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How President Droupadi Murmu can turn the tables at Rashtrapati Bhavan

As India’s first tribal head of state she can bring our under-appreciated indigenous cuisines to the forefront

From this week, Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidential palace that has been home to scholars, scientists, lawyers, diplomats and politicians has its first occupant from one of India’s ancient tribal communities —Droupadi Murmu. There have been murmurs about tokenism and the qualifications of this modest school teacher-turned-politician for India’s highest office, but her ascent of her certainly provides an opportunity for a cultural ‘re-set’ atop Raisina Hill.

Much of the Presidential household runs on the stiff protocols set during the British viceregal era from the uniforms of the staff down to the table décor and menus for official banquets. How President Murmu discharges her more onerous duties will be for political scientists to assess later but hopefully she will also finally ensure some diversity in the menus on the Hill, not because she is a woman but as India’s first-ever head of state from a tribal community.

A ready reckoner here may be useful: India’s tribal people make up 8.2 per cent of the population and fall into three classifications: the pre-Dravidian and pre-Aryan Austro-Asiatics of Central and southern India, the Caucasoids of the north and the Sino -Tibetan-Burmese across the Himalayan region. There are further criteria, including geographical isolation, backwardness and “shyness of contact” as well as having a distinctive language, religion and culture.

Population-wise Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Telangana and West Bengal Scheduled Tribes have the most tribals. But in percentage terms, Dadra & Nagar Haveli, Lakshadweep and the north-eastern states have the highest proportion. Of the nearly 580 recognized tribal communities, the largest are the Gonds, followed by the Santhals and Bhils. The smallest tribal community is the Andaman Islands, at 19.

Precious little is known about India’s rich tribal food heritage, mainly because the focus of culinary discourse has always been on royal or urban cuisines, and lately, regional cuisines that have articulate proponents. Unfortunately, as many tribes in India live in remote areas and remain marginalized and relatively unknown, their food culture has been under-appreciated by the mainstream even as there has been an explosion of information on micro-cuisines.

When the British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay came to India to shoot a TV series, he chanced upon two tribal staples that so tickled his palate and imagination, that he announced they would be introduced in his restaurants: the famous red weaver ant chutney chaprah and dona pudga (chicken steamed in leaves). More recently, chaprah reached Supreme Court, which ruled that it could not pass orders for the chutney to be eaten to prevent a COVID-19!

That said, the vast repertoire of tribal cuisines across India dovetails with the worldwide trends for foraged, local, seasonal, sustainable ingredients and low-fat, low-spice healthy dishes. Not all of these cuisines are for everyone as our palates are conditioned according to our differing heritages, and some flavors may not go down well. But collectively they certainly offer a fascinating insight into the sheer diversity of Indian food sources, especially greens.

The White House kitchens have often been cited as an example of imaginative and inclusive food diplomacy, with dishes and flavors chosen to reflect some aspect of America or strike a common chord with the distinguished guest being honored with a banquet. For example, after Indira Gandhi was noted to have enjoyed a dish made with pheasant breast during her 1966 US visit de ella, the fowl was again on the menu when she dined at the White House in 1971.

But it was during the tenure of a very different First Lady of the US—the first FLOTUS to also become Secretary of State and then Presidential candidate—that the Clinton White House menus shifted focus from Europe to highlighting the diversity of US ingredients and its regional cuisines. The intention was to assert that US food is as ‘haute’ as anything Europe or the rest of the world could offer, and it was as much a political message as a gastronomic one.

That has been the dominant mantra in the White House ever since, whether the occupants are Democrat or Republican. Consequently, chefs have also done considerable research into native American foods, and devised menus and meals that do not include ingredients introduced during America’s colonial phase: beef, pork, chicken, cane sugar, wheat flour and dairy products. Think of Indian cuisines before the New World’s chillies, potatoes and tomatoes!

Considering those ‘Big Three’ as well as squash, corn, rajma, cacao and vanilla are of North American origin, today’s Americans are already familiar with major indigenous ingredients. But less known foods like tepary beans, manzanita berries and manoomin grains (often mistakenly called wild rice) are being rediscovered and respectfully re-introduced into menus and meals. And with it, awareness of the true diversity of food sources available there is also rising.

There is huge potential to mainstream new ingredients and ideas in India too. And again, like the Clinton White House, the message would be as much political as gastronomic. Cuisine should not have either hierarchy or condescension. As Indians are becoming more aware—and proud—of our own wide repertoire of cuisines; the time is perfect for tribal foods to claim their place in this trend. Rashtrapati Bhavan is now ideally positioned to take it further,

From Mahua pakodas to mawda rotis and more, tribal cuisine is already a popular fixture at exhibitions across the country, like the annual Aadi Mahotsav held in the national capital’s Dilli Haat. From this year the ‘Tribalhood’ festival also intends to showcase the cuisines of north-eastern Indian tribes while Kolkata’s ITC Royal Bengal hotel already has tribal dishes from all eight of those states as a permanent segment of its buffet spread at its all-day dining outlet .

The new Rashtrapati is vegetarian, but her Santhal tribe eats wild meats, fowl, fish and shellfish, besides rodents and insects—the protein source gastronomic circles have been enthusing about for ages. They make dumplings, they also smoke and steam proteins in sal leaves, use wild roots, tubers, herbs and greens and ferment mahua liquor. Even keeping in mind her dietary preference, the potential to explore even just the vegetarian options is huge.

From the meaty rugda, puttu or bada chhatu—a dark brown or off-white truffle-like pebble-shaped tuber that grows under sal trees during the month of Shravan (monsoon)—to the porcini-like dark jamun khukri, there’s a wealth of mushrooms and other fungi that tribals traditionally forage and cook. A rugda variant grows in temperate subHimalayan areas, called katarua or phutput. All these mushrooms could be the next great gourmet ‘discovery’!

Most people do not know that several ingredients traditionally grown and consumed by tribal communities in north-eastern India have obtained GI (Geographical Indicator) certification including Mizo chillies, Joha rice and Kachai lemons from Manipur and Nagaland’s tamarillo or ‘tree tomato’ called Sei Bangenuo . Even without GI tags, ancient (and healthy) millets like, say, kodo and kutki eaten by the Baiga and Gond tribes deserve recognition.

If tribal cuisines make it to the high table at Rashtrapati Bhavan, the consequent rise in awareness and respect would have a salutary effect on tribal communities themselves as they are also drawing away from traditional ingredients and dishes. The fault is not theirs as access to foraging areas are being curtailed and non-traditional foods are more easily available and cheap too. President Murmu, already a trailblazer for tribal Indians, can reverse this trend.

The author is a freelance writer. Views expressed are personal.

Also read:

From leafy greens to meat, how Santhal food reflects the community’s identity intertwined with nature

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