Written specially for Vikalp Sangam
In this photo story, Rashi Mishra and Meenal Tatpati share glimpses of the food culture of the Khasis which is largely influenced by the biodiverse hills of Meghalaya. They were at the International Terra Madre festival held in Shillong between the 3rd and 8th of November, 2015.
…a story about the rich food culture of the Khasi hills in Meghalaya and the way of life of the Khasi people; a life largely influenced by the natural environment of the hills that they call home
U tiew sohkha and u tiew pawang lum: orchids
Ka sim pieng and u kaitor: songbirds
The celebrated Khasi poet U Soso Tham wrote these lines in his poem “The Days that are Gone” in which he reminisces about the beauty of his homeland Sohra (Cherrapunji) in Meghalaya. True to this eulogy, the land of the Khasis is indeed culturally and ecologically very rich.
In November last year, we headed to Shillong for the Indigenous Terra Madre (Mother Earth) festival, organised by Slow Food Movement and North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society. We caught a glimpse of the rich food culture of Meghalaya and the Khasi hills, and the way of life of the Khasi people, which is largely influenced by the natural environment of the hills that they call home.
Long before conservation became a catchword, the Khasis had already devised several layers of protection of forests. Through customary laws, the Khasis manage the forest wealth by categorising forests and using them for various needs. These categories include forests kept aside for religious needs, private forests owned and managed by families, forests for villages and clan groups and community forests.
The forests are also a rich source of food. The food and culture of the Khasis cannot be delinked from the biodiverse wealth of the hills. Jhum cultivation, which is still practised in the rural areas, is a form of agriculture where patches of forests are cleared for a few seasons to plant crops and then left fallow, allowing the patches to regenerate. A host of leafy vegetables, tubers, fruits and other forest produce like honey are harvested directly from the forests. Forests and fields blend in effortlessly together.
Being a matrilineal society, the knowledge and legacy of food growing and gathering is passed down from mother to daughter. As we travelled into villages, we observed women working the fields and preserving local and traditional seeds and crops.
At the taste workshop, we sampled three varieties of honey from East Khasi Hills. Traditionally, honey is stored in bamboo shoots or earthen pots. The inside of the bamboo or the pot is layered with honey comb to maintain the optimum temperature.
On the last day of the ITM festial, a slow food festival was held near the sacred grove at Mawphlang where around forty food stalls were set up mostly by the indigenous communities from the North East. The idea behind the festival was to celebrate diversities and preserve local indigenous cultures and knowledge. Amongst the wide variety of food, one could find a number of Khasi stalls serving rice beer in bamboo cups, various dishes of pork and chicken meat (slow cooked), fried silk worms and pickled bamboo shoots. At a small stall, two women from Mawphlang were selling delicious cake-like desserts called pukhlein, a kind of rice and jaggery bread and pumaloi, a Khasi dish prepared with powdered rice.
With Aibor and his family at Umlangkraw
We met Aibor at Mawphlang and it was decided that we must visit his village, Umlangkraw in Ri Bhoi district, bordering Assam. In the village, a jovial and chatty Aibor narrated the history of the village and how his family had settled there. He also shared his personal journey which had led him to open a school for the village children.
As we walked in the village, we saw how fields, forests and houses merged into one another seamlessly. Aibor told us that many people in the village still practised Jhum. They grow local varieties of ginger and chillies usually for self consumption. Varieties of rice are part of the staple diet here, cultivated with other crops like maize, local beans called rymbaija, and a host of other vegetables. Aibor’s sister-in-law offered us tea and rice wrapped in a lamet leaf, which is a snack relished by all. Almost all the food required in the whole year is produced in the soil around the village.
Our curiosity to see how the rice was cooked led us to the kitchen, where we chatted with the rest of Aibor’s family, who had gathered for breakfast. We were able to appreciate traditional cooking styles on seeing a variety of meats being slowly cooked above the oven. The meat is cooked in this manner for months before it acquires the perfect smoked flavour and is then consumed.
To our immense surprise, we saw that the rice was being cooked in a gourd shell! One of the boys in the family showed us the gourd that is used to make these vessels. He then went on to demonstrate how it is cleaned and dried and finally fashioned into a vessel that can cook rice!
Dombah village in West Khasi hills gets its name from the Khasi lum uba heh or big mountain. Ablen and Delina (in the picture below) took us on a tour to their rice fields and demonstrated how they harvest the crop. The harvest was followed by manually threshing and de-husking the grains. The indigenous variety of red rice grown here is called Khawkhasi. One of the ingredients used for fertilising the soil is powdered cattle bone.
In Dombah, we finally got to see how sophlang, the snack ubiquitous in Shillong, is harvested. The tuber is removed from the fields, washed and then its outer cover is cleaned off by rubbing the tuber with crushed stone.
Cultivated and Uncultivated Foods
It was a dazzling array of food, made even more interesting by their narration of why the foods were important to them and how they could be cooked. They explained how leafy vegetables such as jamyr doh have medicinal value; this particular vegetable cures blood pressure related problems. They also explained how sohlang, a berry, is often used as bait for fishing.
Khasis call themselves ‘Ki Hynniew Trep‘, which means ‘The Seven Huts’ in Khasi. According to the oral history and folklore of the Khasis, these seven huts or seven families, their ancestors, had directly descended to the Khasi hills from heaven. They were sent to the earth for protecting and looking after it. This belief and concern for their environment continues to dictate many aspects of their culture and living. The traditional knowledge related to food practices is thus based on the concept of well-being, not just for the individual or the community, but also for the earth and the ecosystem as a whole. Use of local and seasonal food, uncultivated food, sustainable and organic ways of agriculture, slow cooking and having a diversity of food sources have consciously been adopted.
Traveling through the villages in East Khasi hills, interacting with the Khasis as well as other indigenous communities present at the Food Festival and feasting on the local dishes, one could repeatedly encounter the wisdom embedded in indigenous knowledge and cultures.
- Nongkynrih, S.K. (2015). Five Poems By U Soso Tham, Raiot.
- Khymdeit, M. (n.d). Khasi Culture and Society.
- Slow Food
- The Seed-Saving Farmers Who Pass Down Land to Their Daughters, Yes! Magazine
- Dutta, R. (2002). Community Managed Forests: Law, Problems, and Alternatives. Presented at The Commons in an Age of Globalisation, the Ninth Conference of the International Association for the Study of Common Property, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.
- Tiwari, B. K., Tynsong, S., Lynser, M. B. (2010). Forest management practices of the tribal people of Meghalaya, north-east India. In Journal of Tropical Forest Science. 22(3).