Sinlung /
05 June 2012

Northeast Misses Its Charming Palate

By Nitin Sethi

New Delhi, Jun 5 : It's a craving that only gets stronger with distance.

Northeasterners living in other parts of the country are always asking each other: Is someone coming from home?

It's a constant quest for goodies—wrapped-up bundles of half-a-dozen different leaves, dried and fresh mushrooms, legumes, roots and beans, fermented and dried fish, bamboo shoot and banana stem. And, sometimes, red-hot chillies.

For northeast's students, it's a way of reliving the rich biodiverse experience back home. The veggie packets are small as they have to be eaten fresh.

The fermented or dried fish and meat can be stored. The super-hot red chillies could be bhut jholokia or naga mirchi oru-morok, depending on which part of the Northeast they come from. These are just the better-known exports — over a dozen different kinds of chillies are grown in the region.

The packets from home are just a small part of the wide variety of cultivated and gathered foods eaten by people in the rich forests and fertile fields of the Northeast.

The biodiversity of the forests lends great variety to the Northeast diet. There are tubers and legumes, flowers, seeds, leaves and stems, fish and insects. Alternatives to manufactured ghee, salt and sugar, too, exist though they are dwindling fast.

In Imphal, Manipur, the offering of 108 different vegetarian dishes to the deity at Govindajee Temple is often cited as an example of the variety available. There are more than 10,000 varieties of rice recorded by scientists in the region.

Research shows that jhum or shifting cultivation, discouraged by the government, plays a critical role in preserving herbs and plants that the rice-wheat system has destroyed across the country. Unlike rest of India, biodiversity in the Northeast has been a thriving economic idea.

But things are changing. As the economy becomes more cash-driven, horticultural crops are taking over lands. The money they bring is used to buy essentials, including food. Until 10 years ago, villagers in the Northeast grew almost everything they ate; the rest was bartered locally.

The side-effects of centrally ordained agricultural systems have begun to hit the Northeast too—cash crops like pineapples can be found thrown around on the highways for lack of buyers.

As land gets over-exploited, biodiversity is becoming the domain of scientists and ethnographers talking of preservation and conservation.

To see the change, visit the Iew Duh market run by the Khasi community in cosmopolitan Shillong. One of the largest markets of its kind, Iew Duh was once known for traditional wares—including vegetables, spices, fruits and forest produce from Khasi lands.

Now, the small shops are full of packaged food products while traditional items fight a losing battle for space.


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