Hollow bamboos for containers and leaves for plates, the Adi tribe of Arunachal live in harmony with nature, and promote a sustainable, zero-waste approach to life.
Resourcefulness – that’s the thing I love most about the indigenous people! Of course we humans, as a race, are resourceful to have come to the comfortable stage we are at right now. But there is an innate beauty to a way of life far removed from the excesses of our age. In the lush forests of West Siang district in Arunachal Pradesh, I learnt a first-hand lesson on how easy it is to live off the bounties of nature.
Arunachal Pradesh is like a land lost in time in many ways. The state is packed with impenetrable forests and impassable mountains that have harboured at least a 100 different sub-tribes.
One of them is Adi, a major tribe in Arunachal whose name literally translates to “hill or mountain top.”
True to their name, the Adi people reside in the dense tropical jungles of West Siang district with their thatch-roofed houses tightly clustered along the slopes or on hilltops. Most of them still follow the animistic religion of Donyi-Polo – worshipping the sun and moon. The Adi people are subsistence farmers, which makes them largely self-sufficient with all their rice fields, orange orchards and hunting.
So, when the men of the Adi Tribe go on hunting expeditions in the dense forests of the Himalayan foothills in eastern India, they have to travel quick and light. Carrying heavy vessels or plenty of food supplies for the hunting party obviously wouldn’t make much sense when the goal is to move stealthily through the thick jungle. All they would take with them instead, is a bagful of rice, a pocketful of dried bamboo shoot powder for seasoning and a handful of salt. But, you would be grossly mistaken if you’d think the meal would be barely palatable. In fact, it is supremely delicious and therein lies the genius of Adi people.
Everything for the meals is sourced from the forest – bamboo hollows are used as containers to cook, fishes are caught from the abundant streams and leaves are used to wrap the food and to serve it as well.
In the age of tin cans and packaged food, an elaborate meal made entirely out of organic produce and equipment seemed infinitely fascinating.
A few months ago, I had a similar lunch with the Adi Minyong Tribe in their field, surrounded by a ring of mountains. Three men – Takar Jannom, his brother and his uncle, had together prepared a delicious fare for a bunch of us.
Our lunch was cooked over fire in five hollow Bamboo stems stuffed with rice, hilsa fish and chicken wrapped in Ekkum (Phyrnium – a banana like plant) leaves and water.
Ekkum leaves are strong enough not to deconstruct in the heat, providing a good cover for the food while it cooks. The only condiments added were salt, garlic and dried bamboo shoot powder that give a tangy flavour to the fish and meat. Rice and fish taken out of the hollow stems was served with bamboo spoons on fresh banana leaves along with a serving of delightfully spicy red chili and ginger chutney.
At first, it felt a bit weird to eat from the leaves sprawled in the dirt from our planet earth. But after one bite into the piquant fish, I was stuffing myself silly with the fish and rice mixed with the spicy chutney that came with it.
On the other hand, locally brewed rice wine, Apong, was flowing freely. It was served in bamboo stems with a single leaf stuffed at the top to constrict the flow of alcohol.
True enough, when I removed the leaf, I had apong all over me when I went for a small sip.
This form of outdoor cooking is not only meant for hunting but also for all those days when men guard the harvest. The fields are far away from the villages and the progressive northeast community wouldn’t burden the womenfolk to provide them with food. Instead, the menfolk set up camp in the machans in their fields, brew apong, cook their lunches and dinners gathered over the warm fire, and have a blast while watching over their fields.
With the apong slowly getting to our heads, conviviality around the bonfire went from pleasant chatter to shrill laughter about things I have no recollection of today. The setting sun smeared the sky in red over the horizon and the fresh mountain air suddenly dropped a degree or two. Darkness engulfed us by 4.30pm, as it often happens in the northeast, and we gulped down more apong – raising a toast to the wonderful feast.
When it was time to leave the field and walk to the road after dark, we weren’t allowed torches. Instead our guide beat a bamboo stem until it split to small strips and burned it to make a wooden torch. As we left, the dogs swiftly cleaned up the leftovers. Nothing probably went to waste. On our way back through the Adi village, I giggled like a child looking at a pig pen right under the wooden toilet. The pigs that feed on human waste are supposed to be a delicacy here; I surely didn’t want to try that but I couldn’t help but wonder if anything goes to waste in these tribal settlements!
This was the most natural, sustainable, organic and zero-waste lunch I ever had. Except for the salt, everything else came from their fields and forest including the woven bamboo furniture we sat on.
And in due time, everything would go back to become the dirt it came from. Hearteningly, the precarious balance of the natural order continues to stay on course in this remote corner.
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