Tastes of the earth

Disarmingly honest, Food Journeys is very different from the gushing food books that come out every second day.

Published : Apr 18, 2024 11:00 IST - 7 MINS READ

A Mishing tribal woman drinks rice beer outside a hut on the banks of the Brahmaputra in Jhanjimukh in Assam.

A Mishing tribal woman drinks rice beer outside a hut on the banks of the Brahmaputra in Jhanjimukh in Assam. | Photo Credit: Anupam Nath/AP

I usually look askance at books on food and cookery, which seem to be the publisher’s favourite genre these days. In my experience, most of these books peg themselves on the lazy nostalgia of privilege (with descriptions of plentiful kitchens presided over by angelic mothers and grandmothers), exoticise everyday dishes as “authentically local”, and, more often than not, present impractical recipes, which are likely to produce disasters if followed to a T.

Food Journeys: Stories from the Heart, a collection of essays on food from the north-eastern region of India, is very different: it is rooted to the earth, from where all the food comes (important, because a future generation might well think of food as originating in the supermarket); it never fights shy of revealing the politics of class, caste, gender that underlies food; and it is as much about food as about its absence, starvation.

Food Journeys: Stories from the Heart
Edited by Joel Rodrigues and Dolly Kikon
Pages: 346
Price: Rs.1,500

Mainland India tends to reduce north-eastern cuisine to a few stereotypical items like momos, dried fish, fermented bamboo shoots, and rice. All these have gathered pejorative connotations, which are brandished mercilessly to racially abuse people from the region. Since our identity is partly shaped by the food we eat, especially at home, one can imagine how hurtful it is to be bullied for the very food that sustains you. This hurt runs like a wound through the collection, making every declaration of love for indigenous north-eastern food by the local people a cry of defiance.

Cover of Food Journeys

Cover of Food Journeys | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Techi Nimi begins her essay, “Civilising the tastebuds”, by saying: “My love and appreciation for homegrown, homecooked, traditional Arunachalee cuisine is rooted in my personal experience of feeling disdain and shame towards it.” She goes on to explain how the boarding school in Assam that she attended as a child would never serve the food she ate at home since tribal cuisine was deemed too unsophisticated for the “civilised” dining table. In this mode of thinking, food is also a marker of class, used to inflict shame on poor tribal students who want to educate themselves in the hope of an economically better life.

Class war

The concept of food as a site of class war comes out most graphically in the filmmaker Tarun Bhartiya’s photo essay, “Tastes from an unruly city: A very Shillong story in photos”. Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, is known for its cosmopolitan street food. While there are scores of gushing YouTube videos on it, what about the hawkers who sell the food? The Meghalaya government makes periodic attempts to evict them, allegedly because they are a municipal menace. The pictures here are from a series of protests held by the vendors between 2016 and 2021: in stark black and white, featuring vendors selling anything from momo, puri-sabjipakora, fish, and fruit juice, to vegetables and areca nuts, these images are affecting and powerful.

A vendor selling lemons at Bara Bazar, Shillong.

A vendor selling lemons at Bara Bazar, Shillong. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

The accompanying essay is from the notes Bhartiya took while photographing the protesters. Dodging police lathis and bulldozers, he writes at one point: “What angers me is that elites of Shillong have made a business out of selling this Indigenous/organic/farm-to-table and all the rest of the NGO-speak to the highest bidder. This old lady [a vendor from Mawphu in the Khasi Hills] does all that without making trips to international conferences. She is no face on a poster or a tourist brochure. This is a face of class warfare, that the local elite is waging on the tribal poor of the state.” When a vendor caught in the crossfire is asked about his place of origin, he replies: “[The] poor have no country”—a telling comment on the “authentically local food of the masses” trend, which is actually rooted in privilege.

Sangeeta Tete’s essay, “Adivasi food trails in Assam”, draws our attention to the meagre, unhealthy diet of plantation workers. So, the “authentic” food of tea plantations—which tourist brochures rave about—is not, say, mulligatawny soup or strawberry with clotted cream. While this might have been the fare of the British owners and later of their Indian counterparts, the tea workers, who help bring such food to the tables of the rich, have mostly toiled on empty stomachs.

Neivikhotso Chaya’s “My journey with rice beer”, one of the most hard-hitting essays here, deromanticises both food and poverty. It begins with Chaya’s surprise at finding rice beer, associated with the cheap and the seedy in his native Nagaland, being served at a fancy Naga restaurant in Bengaluru. He recounts being branded for belonging to a household that sold rice beer, underscoring the fact that there is no honour in being poor. “On the one hand, some households splashed entire buckets of water to clean dust from their cars. On the other, some households didn’t have enough water left to drink after preparing rice beer,” he writes. Honest to the core, Chaya’s essay shows what “authenticity” should be like.

As does the essay by Joel Rodrigues, who is one of the co-editors of this volume. “Classical dishes, taste, and violence” dismantles all rosy notions about food by showing how it can be the cause of violence, terror, misery: “In our household, the celebration of food was also built on exploitation, fear, anxiety and hurt—where failures to meet my father’s standards often resulted in domestic violence.” Like Chaya, Rodrigues does not flinch from recording reality in all its brutality, even if it concerns his own family.

I read the essay in one breath, paralysed by the violence it depicted and enthralled by its moments of freedom and beauty, which are located in the very ingredients and food that occasion the violence. In spite of the abuse she suffers at the hands of her husband for the food she cooks, Rodrigues’ mother preserves her love for cooking and passes it on to her son, Joel. Food heals him, as does the north-eastern region, where he now lives, far away from Mumbai, where he grew up. “My kitchen extends from my mother’s kitchen as I cook Goan dishes from memory, or, sometimes, as I talk with her on the telephone. I don’t seek approval for the Goan dishes I create. I know they are authentic because they are sincere.”

Food bond

It is the sincerity of the essays that makes Food Journeys a special book. All the usual encomia about food—that it restores, unites, empowers—sound just right here because they are corroborated by the practical experience of the writers (the recipes accompanying the essays sound trustworthy for the same reason). When it comes to the unifying quality of food, for instance, several essays point at shared food habits across States, even countries. Culinary habits are often similar in parts of Bangladesh and the north-east, pointing to the shared history of the subcontinent. Dried foul fish, for example, is a regular item in the cuisine of the the tribal groups spread across Haflong in Assam and Sylhet in Bangladesh. It unifies a people separated by political borders.

Also Read | Can an Assamese be a complete vegetarian?

Not all the essays are equally good, of course. The very essay with which the book begins, “Writing my first book on northeast food”, by Hoihnu Hauzel, is arguably the weakest: by what criterion was it placed at the beginning, one wonders.

Also, none of the essays addresses an issue that keeps coming up whenever I discuss food with friends from north-eastern India: the overwhelming presence of meat in indigenous cuisine, harking back to the time when the bulk of tribal food came from hunting. This is often a source of discomfort for the city-bred younger generation who may not approve of the large-scale slaughter of animals like the mithun that is an integral part of tribal celebrations. Besides, in States like Arunachal Pradesh, the government has banned indiscriminate hunting and fishing, which were once a way of life for certain tribes. An essay exploring the implications of this change of attitude would have been interesting.

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