The Indigenous Food Cafés Transforming Local Cuisine
By Anne Pinto-Rodrigues
On a warm afternoon in March, Plantina Mujai busily cooks up a meal in the kitchen of her café in Khweng village, in the Indian state of Meghalaya. She’s dressed in a crisp white and green jain kyrshah, the traditional checkered cloth worn by women of the Khasi community, the largest ethnic group in Meghalaya.
She brings out plates loaded with snacks: bright-green banana leaf packets of putharo, a snack made from a mix of native rice varieties, and pale-yellow discs of an unnamed snack created by Mujai herself, made from steamed cassava. She is a fount of information about the indigenous foods of the Khasis, which include ancient grains, like millet, and native rice varieties, as well as a wide range of wild edibles, including greens, fruits, berries, and roots.
Through the traditional cuisine Mujai serves at her café, she promotes the consumption of neglected and underutilized edible plant species found in and around her village. These forgotten plants are usually foraged from the wild or harvested from paddy fields where they grow as uncultivated greens (or “weeds,” in modern parlance).
Mujai — affectionately referred to as Kong Plantina, kong being a term of respect for older women in the Khasi language — sits down to share her about her journey of running the first of six Mei-Ramew (or “Mother Earth” in the local Khasi language) cafés. These cafés connect the food stall owners like Kong Plantina, small-scale farmers, foragers, café customers, and the larger community with the rich native agro-biodiversity.
As a young girl, Kong Plantina learned traditional cooking from her grandmother — recipes that used wild greens, bitter tomato, dried or fermented fish, and many other indigenous ingredients, as well as traditional techniques, like cooking in a bamboo tube. But when she began her food stall nearly 30 years ago, she cooked what she calls “market food”: dishes that customers wanted to eat, like white rice, dal, and potato dishes. The ingredients for these dishes were purchased from the market, with no indigenous ones used.
According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, of the thousands of known edible plant species in the world, just 150 to 200 are actively cultivated for human consumption. Just 12 crops and five animal species form 75% of the food consumed by humans. Rice, corn, and wheat make up the overwhelming majority of plant crops consumed. The commercial production of these crops and their global transportation has a huge carbon footprint. That over-reliance on a few foods also puts the food system at risk for disease and disruptions, like the ones caused by COVID-19, the war in Ukraine, and the climate crisis. Initiatives like the Mei-Ramew cafés that focus on Indigenous agro-biodiversity offer a form of climate resilience.
A mapping exercise conducted by North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society, an organization working to strengthen food sovereignty in Meghalaya, documented 319 edible plants in and around Khweng village. “When we began working in this area in 2012, we saw so much biodiversity,” says Janak Preet Singh, senior associate of livelihood initiatives. “But we were not seeing it in people’s plates.”
So NESFAS started programs to encourage the consumption of neglected and underutilized edible plants, including wild ones and uncultivated greens. When NESFAS presented the concept of the Mei-Ramew café to food stall owners, Singh says it was difficult to change most people’s mindsets, and to get them to appreciate indigenous ingredients and cuisine. “The food stalls were their livelihood, after all,” he says. There was a social stigma associated with wild plants, which were considered a poor person’s food, adding to the reluctance of food stall owners to serve traditional cuisine.
Kong Plantina, however, recognized the opportunity in the Mei-Ramew concept. In 2013, she revamped her entire menu and added to it forgotten ingredients and dishes she had learned from her grandmother.
By sourcing ingredients from local farmers and foragers, she ensured that her fellow villagers also earned a regular income. In addition to traditional fare, Kong Plantina is constantly innovating and has even created dishes that appeal to younger palates, like popsicles in the traditional flavors of roselle and tamarind, and cake from tapioca flour.
Wild edible plants, which have thrived over hundreds of years, are hardier than cultivated crops and tend to be more resistant to changes in climatic conditions. They are also rich in micronutrients and add to dietary diversity, thus helping reduce malnutrition and improve nutritional security. By using ingredients that are foraged or grown locally without chemicals, the cafés also maintain a very low carbon footprint.
Over the years, with her earnings from the Mei-Ramew café, Kong Plantina has raised and educated her 10 children. Her cooking is so well-appreciated that she is regularly invited to cook at large events, feeding thousands of people. She recalls an international food festival held in Meghalaya in 2015 that was attended by well over 50,000 people. “The crowd kept coming for our traditional food,” she says. “Soon, we had nothing left to serve.”
Kong Plantina has also trained several other cooks, including Dial Muktieh. “I feel happy to share my knowledge,” says Kong Plantina.
Since 2019, Kong Dial, as Muktieh is known, has been running her own Mei-Ramew café right across the street from Kong Plantina’s café. She fondly remembers one of her aunts telling her, “When you look out the window, what you see out there should be on your plate.” In keeping with her aunt’s wise words, Kong Dial has a kitchen garden filled with a variety of vegetables and fragrant herbs that she uses in her café.
Both café owners are also attempting to grow several wild edible plants in their home gardens in an effort to domesticate them, including the chameleon plant Houttuynia cordata, also known as fish mint, the redflower ragweed Crassocephalum crepidioides, also known as fireweed, and the East Himalayan begonia Begonia roxburghii. The two cafés in Khweng have become the heart of the 100-household village, the spot where residents hang out until the late hours, swapping stories and information about indigenous plants and foods.
Hendri Momin, the owner of the Mei-Ramew café in Darechikgre village, located about eight hours away from Khweng, supported his community throughout the COVID-19 lockdown. From April to June 2020, food establishments in India were asked to shut down, and supplies of essential food items like bread were disrupted. Momin quickly developed recipes for breads using tapioca flour and grains like millet; he would bake the loaves at home and then deliver them to his customers.
For some urban youth, the Mei-Ramew cafés have become a place to be seen and to post about on social media. For others like Gerald Duia, a Khasi travel entrepreneur based in the state capital Shillong, the cafés have a deeper significance. He remembers foraging with this aunts and uncles as a child in the fields and forests around his ancestral village Mawkyrdep. “So much traditional knowledge about foraging, and identifying plants for consumption and medicinal purposes, has been lost in my generation,” Duia says. He himself can no longer recognize the edible plants that he knew as a child. “That’s why the Mei-Ramew cafés are so important, to keep this knowledge alive.”
Anne Pinto-Rodrigues is a journalist focusing on social and environmental issues. Her geographic specialty is India, where she was born and raised. Anne has been published in The Guardian, The Telegraph, Ensia, CS Monitor, and several other international publications. She is currently based in the Netherlands, and speaks English and several Indian and European languages. She can be reached at annepintorodrigues.com. Connect: Twitter
Reposted with permission from YES! Magazine.