Many indigenous dishes of India that were lost to the junk food revolution are seeing a revival. T+L India contributor talks to restaurateurs who are driving this movement by putting tribal culinary gems on their menu. By Tazeen Qureshy
A drive to the Galikonda viewpoint in Andhra Pradesh’s Araku Valley offers the most exquisite view of the region. As my eyes scan the hills and serpentine roads below, I get a whiff of chicken being cooked in the makeshift tents nearby. A young boy is busy roasting pieces of marinated chicken stuffed inside a bamboo spool.
The dish, popularly known as bongulo chicken or bamboo chicken, is the native dish of tribes living in Araku Valley and is on the must-eat list of tourists. It is this bongulo chicken that sparks my quest of individuals and restaurants championing the country’s indigenous cuisines.
India’s Indigenous Community
India is home to over 500 indigenous communities with distinct cultural identities and a repertoire of delicacies. These traditional indigenous dishes take inspiration from their place of origin and have evolved in the process.
The tribes of north eastern India, for instance, mostly prepare stew delicacies. The technique of roasting is also popular in this part of the country (such as smoked pork and bamboo steamed fish of Nagaland). In Kerala, curry is a staple. The thal curry (a vegetarian dish made from yam stems and exotic spices), puzha meen curry (a tangy curry of river fish), and chemmeen curry (prawns curry made with tamarind and coconut oil) are the popular ones. In the states of Odisha and Jharkhand, traditional pithas or pancakes, like the jil pitha, are mostly steamed or griddled. The Warli tribe of Maharashtra are mostly non-vegetarians, and dry fish is their common dish. However, their daily intake also includes fresh leafy vegetables like spinach and shevga (drumstick) with rice.
Indigenous Dishes in Cities
Tribal cuisines of India, known for their rich flavours, high nutrient content, and natural and easy cooking methods, are gradually finding their way into the mainstream.
In Delhi’s Vasant Kunj area, Dzukou Tribal Kitchen serves authentic Naga cuisine. Started by Karen Yepthomi in 2014, the restaurant’s interiors and food remind you of a village in north eastern India. Besides perishable ingredients, all other spices and herbs are sourced from Nagaland. The staff, too, are natives of different tribes of North East India.“I have grown up eating traditional food at my home, and subconsciously imbibed some of the cooking style from my mother,” says Yepthomi. “On one occasion, I served my friends authentic tribal cuisine and they liked it so much that they suggested I should start a restaurant. I saw this as an opportunity to share my food with people who didn’t know about my culture and history. Though I had no prior experience in the hotel industry, I was comfortable with Naga food as it was a part of my upbringing. Dzukou is the result of my unconditional love for my tribe and my culture,” she adds.
The menu offers an array of delicacies, including Naga sticky rice, grilled pork ribs, chicken anishi (smoked taro leaves paste), chicken akhuni or axone (fermented soya), sardine fish with Naga bamboo shoot, buff curry, and much more. Visitors to the restaurant are mostly the corporate crowd, expats, and also travellers from abroad.
In Ranchi, restaurant Ajam Emba is reviving lost indigenous dishes of eastern India. Aruna Tirkey, who started the initiative in 2017, has worked for over a decade and a half in various capacities to uplift the marginalised tribes of India. “Working at the grass-root level with tribes of different states, I realised that there is a major identity crisis among us,” explains Tirkey. “We have failed to express our culture and history. Youngsters are especially cut off from our traditions. I wanted to work in a direction that will instil a sense of pride among the members of the indigenous communities and also give them an identity. I believe food is the best way of expression,” adds Tirkey who belongs to the Santhal tribe of Jharkhand.
Ajam Emba has an all-women staff, and serves dishes of the Santhal and Oraon tribe like patra pitha, jhil pitha (pancakes steamed in pots), lal bhaat (rice cooked with onion and tomato puree), desi chicken, and getu fish with chilka roti (roti made of rice and chana dal). The restaurant also serves beef and pork delicacies and beverages like rice tea. The restaurant functions like a training centre, where any woman with basic knowledge of Santhal cuisine is trained to either work for them or start her own venture and spread the culinary delights far and wide.
In Kolkata, restaurant Santa’s Fantasea is reviving the legacy of the tribal kitchens of Meghalaya, Assam, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Nagaland. The signature dishes include jadoh rice (red rice with mutton pieces), kori gassi (chicken cooked in garlic, pepper, and coriander gravy), chemmeen kheer (prawns dessert) and jhupu pisi’s mutton (smoked mutton curry with mustard leaves). The restaurant has two branches in the city, and boasts quirky interiors with murals, motifs, and wooden seats. “The idea was to simply create a cosy environment that was well-suited for conversations, and offer tribal and coastal cuisine selections,” says Avijit Saha, co-owner of Santa’s Fantasea.
There are similar restaurants that are championing indigenous cuisines in other cities too–Dhamsa Tribal Kitchen in Kolkata, Nahri Hotel in Dang, Gujarat, and Jungli Restaurant in Ranchi are a few.
Why are indigenous dishes gaining popularity?
“At a time when people are becoming health conscious, food cooked by indigenous communities is the best option to rely on,” says Mohammad Irshad, a Kolkata-based chef working at Taj Bengal, Kolkata. “The tribal community mostly uses natural flavours and a lot of their dishes use the fermentation technique, making them nutrient-rich and healthy. Home chefs have also started experimenting now. Ragi, for instance, is a common ingredient used by several tribes in India. And there are home chefs who have come up with ragi variants of momos and spring rolls to attract customers,” adds Irshad.
Social media influencers and vloggers from the tribal regions of the country also play a part in popularising indigenous food. Esther Lotha, from the Lotha tribe in Nagaland, runs a YouTube channel called Nagaland Foodie that showcases the traditional cuisines of Nagaland and other north eastern states like Assam, Meghalaya, and Manipur. The channel was started in 2017 and currently has 37,000 subscribers. Isak Munda who belongs to a tribe in Odisha lost his daily wage job during the pandemic.
He then began vlogging about traditional food and rustic village life on his YouTube channel ‘isak munda eating’, and garnered over eight lakh subscribers in a year. His video of making basi pakhala or fermented water rice was the first video to go viral. “I try to fuse my culture and cuisine and show it to people,” Munda says. “I knew people from India would watch my videos but I am glad that viewers from across the world are showing interest in India’s tribal lifestyle and food. I think it is the simplicity of our food and the way we eat that attracts them,” he adds.
Reviving tribal cuisines is not just about safeguarding a very important part of our culture. It is also about putting clean, nutritious, and balanced eating, above all.
Where to eat Indigenous Dishes
Dzukou Tribal Kitchen, Delhi
The restaurant takes fine-dining experience a notch higher by serving authentic Naga cuisine like smoked pork, sticky rice, and chicken anishi. INR 1200 for two.
Ajam Emba, Ranchi
This restaurant has an all-women staff and serves Santhal and Oraon cuisine like traditional pithas (panckaes) and desi chicken. INR 500 for two
Santa’s Fantasea, Kolkata
A mainstream casual dining experience for meat and seafood lovers. Its two branches in Kolkata offer tribal dishes from the
states of Meghalaya, Assam, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, and Nagaland. INR 600 for two.
Related: From Chhattisgarh To Nagaland: These Are The Most Enriching Tribal Destinations In India