By SAMHITA BAROOAH
Nagaland is the land of exquisite tastes and flavourful aromas which entwines all the major and minor communities living in harmony within the hilly terrain. People have battled against the odds of nature, rugged terrain, erratic rains and decades of inaccessibility due to conflict. Since the early era of pre-independence, people have survived through hunting and gathering along with swidden agriculture and very few communities practiced settled agriculture. Food was mostly a functional need in Nagaland during the headhunting days when people had to survive through wars. Time for exotic preparations and elaborate arrangements for food was limited during the times of war. Even during the armed conflicts, the communities survived on foods which were readily available in the forests. People were accustomed to corn, banana, millets and sweet potato in Chakhesang areas whenever crops failed due to any untoward incident or natural disaster. According to Ms. V Kikhi from the Directorate of Agriculture, some of the prominent survival foods during harsh times are yam, green leaves in the forests, ferns, gara gakra (uncultivated weeds), banana stem. Easy access and all year round availability of these foods indeed makes them the best bet for survival during adversity. Sticky or Gom rice, Rhooko or puffed rice were also very important survival foods during wars according to Ms. Rovi Chasie. In Dimapur though, some of the women who didn’t wish to be named shared that the ration shop rice is a survival food for people who do not have farmlands anymore. The women members of Centre for Empowering Women and Children in Dimapur shared about Kholar or kidney beans, banana stem, corn and millets are very important sources of survival foods.
As a village elder in Phek district of Nagaland shared about his times of survival during jungle treks was with rice wrapped in banana leaf and cooked inside a hole covered with charcoal ambers. He soaked the uncooked rice initially in a piece of cloth in water and then the soaked rice was put into the hole in the ground and covered with burnt ambers. Surviving hunger has created diverse tastes, cooking practices and treasured indigenous knowledge as living traditions in Nagaland. Survival foods have also connected the generations of the young and the old. Most young people get nostalgic when they recreate the food memories attached to survival foods. Such memories can reaffirm people’s ancestral roots and also relive the dark family histories of survival during hard times.
“Millets are indeed a keystone crop which survives through climate variations”, stated a millet farmer from Phek district of Nagaland. Millets are grown in the districts of Phek, Tuensang, Kiphire and some areas of Kohima mainly. Traditionally millets were commonly known for making brew and formed an integral part of community diet. But in recent times, value of millets has increased to a large extent. Millet cluster of crops are also the survival crops when water is limited and people are solely dependent on erratic rains. Millets are not grown as a monocrop in settled farms but they are mostly combined with tubers, vegetables and oilseeds as a cluster crop in forest farms and jhum fields. Millets have a resilient capacity to withstand droughts, soil infertility and pest attacks which sustains the livelihoods of millions of food crop farmers whose lives and livelihoods are blended into the natural spaces. Millets connect generations with its climate resistant capacity and nutritional strength which is higher than other staple diets like rice and corn. In recent years also millets have gained a lot of popularity in urban places where people have different kinds of lifestyle diseases like diabetes, blood pressure and obesity as serious public health concerns. Millet based food crop farming has helped the survival needs of the subsistence farmers. The tastes and flavours of reviving millets can be also done through food innovations like millet cakes, millet and jobs tear pancakes which has been documented elaborately in the millet recipe book of Millet Resource Centre.
Survival foods are also defined by the way they are preserved and processed for a longer duration of time. Luckily chemical preservatives are not a norm in rural pockets of Nagaland in places like Phek, Mon, Zuneboto, Longleng, Tuensang and Kiphire which enables people to devise diverse preservation techniques which are low cost, tangible and durable. One such practice is smoking the food. In cold places like Phek, meat is a staple diet for people and affordability of meat is also a concern then smoking and drying can turn meat into a survival food. Meat cannot be preserved for long if it is not dried, roasted or smoked, since remote places do not have the access to refrigeration. Smoked meat is a common practice which is the life support system and source of high protein for the common people in rural Nagaland. Especially when protein alternatives of meat like Naga Dal is a seasonal food.
Smoking can also be done easily above the kitchen fire, since most of the families depend on wood fire as a cooking fuel. Smoking has healing effects and ensures that the meat pieces are dried and preserved for a long time. Surviving on smoked pork or beef in the form of pickles has gained a lot of popularity amongst the young people who migrate from their native villages in search of education, employment or marital relocation. A small piece of smoked meat can be used as a flavouring agent, as a spice or as an ingredient in cooking memorable Naga dishes which are relished by people even outside the traditional Naga kitchen. Communities are bound together with the exchange of meat and relationships of marriage, kinship and friendships are further strengthened with the meals cooked and relished with chunks of smoked, dried, boiled or steamed meat in a Naga community.
Rough terrain, climate variations, insect attacks and inaccessible infrastructure increases the vulnerabilities of health and nutrition to a great extent. In such conditions, food intake for all age groups and communities has to be safe and life-saving. Living traditions and indigenous knowledge about food has saved many lives from severe health conditions. One such food tradition is Kellu or wood worm which is a royal dish for a few, a tasty dish for some and a life saving supplement during joint pains and other ailments for many people. Habits, culture, tradition and nutrition have indeed turned many unconventional foods into survival foods.
Survival foods have enabled communities to withstand mal-nourishment, bouts of deprivation and scarcity during adversities of war, conflicts and climate variations. People in rural Nagaland are mostly dependant on survival foods for livelihoods, nutrition and nourishment to challenge the odds of nature and human indignity.
My journey of food continues through the interaction with communities, connoisseurs, activists and common people in Nagaland where food is celebrated and treasured with great enthusiasm.
(This piece is written under the aegis of Centre for Science and Environment Media Fellowship on Good Food in India.)