The Indigenous Terra Madre: A Feast To Remember
Outlook Traveller|February 2016

A food fest organised by 41 indigenous tribes and attended by another 140 from 58 countries. The indigenous Terra Madre, held in Shillong recently, was a feast to remember. 

Madhulika Dash

It’s the captain worm,” said chef Joel Basumatari, as he ladled yet another cup of crunchy insect onto my dry leaf plate. The fat saffron-coloured worm looked like a mini yarn as it lay still on my plate, waiting for its turn to be tasted. At Rs. 2,000 a kilo, it was as priceless as good quality saffron. But was it worth a try? Having eaten a beetle and the silkworm earlier—which tasted rather like stiff prawns—it seemed like yet another test of guts, which the Taste Theatre had been so far, with mixed results. I kept inhibition aside as I popped the insect into my mouth like a tablet, with the other hand firmly wrapped around a cup of water, just in case. Then, I instinctively bit the flesh—it was gooey with a burst of flavour, rivalling any good pate at a fine-dining restaurant.

Was it the setting that made insect eating—the second time in my life— such an exhilarating experience, or was it the beauty of being surrounded by indigenous tribes whose traditional diets encompass these foods with ease?

I guess both factors were at work. I was, after all, at one of the biggest food events India has ever seen—the Indigenous Terra Madre (ITM) in Shillong, a city that boasts of a robust ethnic cuisine. In spite of the advent of pizza and burger chains, Shillong remains fiercely rooted in its approach to food—be it the early morning breakfast of laal shaa and red rice pancake, the meal of shaaq, smoked pork, pithal and jadoh in the afternoon or the spicy egg noodle soup dinner at night. If you’re lucky, you may even find home-brewed rice beer or wine.

But none of that exhilaration even batted an eyelid that November evening when a rather exhaustion inducing 12-hour journey took me from Bhubaneswar to Shillong via Guhawati. Sitting in the car with dusk catching us early, the mind wondered: Why choose Shillong for an event so grand that even the Guinness Book of World Records was reviewing it as the largest gathering of indigenous people in the world? Wouldn’t Delhi or Mumbai have been better choices, connectivity-wise at least?

The opening ceremony at the green expanse of the North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU) complex, complete with men and woman in their tribal best, did little to clear that fuzzy head. Day One ended with a lot of beautiful faces and dresses, a brief preview of a coffee table book called Meghalaya: Shifting through the Clouds, an official, extremely addictive anthem of Ko Mei-Ramew (‘Mother Earth’ in Khasi) composed by musicians from different Northeastern states using traditional instruments, and, of course, plenty of chatter on the need to conserve the indigenous tribes and their culture. What stood out was the Native American activist, Winona LaDuke’s narration of how the Anishinaabeg tribe worked tirelessly to protect the 800-year-old seeds of wild rice, found at an archaeological dig in the US, from being genetically manipulated and patented. The rice, which grows wild under water around the rainy season, is native to the land, and rich with nutrients. Did Day One bring me some clarity about what the gathering was all about? It certainly scratched the surface and a little reading up on Slow Food cleared up any residual confusion.

Back in 1986, when Italian journalist Carlo Petrini began the slow food movement aimed at protecting the food culture of Italy, it was a reaction to the opening of a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome. Petrini saw it not only as a blot on a historic urbanscape but also as a threat to the local food culture. What resulted was a mass protest against the global industrialisation of food. These protests eventually led to the birth of the Slow Food movement on 10 December, 1989—a day which is still celebrated by small-scale farmers and Slow Food practitioners across the world as Terra Madre (Mother Earth) Day.

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