Indigenous food cafes are transforming local cuisine

By Anne Pinto Rodrigues

On a hot March afternoon, Plantina Mujai prepares a meal in the kitchen of her cafe in the village of Khweng, in the Indian state of Meghalaya. She’s dressed in bright white and green jain kyrshahthe traditional checkered fabric worn by women of the Khasi community, the largest ethnic group in Meghalaya.

A plate of snacks and a cup of roselle tea at Plantina Mujai’s Mei-Ramew cafe in Khweng village, Meghalaya state, northeast India. Anne Pinto Rodrigues

She pulls out plates laden with snacks: bundles of bright green banana leaves putharo, a snack made from a mixture of native rice varieties and pale yellow discs of an unnamed snack created by Mujai herself, made from steamed cassava. She is a source of information on indigenous Khasi foods, which include ancient grains, such as millet, and indigenous varieties of rice, as well as a wide range of wild edibles, including green vegetables, fruits, berries and roots.

Through the traditional cuisine that Mujai serves in her cafe, she encourages the consumption of neglected and underutilized edible plant species found in and around her village. These forgotten plants are usually harvested from the wild or harvested from rice paddies where they grow as uncultivated green vegetables (or “weeds”, in modern parlance).

Mujai – affectionately called Kong Plantina, Kong being a term of respect for older women in the Khasi language – sits down to tell her about her journey of running the first of six Mei-Ramew (or “Mother Earth” in the local Khasi language) cafes. These cafes connect food stall owners like Kong Plantina, small farmers, pickers, cafe customers and the wider community to the rich indigenous agro-biodiversity.

A variety of dishes prepared with forgotten ingredients at the lunch table at the Mei-Ramew cafe in Dial Muktieh in the village of Khweng in Meghalaya state, northeast India. Anne Pinto Rodrigues

As a young girl, Kong Plantina learned traditional cooking from her grandmother – recipes that used wild green vegetables, bitter tomatoes, dried or fermented fish and many other indigenous ingredients, as well as traditional techniques, like cooking in a bamboo tube. But when she opened her food stall nearly 30 years ago, she was cooking what she calls “market food”: dishes that customers wanted to eat, like white rice, dal and side dishes. potatoes. The ingredients for these dishes were purchased in the market, without the use of indigenous ingredients.

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, only 150 to 200 are actively cultivated for human consumption. Just 12 crops and five animal species make up 75% of the food consumed by humans. Rice, maize and wheat make up the overwhelming majority of vegetable crops consumed. The commercial production of these crops and their global transport have a huge carbon footprint. This overreliance on a few foods also puts the food system at risk of disease and disruption, such as those caused by COVID-19, the war in Ukraine, and the climate crisis. Initiatives like the Mei-Ramew cafes that focus on indigenous agro-biodiversity provide a form of climate resilience.

A mapping exercise conducted by the 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 started working in this area in 2012, we saw so much biodiversity,” says Janak Preet Singh, Senior Livelihood Initiatives Associate. “But we weren’t seeing it on people’s plates.”

Thus, NESFAS has initiated programs to encourage the consumption of neglected and underutilized edible plants, including wild plants and uncultivated green vegetables. When NESFAS introduced the Mei-Ramew Cafe concept to food stall owners, Singh said it was difficult to change most people’s mindsets and 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 the food of the poor, which added to the reluctance of food stall owners to serve traditional cuisine.

Kong Plantina, however, recognized the desirability of the Mei-Ramew concept. In 2013, she redesigned her entire menu and added forgotten ingredients and dishes that she had learned from her grandmother.

Plantina Mujai’s most recent creations – a roselle popsicle (left) and a tamarind popsicle (right) – at her Mei-Ramew cafe in Khweng village, northeast state of Meghalaya from India. Anne Pinto Rodrigues

By sourcing ingredients from local farmers and pickers, she ensured that her fellow villagers also earned a steady income. In addition to traditional dishes, Kong Plantina is constantly innovating and has even created dishes that appeal to younger palates, such as popsicles with traditional flavors of roselle and tamarind, and cakes made from tapioca flour.

Edible wild plants, which have thrived for hundreds of years, are hardier than cultivated crops and tend to be more resilient to changes in climatic conditions. They are also rich in micronutrients and contribute to dietary diversity, thereby helping to reduce malnutrition and improve nutritional security. By using locally harvested or grown ingredients without chemicals, the cafes also maintain a very low carbon footprint.

Over the years, with income from the Mei-Ramew cafe, Kong Plantina raised and educated her 10 children. Her cuisine is so popular that she is regularly invited to cook at major events, feeding thousands of people. She recalls an international food festival held in Meghalaya in 2015 which brought together more than 50,000 people. “The crowd kept coming for our traditional food,” she says. “Soon we had nothing left to serve.”

Dial Muktieh stands in front of his Mei-Ramew cafe in the village of Khweng in India’s northeast state of Meghalaya. This café was inaugurated in 2019. Anne Pinto Rodrigues

Kong Plantina has also trained several other cooks, including Dial Muktieh. “I am happy to share my knowledge,” says Kong Plantina.

Since 2019, Kong Dial, as it is called Muktieh, has been running its own Mei-Ramew cafe just across from Kong Plantina’s cafe. She fondly remembers one of her aunts telling her, “When you look out the window, what you see over there should be on your plate. In keeping with her aunt’s wise words, Kong Dial has a vegetable garden filled with a variety of vegetables and fragrant herbs which she uses in her coffee.

The two cafe owners are also trying to grow several edible wild plants in their home gardens in an effort to domesticate them, including the chameleon plant. Houttuynia cordataalso known as peppermint, red-flowered ambrosia Crassocephalum crepidioidesalso known as fireweed, and eastern Himalayan begonia Begonia roxburghii. Khweng’s two cafes have become the heart of the village of 100 households, the place where locals hang out until late hours, swapping stories and information about native plants and foods.

Hendri Momin, the owner of Mei-Ramew cafe in Darechikgre village, about an eight-hour drive from Khweng, has supported his community throughout the COVID-19 lockdown. From April to June 2020, food establishments in India were told to close and the supply of essential food items like bread was cut off. Momin quickly developed bread recipes using tapioca flour and grains like millet; he baked the breads at home and then delivered them to his customers.

For some urban youth, Mei-Ramew cafes have become a place to see and post on social media. For others, like Gerald Duia, a Khasi travel entrepreneur based in Shillong, the state capital, the cafes have a deeper meaning. He remembers searching for food with these aunts and uncles as a child in the fields and forests around his ancestral village Mawkyrdep. “So much traditional knowledge about finding food and identifying plants for food and medicine has been lost in my generation,” says Duia. He himself can no longer recognize the edible plants he knew as a child. “That’s why Mei-Ramew cafes are so important, to keep this knowledge alive.”

Anne Pinto Rodrigues is a journalist specializing in social and environmental issues. Her geographic specialty is India, where she was born and raised. Anne has been featured 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 on Relate: Twitter

Republished with permission from YES! Magazine.

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