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Farm to school

  • Informal 'culinary education centres' are being set up by chefs, home cooks and development professionals
  • The idea is to generate awareness about hyperlocal ingredients and indigenous cooking practices, and also to create a new generation of food entrepreneurs

A meal at Ajam Emba
A meal at Ajam Emba

In a small room, decorated with vibrant murals, on Kanke road, Ranchi, rural development professional Aruna Tirkey is in the midst of a cooking demonstration. She is teaching a group of women from rural Jharkhand how to make dhuska, or crisp dumplings made of rice, black lentils and gram flour, the getu fish curry, khapra roti, and the seasonal ghungi tien, a local snail curry. At Ajam Emba, a slow-food eatery and training centre, Tirkey regularly offers such masterclasses focused on the indigenous recipes and produce of Jharkhand for tourists, locals from Ranchi, indigenous entrepreneurs and organic farmers.

More than 1,000km away, in Dimapur, chef Joel Basumatari is taking a similar session based on the traditional culinary wisdom of Nagaland, about the art of making axone or fermented soya bean, and ways of using edible ferns.

Such informal “education centres" are being set up by chefs, home cooks and development professionals to create awareness about hyperlocal ingredients and sustainable cooking practices among both the locals and tourists. The focus is on foraged wild edible plants and ingredients that play a crucial role in food security. These “training centres" offer intimate cooking sessions and tasting opportunities. The staff is always on the move, going from village to village and across cities, cross-pollinating traditional wisdom.

“The vision is manifold: to instil a sense of pride in cooks from the various tribes about their food, to mainstream unknown Adivasi cuisine, and create awareness about the wonderful medicinal values of indigenous ingredients," says Tirkey, who founded Ajam Emba, which means tasty food in Jharkhand’s Kurukh language, in 2016. They hope to increase the uptake of such ingredients in the hinterland, where consumption of these is declining. She now has 15 members in her core team, 10 of them women from the tribal and urban belts. “The objective of the masterclass is to create a new generation of food entrepreneurs who can sustain their own initiatives," she says.

Basumatari, who has worked at hotels such as the Crowne Plaza, London Heathrow, founded Slow Food Nagaland for biodiversity and heritage preservation in September 2018. “For instance, the art of making axone from scratch is dying out in Nagaland. So we started visiting villages such as Tukuliqa and Ghathashi to document such techniques and formulated cooking sessions around these," he says.

A model kitchen garden has been created in Ghathashi, 5 hours from Dimapur, where produce such as perilla, roselle, ferns and black beans is grown. There are sessions on using the stink bug and a local millet, Job’s Tears. “We have a kind of red rice which is not eaten but drunk as a rice tea," says Basumatari.

Learning to whip up a traditional feast at Slow Food Nagaland
Learning to whip up a traditional feast at Slow Food Nagaland

The team is now doing sessions on edible insects and river crabs. There are plans to start culinary tours, foraging and forest walks, traditional folklore sessions with village elders, and more, next year. “Tourists and those interested in learning indigenous cuisine of various tribes can also attend the cooking demonstrations during the earth market. One is coming up in September," Basumatari says. Around the time Basumatari was laying the groundwork for Slow Food Nagaland, the Northeast Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society, or Nesfas, set up the Cooks’ Alliance, in 2017. “We realized that a lot of food groups were missing from people’s diets, such as pulses, green leafy vegetables and vitamin A-rich fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds," says Bhogtoram Mawroh, senior associate, Nesfas, which works in 130 villages of Nagaland and Meghalaya.

The team, which has done research on agrobiodiversity in 32 villages, found that nutritional diversity is very low, especially in children. “So, we started doing cooking demonstrations and classes with the community on how to use greens such as jamyrdoh, jatira, jajew, janem, jali, jamahek, jalyniar, jarain in everyday dishes such as omelettes, soups and dals," he says.

Youth and village elders are taken on forest walks to find wild greens, nuts and seeds. “Look at whatever is growing in your garden on its own. There is no investment or effort involved in it," says Mawroh. So far, the Nesfas team has done cooking demonstrations in 30 villages—once a week in one village. The sessions see keen participation from cooks at Anganwadi centres and local eatery owners who hope to convert their enterprise into a Mei Ramew (Mother Earth) café, a chain started by Nesfas to highlight crops and techniques that are fast disappearing.

Carpenter worms and indigenous rock salt
Carpenter worms and indigenous rock salt

“We also do exchange programmes. So, we had three chefs from Thailand who did classes with mothers and youth from different communities," says Mawroh. At Ajam Emba too, nutrition is a major focus. Tirkey talks about ingredients like gondli, a kind of wild rice and gluten-free option that is made as a kheer or halwa. “According to an ethnobotany study, Jharkhand is home to 900 seasonal green leafy vegetables. I gather 20-25 of these at Ajam Emba. We teach how to make a soup with brahmi or chakod, sarla (Vangueria spinosa) and pechki (Colocasia esculenta) saag. Chakod (Cassia tora) is very good for cancer and TB (tuberculosis) patients and is rich in iron and calcium," she says.

The appeal of such “centres" lies in their niche themes and subjects. For instance, Abida Rasheed, also known as the “queen of Moplah cuisine", or that of the Kerala’s Malabari Muslim community, focuses not just on the techniques but also on the stories behind the rich culinary tradition, and the ways in which indigenous produce came together with Arab influences. At her home in Kozhikode, she does two kinds of sessions: a more rigorous one for hospitality professionals and a more experiential one for tourists.

To her, these sessions are about creating a chain of knowledge. As Tirkey puts it, the purpose ultimately is to “aid indigenous food revival as a means to strengthen culture and identity, create women entrepreneurs, and improve livelihood for those practising traditional farming and for forest produce collectors."

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