In the twilight hours of an April evening, my friend Raiphanga and I were travelling by scooter from Nutun Bazar to Bumrachera village under Amarpur subdivision in Gomati district, Tripura. The area is mostly inhabited by tribes like Reangs/Bru, Jamatias, Tripuras, and Chakmas. On the way, we crossed two Chakma villages, some jhum fields, and a few shrines. This was the time of Buishu (Reang new year). Once at Bumrachera, we could hear the roll of drums, and Reang songs set to contemporary dance beats echoed around the mountainous landscape. Raiphanga’s mother was preparing dinner, the mood was celebratory.
She served us barangi (distilled rice liquor) with a plate full of boiled wild fiddlehead ferns and a mushroom curry. I asked, “Mother, from where do you get such tasty ferns and mushrooms?” She could not comprehend my broken Bangla mixed with Hindi, so Raiphanga translated.
“We picked them from the forest yesterday. Did you like them?” she asked while tending to the gas stove. “I loved it,” I said.
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The Reangs or Brus are an indigenous tribal community of Tripura and Mizoram. They grow rice, maize, and vegetables like gourd through jhum cultivation. But much of their food also consists of wild edibles foraged from the forests—mushrooms, a host of greens and herbs, fruits, fish, insects, and different roots and tubers.
Summer and monsoon are the best seasons for foraging as the rain brings out an array of wild edibles. At night I kept thinking of the dinner cooked by Raiphanga’s mother. When having mass-produced, easily available food is the norm, getting fresh, chemical-free food is a luxury, and gathering it is a thing of the past. Well, almost.
Food as socio-cultural bond
I have always been fascinated by food, its source and cooking. As an adult, when I began living away from home, I started cooking my own meals. This fed into my research and microblogging journey centred on indigenous food and knowledge systems and our relationship with food and ecology. Foraging is an intrinsic part of the food and knowledge systems of certain indigenous communities, especially in the northeastern region. It is the act of collecting non-cultivated foods from forests, fields, and rivers, both for consumption and for medicinal or ornamental use. Food items commonly foraged by different communities of north-eastern India include fruits, seeds, roots, mushrooms, flowers, plants, honey, herbs, insects, fish, sometimes wild animals and birds.
Apart from nourishment, food also plays an important social role. It defines our culture, geography, and is central to our sense of identity. Indigenous societies have an intrinsic connection with the local ecology. Continuous interaction with a certain landscape over generations shapes knowledge and food systems.
In most societies in the north-eastern region, non-human entities are seen as kin, leading to a harmonious relationship with nature. However, in recent times, extractive policies of both Central and State governments are disturbing this relationship.
“Usually foraging and fishing trips are done by women in a group, mostly in the afternoons, when the regular household chores are over.”
For instance, palm oil cultivation, rubber and tea plantations, an increase in monoculture, and in ecologically insensitive infrastructure projects have created dents in the forest ecosystem, displaced communities, and invited natural disasters.
- Foraging is an intrinsic part of the food and knowledge systems of certain indigenous communities, especially in the north-eastern region.
- Its knowledge is passed down orally through generations: there are folk songs and folktales about foraging.
- Foraging trips also serve as socialising platforms for women to talk, share stories, and discuss their lives.
“Foraging is an art”
I come from the Deori tribe, an indigenous community of the Brahmaputra valley of Upper Assam, mainly inhabiting the districts of Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Sivasagar, Jorhat, Dhemaji and Lakhimpur. There is a sizeable Deori population in Namsai and Lohit districts of Arunachal Pradesh too. Foraging is practised in every household among the Deoris, mostly by the women. Whenever I go home, I accompany my cousins and aunts on fishing and foraging trips to nearby rivers and jungles.
On one such trip during the lockdown of 2021, when we were walking towards the village grove, my sister-in-law said: “Foraging is an art where all our senses come into play. When we go to the fields and groves, we step in with mindfulness, making sense of the smells, navigating carefully to avoid thorns and snakes. We pay attention to the sounds of nature while trying to identify the foods we want to gather.” All the while, she was plucking colocasia stems, arranging them in her basket, discarding a few. “We do not pluck everything on our way. A seasoned forager knows which part of the plant is edible, or the right season to gather them. This is the tacit wisdom we possess as a community,” she told me.
Some commonly foraged items are kosu (arbi or taro) leaves, bitter brinjal, turkey berry, nephaphu (East India glory bower), mosondori leaves and roots (Houttuynia cordate), kolmou haak (water spinach), mud crab, small fish, beetle (oisinga), water hyacinth flowers, dhekia (ferns), honey, red ant, and lofa haak (Chinese mallow or cluster mallow leaves).
For the Deoris, foraging is an integral part of life. Its knowledge is passed down orally through generations: there are folk songs and folktales about foraging. In my childhood days, my grandmother and aunts would tell us stories while cooking dinner, with us kids gathered around the hearth. Almost all the stories revolved around people working in the fields, or going to jungles to gather food or to hunt. Usually foraging and fishing trips are done by women in a group, in the vicinity of the village, mostly in the afternoons, when the regular household chores are over. Women from the neighbourhood gather at the river or pond with their traditional fishing gear (jakoi, khaloi) and plastic bags. They forage on the way and back. All the foraged items are used for dinner. If there is excess fish, it is smoked and preserved.
Foraging trips also serve as socialising platforms for women to talk, share stories, and discuss their lives. They offer a break from the monotony of household chores and agricultural activities. While fishing and foraging, they also learn from one another and teach their children to identify edibles, use fishing gear, and protect themselves from poisonous plants and insects.
COVID-19 showed us the broken nature of global food systems when countries dependent on food imports were badly affected. And that served to highlight the resilient nature of local food systems. In its 2021 report, “Indigenous peoples’ food systems”, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization identified eight indigenous societies and their food systems as sustainable and resilient in the face of climate change. The Indian communities in the list are the Khasis from Meghalaya and the Bhotia and Anwal of Uttarakhand. They have in-depth knowledge of wild edible plants, fruits, and medicinal plants, the report said.
But the report also highlighted the fact that with the passage of time, the availability of wild edibles is decreasing. The dominance of the cash economy, the migration of people towards urban spaces, less interest in food and foraging in the younger generations, and land degradation due to climate change are cited as some of the reasons behind this change. There might soon come a day when our families won’t find wild ferns to pick for dinner.
Sayan Deori is a doctoral scholar and researcher with the Department of Social Work, Tezpur University, Assam. His research interests are indigenous food systems, ecology, and community nutrition.