Food and Culture: A Call to Recover and Retain Indigenous Food Recipes

Apart from our personal kitchen, there ought to be an outlet where people from different cultures can experience our food and culture. We should have something of our own – which is unique, distinctive, and indigenous – to show to the world.

As I was watching a food show on Netflix called the Chef’s Table, I got motivated to write this. I do not intendto advertisethe documentary series but rather, to take us back to our indigenous food culture, habits, and recipes. I sincerely hope that someone will pick up this piece and take it forward in their own profession as north-eastern cuisines are entering the 5-star menu, especially by those who are into culinary delights. A conversation about recovering and retaining indigenous food habits and recipes (in this case, Tangkhul Naga food recipes), is urgently needed to preserve and share our distinct food cultures.

This docuseries is about meeting “culinary stars around the world who are redefining gourmet food with innovative dishes and tantalizing desserts.” Viewers are captivated by how the creator of the series, David Gelb, presents the food world to us. Along with the colourful-creative videography of the series, the series is well scripted. Some of the words echo long after we have watched the episodes. As an image has a way of replaying itself in our minds, words have a defining way of echoing in our ears. The series with its captivating images is complimented by well-crafted words.

What viewers liked about the series is the manner in which background stories are told and emphasized. The chefs are where they are because of their journey of struggle. It tells stories of human struggles and how they overcome those obstacles to achieve success in their profession as chefs. The documentary pays attention to their struggle in which they had to make their mark through their hard work and creativity. They pruned their cooking skills with long hours of work. It took them years before they were recognized by the food critics and enthusiasts.

While reviewing the show,Jay Rayner inquires why anyone would be interested in the lives of the chefs. In his opinion, the answer is with how “in an increasingly urbanised age, they are our last genuine artisans. They take raw materials and manipulate them directly for us, which almost nobody else does … mixed in with a bit of nurture and mothering.” While bringing artistry in cooking, they bring mouth-watering taste in their food. As Rayner reckons, “They cook therefore they are.”

What is also distinctive about this series is the return to local recipes. Rather than allowing the dominant culinary cultures to dictate the menu, attention is also given to the often-marginalized indigenous food recipes. The food recipes from peripheries are brought to the mainstream menus. What is indigenous is highly valued!

In my experience of workand traveling, I have had the privilege of eating food in more than twenty Tangkhul villages. In these journeys, I received the warmth, care, and hospitality of our people. What is peculiar and memorable about these experiences is the conversation and the stories that emerge out of these interactions. You can remember them, long after it is gone.

The other thing that I observed is that most of our food habits are no longer distinctively indigenous. In our food menus, we have incorporated recipes from the neighbouring communities, villages, or state. And with globalization, several food items have been incorporated from the Global North (or some might prefer, “West”) into our everyday meal. There is now a good mixing of ingredients into our food habits.

That said, I still vividly recall a gastronomic moment when I was about 10-11 years old. I had gone to visit a village in the Northern part of Ukhrul (Manipur) with my brother-in-law. As we were guests in the village, we were invited for dinner by one of his aunts. Since winter was close, it was really cold. So, we clustered around the fire. Then and there, I saw magic unfold (or at least, I see it that way now). She (my in-law’s aunt) prepared pork with grinded perilla seed, colocasia (which was partly dried), and local chili powder. I don’t remember the name of the food item, but the deliciousness of that curry still lingers!

In contrast to this indigenous experience, if we look at our local restaurants and hotels, we have freely adapted food habits from Manipuri, Indian, Western and other cultures. We can now get all sorts of food (e.g., momo, burger, hot dog, sandwich, etc.) which are reminiscent of city life and their food recipes. As someone who has lived in the cities for two decades, it was such a joy to experience Korean food in Ukhrul town. Some of my friends, who are living in the South, had the privilege to eat dosa, a signature food of South India. It is clearly becoming a hub of multiple food recipes. However, what is missing in this booming business is the taste of indigenous food (Tangkhul or otherwise) to my palate.

The indigenous curry I described above has no name for it – we just call it “pork with this and that.” This style of cooking has been a part of the Northern Tangkhul Raphei tradition. It has been passed down from one generation to another. However, there are no written recipes (not that I am aware of). If a food enthusiast should ask about the food item or its recipes, there is no point of reference – except the food experience that I had.

To begin with, my suggestion for us is to identify our indigenous recipes. If you think that is something that might be worth a task, it will be helpful to make a list of recipes-curry. This can be taken up in a threefold manner. First, make a list of recipes that are indigenous in origin. Second, categorise the dish into non-veg and veg. You can further identify the dishes as main course (e.g., curry) or side dish (e.g., chutney). Third, divide the dishes regionally – between north, east, west, south, and east. As our dialects are different, we have a variety of recipes (which are quite distinctive).

After identifying the recipes, it will be crucial to give an indigenous name to it. If a said curry does not have a name, it will be appropriate to provide a village or region-specific name. Identifying the dish with a name will help market the food recipe or gain popularity, especially if it goes beyond the indigenous inhabited areas.

Which takes us to the next concern: if you are a professional, it will help to take the food item wherever you go. The key is to popularise our indigenous food. In doing so, we begin to recover indigenous recipes. And in cooking them, you retain them for the younger generation.

This task is one of the key needs of the hour. As our folklores and folksongs are fast disappearing, the same is the case with indigenous recipes. There is an urgent need to recover and retain our indigenous food recipes. With the slow decline of oral tradition, if our indigenous recipes are not recovered, it will gradually disappear. The food world is paying attention to indigenous recipes. At a time such as this, we should try to grasp the urgency and enter the food conversation.

As I conclude, I would like to pose a question to all of us: If a guest or tourist visits our hometown (village), and they seek an indigenous food experience, where do you take him or her? Apart from our personal kitchen, there ought to be an outlet where people from different cultures can experience our food and culture. We should have something of our own – which is unique, distinctive, and indigenous – to show to the world. That would require a recovery and retaining of indigenous food recipes.

Dr Taimaya Ragui is currently an academic research coordinator of The Shepherd’s Academy of Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life.

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