When their husbands decided to forgo their dangerous life as poachers, women living in villages around Manas National Park of Assam had to soup up their traditional culinary skills to earn for their families.
The journey of these women from the indigenous Bodo community has become an example today for others. Their decision to take up the job of keeping the family pot boiling after their husbands were brought back into the mainstream is now being showcased as a model by other community members. These women in and around Basbari range used their traditional culinary skills by offering Bodo dishes to tourists coming to the famed Manas National Park, known for one-horned rhino and Royal Bengal Tiger, but the endeavour initially floundered due to absence of entrepreneurial skills.
Mitali G Dutta, a culinary entrepreneur, came to know about their attempts and came forward to help these poor women in association with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) by skilling them and helping them market their dishes. "I was already working with the WWF in a similar project at Kaziranga National Park when they approached me for Manas. I started working with them in 2017 and began with giving tips on how to present a dish in front of a customer," says Dutta.
The Bodo women know their dishes best and no training is given to cook the items, but lessons are imparted on how much should be served, how the plates should be arranged and most importantly on the pricing to make it a sustainable business model, she added. "The Forest Department helped us by providing us space at the Bansbari Anti-Poaching Camp. There different villagers come and set up small food stalls. Initially in 2018-19, the model failed as there was no financial support and lack of business aptitude among the women," Dutta said.
She said that the women are members of two self-help groups, namely Swankar Mithinga Onsai Afat (SMOA) and Somaina, working in the area of rural culinary tourism. Somaina also organises traditional Bodo dances for visitors. The women from the two groups came together in 2018 and formed 'Gungzema Kitchen' -- an enterprise to showcase traditional and authentic Bodo food and cultural performances -- during the Manas Spring Festival few years ago.
While the Gungzema Kitchen team worked on bettering their skills, Dutta took care of their online promotion to the outer world with the help of her own established brand 'FoodSutra by Mitali'. Dutta said, "Without proper market linkages and effective promotion, this enterprise will hardly catch the attention of travellers. I try to make the best use of social media to ensure Gungzema Kitchen does not go unnoticed."
Santina Basumatary, a member of Gungzema Kitchen, appreciates Dutta's efforts to teach them both hard and soft skills. "We never had any idea about running an enterprise like this. We only knew about household works. But Mitali Baideo (sister) has taught us to better our skills and work hard to be consistent and professional," she added. Bhadri, one of the beneficiaries and staff of Gungzema Kitchen, told PTI that earlier survival in itself was a concern for them, but now all of them are earning and are self-dependent.
A traditional Bodo platter served by Gungzema Kitchen contains about 7-8 items and is priced at ₹500. Customers have often appreciated and acknowledged the culinary skills of the locals and valued their efforts to upscale their household skills into a growing business venture. Another member, Sharmila said, "When tourists sample our food, they usually tell us of how they relished our platter. It encourages us and makes us happy!" Dutta said that the 2020-21 tourist season was very successful and travelers enjoyed their traditional Bodo cooking.
The off-seasons are utilized by the women to farm grains, vegetables and tend to poultry. Most families have their own kitchen gardens. Some households are also engaged in weaving and sell their products. She said, "We have also kept a customised Bodo village experience for those tourist who want to have a feel of the traditional way of Bodo life." "In that itinerary, a tourist is taken to a nearby Bodo village. Then food is served in a Bodo house in a traditional way."
She stated that the tourist season for 2021-22 has begun from October and this time around 100 women from several villages have joined the endeavour to serve some exotic Bodo dishes to food enthusiasts coming to visit the Manas National Park, located in the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR). "We are strictly against taking our food to the resorts although many of them have approached us. Serving traditional food on high-end plates in a dining room is not the way these dishes should be experienced. We want to give the feel of living and eating of these tribal people in the most authentic way," Dutta said.
Explaining the entire association with the WWF, she said that the WWF India has been taking steps to conserve wildlife and ecosystem in the Manas landscape since 2004 and they understood that to eradicate hampering acts by the locals like poaching, the community has to be offered an alternative source of livelihood. "I was approached by WWF India to train and equip the womenfolk in hospitality. My pursuit was to teach them to prepare food hygienically, maintain the authenticity of the dishes while tweaking them mildly to suit global taste-buds and lay the dishes presentably," she added.
Deba Kumar Dutta from WWF India spoke about the visibly noticeable personality development that has occurred in villagers due to this exercise to make them self-sustaining. "They are all working hard and are motivated! There is a sense of empowerment within the groups now and this has worked constructively for the preservation of Manas' biodiversity," he added.