My encounter with tribal cuisine has been rather fresh. Till very recently, not only was I unaware of the enviable variety of the tribal palate, its nutritional value and ecological ethos too were beyond my comprehension. It should be made clear in the offing that my tryst with tribal gastronomy is limited to my area of field study in Southwest West Bengal; an important caution there because tribal cuisines vary across states, with geography and topography contributing significantly to the variation.
Having been born and brought up in the urban capital of Bengal, my culinary preferences were prominently influenced by family traditions and television advertisements; spaces suffused with the hegemony of the ‘Bhadrolok’ or Hindu upper-caste/upper-class culture. Although the tribal community is several lakh-strong in the state, constituting about 5.8% of the total population of West Bengal, their cultural ethos has remained marginalized in the mainstream discourse. But, the subalterns speak and agitate through means that sometimes escape the political gaze but are nonetheless highly radical in character and substance. Culinary culture and food choices have been one such medium for the assertion of Adivasi agency in rural Southwest Bengal.
While culinary practices are intimately related to diverse economic, social, and cultural realities, they are not limited to such realities. Tribal cookery in the region, therefore, combines both choice and history associated with the lack of it. In one of my conversations with a local Santhal man regarding the food habit of his community, I enquired about the roots of their culinary codes. Emphasizing traditional food wisdom and ways in which it has been transferred across generations, he used the word, ‘ruchi’ or aesthetics which particularly caught my attention. Despite acknowledging poverty as an initial catalyst facilitating experimentation with whatever little was available in the kitchen, he opined that tribal cuisines that are relished to date are connected more closely to tribal aesthetics and inter-generational habits rather than conditions of marginalization and deprivation in the region. In short, born out of the economics of survival, food choices have over the decades become a matter of volition or will for the tribal community of rural Southwest Bengal. The category of will is intimately related to the question of consciousness. Tribal food choices in the region can be seen in this context as a symbol of subaltern consciousness and resistance in the sense that with conditions of poverty becoming less pressing, various tribal communities continue to celebrate their traditional culinary codes, in place of making more ‘conventional’ choices resembling the food habits of the upper caste/class. Tribal culinary practices of the region are therefore disruptive of modernity’s homogenizing ethos.
Adivasis of rural Southwest Bengal follow a diet rich in carbohydrates and protein. They are mostly related to land and practice agriculture, with a small proportion making a living by gathering and selling Minor Forest Produces. Adivasis’ close association with nature has intimately influenced their plate. They collect parts of different plants for consumption, either raw or cooked, from the forests in the close proximity of which they live. This is a regular exercise amongst them. Not only are the plants rich in nutrients and dietary fibers, sustainable food practices that the tribals endorse also contribute to forest conservation. Although plants and fruits form a significant part of the tribal diet, vegetarianism has never been a part of their culinary ethos. In fact, Adivasis of rural Southwest Bengal have been traditional consumers of meat. Pork and flesh of field rats occupying lower rungs in the upper caste food hierarchy have a conspicuous presence in their culinary aesthetics not because they cannot afford other varieties of meat that is locally available, but because they have conventionally relished pigs and rats as delicacies. Therefore, the history of tribal cuisine in the region is rich, complex, and more significantly, evolutionary and resistive.
Following three dishes deserve special mention because they have been emblematic of the richness and uniqueness of local tribal cuisine for decades:
(1) Mangsho Pitha or Meat Patty- Prepared mostly during tribal festivals, the dish is made of pork meat. No part of the pig is discarded. Pork is first minced. Spices are then added to the minced pork. After the meat gets marinated for a few hours, the patties are layered with rice powder and are wrapped in Sal leaves. Then they are steamed on a bottom-heavy iron skillet for a few hours. Not only is the dish a rich source of protein and fat, it is unique to tribal ritualistic practices in the region, in the sense that, meat patties are offered first to the deity following whose consumption the locals are allowed to relish the same.
(2) Metho Idurer Mangsho or Field Rat Meat: Field rats are eaten widely after the end of the harvesting season. They live mostly in paddy fields and survive on plant parts. At the closing of each harvesting season, field rats are hunted down by the tribals and are either roasted, barbequed, or curried. The meat is enjoyed for its tenderness. A rich source of protein and fat, the flesh of field rats fetch good prices to the seller.
(3) Kurkut (Weaver Ant) Chutney: Weaver ants are popularly enjoyed by the tribal communities across the state but recipes vary. The eggs of these ants are appetizing. In rural southwest Bengal, the ants and their eggs are crushed into a fine paste to which are added salt, green chills, garlic, ginger, a hint of coriander and a dash of lemon juice. Extremely sour in taste, the eggs of weaver ants have dense nutritional value being rich sources of protein, fibers and an assortment of minerals and vitamins.
In closing, it must be highlighted that indigenous food practices are slowly getting the attention of the global health industry for being a sustainable and nutritious ‘alternative’. While health fads are temporary, what is lasting is the politics of the plate. Although I am not an Adivasi myself and have very limited knowledge on the culinary history of tribal people in general, the article has been a humble attempt on my part to document the agency of socially marginalized people as expressed through culinary practices and choices; an exercise crucial to the assertion of the tribal self.
Shamayita Sen is currently pursuing an MPhil in Social Sciences from the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Her current research interests encompass a focus on social anthropology, agrarian sociology, development, and inequality tied to land and agriculture.