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A feast from the forest in Chhattisgarh

A look at the tribal foods of Chhattisgarh reveals a coming together of the land and its people

Local tomatoes can be the size of berries or plums. Photo: IndiaPicture.
Local tomatoes can be the size of berries or plums. Photo: IndiaPicture.

The familiarity of the unknown sometimes surprises us. Sitting under the sprawling shade of a tamarind tree, the Chhattisgarhi thali in front of me had that effect—a bowl of white steamed rice surrounded by sides of boiled and spiced cauliflower and potato, khatti bhaji (local leafy greens), sabudana poppadum, a bowl of soupy toor dal and large chunks of raw onion. I was at the Gadh Kaleva restaurant in the Mahant Ghasidas Memorial Museum, one of the few places in Raipur that claims to serve local food. And although the thali was delicious, I wondered how much it represented the diversity of the state.

Blessed with natural wealth, Chhattisgarh’s forest produce ranges from medicinal herbs, seeds and fruits to leaves, barks, roots and flowers, and a lot of these find their way into the cuisine of the state. Botanist and anthropologist Madhu Ramnath, in his book Woodsmoke And Leafcups: Autobiographical Footnotes To The Anthropology Of The Durwa, recounts his experience of living with the Adivasis of the Bastar region over several decades. He writes, “Important as agriculture is, it is the range of wild foods that (these) people consume which endows them with their independent disposition. There are over 500 species of plants and animals that the Adivasi procure and judiciously manage." This translates into their cuisine as well. In an essay in Wild Food: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2004, Colleen Taylor Sen writes, “The diet of the tribals (of Bastar) is austere. Staples are a gruel of rice and millet.... This is supplemented by whatever the women can gather in the forest: mangoes, bananas, berries, roots, mushrooms...and tubers including wild tapioca and yams. Protein consumption is restricted."

I was there on a research trip for a book and for a more immersive experience, I asked my guide in Bastar, Awesh Ali, to take me to real homes where I might be able to try authentic local food.

My first stop was at the home of his friends Hari and Shobha Nag, in Irrakhot village in Bastar district. When we arrived, I saw most members of the large joint family sitting under a pair of tamarind trees in their courtyard, shaping clay figurines and setting them out to dry. The Nags belonged to the Gadwa tribe, which is noted for its dokra craft. Alongside these little figurines of men, gods and animals, there were urad dal badis drying in the sun. While Hari, his brothers and sons were shaping the clay, the women were washing the lentils, grinding the millet, and frying the badis for lunch. Shobha oversaw affairs and did most of the prep himself. She was assisted by a motley crew of assistants comprising her sisters-in-law and daughter.

I sat with Shobha while she prepared the famous red-ant chutney, chapra, mixing fresh ginger, garlic and red chillies with crushed ants and their eggs.

Tribal meals are often served in ‘sal’ leaf bowls.

To me, this dish really emphasized the traditional practices of eating and living off the land, for I had witnessed the actual hunt. A group of boys had gone off in search of tall trees, either sal, mango, jackfruit or cashew, where red ants usually build their nests. I was told that the telltale signs to watch out for were leaves plastered together. They were much quicker to spot this formation than me and a sprightly boy darted up one tree and cut out a cluster of these nests. Another boy picked them up and threw them into a cane basket containing tiny stones and shook it vigorously, ensuring that the ants were crushed to death.

I realized that gathering ant nests was not as easy as it looked. Ant hunters often get bitten, but they seem to think it’s small price to pay for the tangy chutney. Ants are high in ascorbic acid and this provides a distinct flavour to the chutney, which is also used as a souring agent in a wide range of dishes.

By now I was quite hungry, and ate my fresh-from-the-stove meal on the kitchen floor. It comprised a starchy rice and millet porridge called mandya paej, a soupy dal made from a local lentil called kandul, another dal with aamat, a local green, and a lentil fritter called bobo with a liberal dash of the red-ant chutney. While this nondescript-looking condiment might not win awards for its appearance, its flavour is so unique, I found myself reaching out for additional helpings. As I thanked Shobha and her family for the fabulous meal, I realized my food adventures in Chhattisgarh had just begun.

A few days later, Ali arranged for another meal. This time our destination was the village of Anjar, home to the Dandami Madia tribe. We drove through forests filled with mahua trees. I saw men and women filling their baskets with the pale yellow mahua flowers. Most homes in this area brew their own mahua liquor through traditional distilling methods.

The home of our hosts, Joga and Budri, was a modest shack under an expansive mahua tree. The kitchen was outdoors and as soon as we arrived, Budri left on an errand. When she returned, she had with her a stack of bright green sal leaves and thinly sliced bamboo reeds. In 10 minutes, she had stitched them into two leaf baskets and filled them with pieces of chicken marinated in turmeric, chilli powder and crushed tomatoes. She sealed the top and placed the basket on the wood fire. As the chicken cooked, Joga passed around little leaf cups called chipdi, filled with mahua liquor. I took a deep swig and the sweet, floral and extremely potent liquor burnt a fiery column down my throat.

Joga now took over from his wife, spreading charcoal evenly over the leaf basket so that the chicken would cook through. Meanwhile, Joga’s friend brought out a mortar and pestle and got busy making the chutney—an essential component of meals in these parts. He crushed tiny tomatoes, chillies, salt and a large handful of dried red ants. Goats tethered on the far side of the kitchen bleated noisily as the two men worked efficiently and Budri stitched together yet another pile of leaf cups to serve the cooked chicken. Poultry is a valued meat in these parts, consumed on special occasions, and I was honoured that they had decided to cook it for me.

Finally, we were ready to eat. The food was simple yet delicious—brown rice, melt-in-the-mouth chicken and the now familiar pungent ant chutney. To round off the meal, we downed some more mahua shots. I was left with a pleasant buzz, and a bellyful of memories.

It seemed only apt that I ended the day with a trip to the market. We made our way to Lohandiguda village, where a canopy of blue tarpaulin protected the vendors and their makeshift shops from the rains and wild winds that had lashed the area for the past few days. I walked around the market, taking in the diverse local produce and identifying the ingredients from the meals I had eaten. There were tiny tomatoes about the size of gooseberries, a mind-boggling variety of indigenous leafy greens, dried red ants, mahua liquor, smoked fish heads, and the tendu fruit that is prized for its medicinal value.

There was a large pile of coarse-skinned green lentils, slightly bigger than mustard seeds, while another stack comprised a mix of black, brown pulses that looked a bit like rajma. I remembered Ramnath’s observations on the difficulty in identifying forest plants. “Adivasis did not bother with truncated seeds and anther and stamen counts before ascertaining the identity of a plant," he wrote, detailing his efforts to work on a vegetative key, together with the tribals, to help better identify the plant families in Bastar. Thanks to his efforts, many of these lentil varieties might have a name today. But since the region remains volatile, there is a dearth of organizations working on preserving and classifying these ingredients. And the growing availability of commercially processed spices and grains might lead to the disappearance of these indigenous varietals.

I realized that this was a world removed from the sanitized supermarkets where I usually shopped. At this little market at Lohandiguda, with rain drumming down on the plastic tarp and the ground squelching under my feet, I saw an age-old sustainable practice where people still largely lived off the land and connected with nature in a way that we city folk rarely can.

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