By Hoihnu Hauzel
I first met Carlo Petrini early one winter morning in 2010. I waited for him and his translator at a nondescript guest house in South Delhi. His bright eyes shone on that dull morning. He went on to describe, in his mother tongue, what seemed to me like an interesting story. He paused in between to allow his translator to do justice to his sole audience. I gathered then that he had just returned from a maiden trip to Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, one of the eight states in India’s Northeastern region. It was an eye-opener for him, as he soaked up the sights, aroma and tastes of another world that he never thought existed. Petrini had gone to attend a local food festival in Meghalaya.
He described many unusual ingredients and herbs including dohneiiong, a pork dish cooked Khasi-style with black sesame seeds. He said it was memorable. So I am not surprised that he chose that city for Slow Food’s most prominent international event, Indigenous Terra Madre (ITM 2015). Since his first visit, Slow Food — the movement and philosophy that shuns fast food and fast life and started by Petrini in his Italian hometown Bra in 1989 — has had an engagement with both Meghalaya and its people.
In association with local body Nesfas (North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society), a Shillong-based non-profit organisation, Slow Food has been conducting Mei Ram-ew Festival (‘Mother Earth’ in Khasi) since 2010. The festival draws inspiration from the global Terra Madre festivals and promotes locally-grown indigenous foods.
When the first festival took place, it focussed on traditional cuisines, showcasing rare dishes from the three main communities of the state — the Khasis, Jaintias and the Garos. The essence of the festival is to conserve agro biodiversity and help local indigenous food find relevance in the midst of a societal transition where food habits are changing, especially with the entry of global fast food giants like KFC and McDonald’s. As for Petrini, he will be amidst the locals once again, as he speaks on his pet subject, at the well-attended ITM 2015 held between November 3 and 7.
Leading the way
The Terra Madre will, in the real sense, put the state on the global map as the five-day food fiesta will have 600 delegates, over 20,000 visitors and 80 indigenous tribes from 52 countries in attendance. Chefs like Manjit Gill (corporate chef, ITC Hotels), who has been a great advocator of the movement, will be travelling to Shillong ahead of the event to plan the logistics. “Now we have formed the Slow Food Chefs’ Alliance in India, with founder members from across the country,” says Gill, adding that many of them, including chef Rajdeep Kapoor (ITC Maratha), who serves as the president, and food historian and curator Gunjan Goela, will be at the event. They will be a part of the contingent of leading chefs who will be heading there to identify new flavours and inspiration. Goela, who took part in the Mei Ram-ew Festival two years ago, says she “discovered a new world of food.” She recalls her first taste of the local drink made of fermented millet and the pickled garlic, infused with herbs and sauteed, that she sampled with red rice at a little eatery.
Host state Shillong has a great opportunity to showcase its many delights as this is the second time that the event is happening globally, after its predecessor in 2011 in Jokkmokk, Sweden — hosted by Slow Food Sampi, the indigenous peoples of northern Europe. “Slow Food is a global, grassroots organisation linking the pleasure of good food with a commitment to local communities and the environment. The mission is to promote and protect traditional agricultural production,” says Anandi Soans, Slow Food International – South Asia Director. Even as the event will serve as a platform for global, national and local think tanks to review pressing issues on the evolution of food and agroecological concerns of the indigenous people, there will be enough to write home about.
Exotic local food that has stood the test of time will go down well with the crowd, including jadoh, which is pork cooked with rice and flavoured with ginger, chillies and turmeric, and tungrymbai, made of fermented soya beans flavoured with herbs. Plus, big names drawn from the culinary firmament will engage visitors. Distinguished chefs from Brazil, USA (Native American), South Korea (specialists on fermented food) and from the Netherlands are on the guest list. Chef Fabio Antonini from the famous Pianeta Terra (Planet Earth) in Amsterdam, Netherlands, will not only bond with locals, but also demonstrate how humble local food can be transformed into a fine dining menu using local ingredients. Chef Sean Sherman, who is known for his revival of Native American-style food, will part with his indigenous knowledge of wild and traditionally cultivated food history, among others. Chef Gill, who has established over 109 restaurants across India, besides being the president of the Indian Federation of Culinary Associations (IFCA), will be busy “fine tuning the programme and participation for the event.” Chef Achintya Anand — who grows 15 varieties of microgreens and supplies across New Delhi and Gurgaon — studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Australia, and trained at the Michelin-starred Aquavit restaurant in New York. He will be visiting as well, giving the food community much to learn, especially pointers on farming.
The taste workshops are beautifully designed for food connoisseurs who are both adventurous and eco-sensitive, with presentations on honey, insects, wild edibles and fermented food. Among the unusual flavours expected is wild honey from Manipur, rock honey from tribes in South India, and citrus-based honey from local Garo hills. A Korean expert will share age-old fermentation practices, which are bound to find many takers given the trending connect to gut health. As for insects and wild edibles, this is a great opportunity to be introduced to both, to understand how they can all coexist.
This is also a good forum to learn about the many medicinal foods in the region, from Ja Myrodah that is eaten raw and believed to be a remedy for low blood pressure, to Cissus Adnata, which is said to cure kidney problems. After tasting sessions at 10 host villages, on the fifth day, the event comes to a close and a small village will come alive. About 23 km off Shillong is Mawphlang, known for its sacred forests. A food festival being organised here will include an exhaustive menu. Every state in the Northeast is home to multiple communities, so everything from the Nagas’ pork with bamboo shoot to Tripura’s muya awandru (bamboo shoot with rice flour), the Mizos’ vegetable stew-like bai, and Sikkim’s cheese-based dishes can be tasted. And while visitors dig into local flavours, residents in turn will get to sample international cuisine rustled up by the visiting chefs. It is truly in the process of such exchanges that Pertini’s movement will grow stronger.
The first three days will find participants hobnobbing at North East Hill University (NEHU), the venue for the event. Organisers are ensuring that visitors take back not just culinary notes but great memories, too. So there will be music, cultural performances from locals whose rendition will be in sync with overseas performersw like the Mongolian Throat singers, who will be at the opening ceremony. On another level, the event will showcase almost forgotten traditional arts of the indigenous people like the sand storytellers from the South Pacific Islands of Vanuatu. Clearly, this cultural awakening spans both food and customs. And the host city will introduce to its visitors its homegrown award-winning Shillong Chamber Choir.
On the many panel discussions, all centered around a more sustainable solution for the future of food, there are speakers like Dr Stephen Sonnenberg, professor of law at Stanford University, California, and a specialist on peace initiatives, and Dr Winona La Duke, an alumnus of Harvard University and a well-known indigenous leader among Native Americans. Organisers also hope to examine the role of women in the future of food and nutrition.
International travellers can visit via Guwahati, as it is the nearest domestic and international airport (other favourable entry points being New Delhi and Kolkata). Event volunteers at the airport will assist and accompany participants and guests on the 150-km road journey to Shillong, with helicopter services available through special arrangement. Accommodation has been arranged in home-stays, hostels and guest houses in Shillong, around 6 km and 27 km away from the event venues, North Eastern Hill University (NEHU) and Mawphlang, respectively. To participate, one should be linked to the organisers or should be from the indigenous community or working with them, or should have a connection to food or the slow food movement. Register on indigenousterramadre.org