this region.

As it happens, the United Nations has declared 2023 the International Year of Millets. Millets are an energy-efficient crop that can be grown with minimal use of resources. The UN is urging countries to rely on locally produced grains and reduce dependence on imported cereals as well as industrial farming.

With increasing awareness on these issues, the festival timing couldn’t have been better. Proof, if any is needed, lies in the direct messages on their Instagram account @NilgirisWildFoodFestival. They received “lots of queries” from chefs and food enthusiasts willing to visit or be participants.

“The NBR is an interesting space to look at because it still has many ancient tribes who practise traditional ways of preparing food,” notes Jenny Pinto, a co-organiser of the festival. She says forest foods are important because forest soils are the healthiest; wild foods make up 40-60% of the diets of forest-dwelling communities.

The four-day event will be an immersive experience in understanding how indigenous communities of the hills forage and cook. There will be a guided forest walk with farmers of the Irula community, followed by a traditional Irula meal, a multi-course tasting menu with specialities of the Badaga tribe, and chef tables with food cooked with wild ingredients.

There will also be panel discussions, with speakers like chef Thomas Zacharias, a proponent of regional dishes, Lathika George, author of several food books, including Mother Earth, Sister Seed, Travels Through India’s Farmlands, and chef Rakesh Raghunathan, who specialises in the sub-regional cuisines of south India.

The significance of the festival is all too evident. The most conspicuous impact of climate change, for instance, is showing up in the low quantities of honey. The Nilgiris get their name from the blue flower Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana), with the bees that draw nectar from these producing kurinji honey. Now, both the flowers and the bees are disappearing.

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