India’s best indigenous foods festivals

Living Farms Adivasi Food Festival
Image courtesy: Anuradha Sengupta

According to a recent study, Indians have increased consumption of locally produced, homegrown, and organic foods. So, move on from the passé – like broccoli and quinoa – and let us guide you to festivals that showcase India’s powerhouse of indigenous foods where you can familiarise yourself with ancient recipes and ingredients, pick up urban gardening and composting skills, learn to build environment-friendly houses, and meet the farmers who bring pesticide-free food to your table.

Bhoomi Utsav

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “We must be a part of nature and not apart from nature”. He believed in and advocated an organic way of life, and the Bhoomi Utsav is held every year on his birthday (2 October). The folks behind the festival want to redefine the way we not only buy or sell food but our entire relationship with food and farmers.

Stalls selling organic cereals, millets, lentils, vegetables, cold-pressed oils, pollinated seeds and saplings; workshops and talks with specialists in organic farming, composting, workshops and talk sessions are held through the day on composting, renewable energy, guerilla gardening, indigenous foods, solar energy, bamboo construction, waste recycling et al. Local farmers and organic food suppliers discuss aspects of green living including the importance of organic foods, how it is grown, and how pesticides slowly poison us.

Avid urban gardeners can pick up pollinated seeds and saplings. Various makeshift café stalls sell hard-to-get traditional cuisine from all over India – like nochundae (a delicious steamed vada) served with doddapatre chutney (doddapatre or sambara bally is a small herb used as remedy for cold and cough, and also in South Indian cuisine); kara kozhakattais (spicy dumplings made out of dal); millet dosas with drumstick leaves; soft idlis made with unpolished red rice; and gut-friendly, fermented drinks. Kids can have fun at the crafts and painting corners. The main stage features entertainment throughout the whole day with folk dance and music performances as an integral part of this unique experience. The festival is organised every year by Bhoomi Network, an NGO focused on awareness and action for sustainable living.

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The Seed Festivals

At the festivals, seed varieties conserved through generations are displayed. Heirloom seed varieties from seed banks that cultivate and preserve seeds against the rising tide of monoculture crops are on show. The big festival takes place in Delhi in March and other smaller, regional ones are held through the year in other cities like Kolkata and Bangalore. According to a report, the 2014 Delhi Seed Festival attracted people from 17 states and showcased 2,300 seed varieties including valuable aromatic, medicinal and a variety of special rice species which would have been lost but for seed saviours. Farmers from West Bengal had displayed a variety of rice that required no boiling.

Apart from seeds, you can sample indigenous foods at open-air cafés which serve, among other things, the heady bhang ki chutney (a dip made of marijuana seeds). Some of the seeds at the fests are on sale, and some only on display. At the Kolkata Seed Festival, stalls set up by farms from Auroville, Pondicherry sold seeds (including purple-coloured corn and okra) in beautifully designed packets. One could also pick up packs of organic compost, and jars of honey and rosella jam made from wild hibiscus flowers by villagers from West Bengal.

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Living Farms Adivasi Food Festival

The idea behind this festival is to exhibit the traditional food cultures of the adivasis, including their age-old agricultural practices that have provided them with food and nutritional security for centuries. This unique festival has different tribes coming together to share food wisdom, traditional know-how and recipes. It was held for the first time in February 2014 in Bisamcuttack, Rayagada, Odisha. The tribes (Kondh, Koya, Didai, Santhal, Juanga, Baiga, Bhil, Pahari Korva, Paudi Bhuiyan and Birhor) were from more than 300 villages in Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Traditional foods made from locally cultivated crops and uncultivated, forest produce were on display, served in bowls and plates made from leaves.

The event highlights sustainable methods of growing food and the adivasis’ relationship with the environment – the forest, seeds, land and food. At the 2014 event, tribals played host, talking to visitors about the 1600-odd foods that were showcased. Of these, around 900 were uncultivated – foods found in the forest, and not grown through farming.

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Tastes of the northeast

In the northeast region, a slow food revolution is taking place, and driving the movement are local communities. A series of food festivals have been held in the past few years where locally available (wild edibles) and locally grown food (cultivated) are displayed and cooked. One of these – the Mei Ram-ew or Mother Earth festival – is inspired by the international Slow Food movement and is modelled on the lines of the global Terra Madre festivals. The first slow food fest was organised in 2010, in collaboration with Slow Food International in Italy.

At the fests, you can meet not just farmers, but also herders, fishermen, local tribes, as well as visitors from across the border like the Karen tribe from Thailand. Manipur organises the annual Chinjak Festival, where you can savour mouth-watering traditional cuisine of the northeast, Burma, Tibet, Korea, Japan and Thailand. At tasting workshops, you can savour forest-foraged foods. Cooking demos teach you to rustle up indigenous cuisine like the Ao Naga’s. Some fests have 5-star chefs from metros conduct healthy cooking demonstrations like how to make millet (krai) pancakes. All the festivals take place towards the end of the year.

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AUTHOR'S BIO: Anuradha Sengupta is a freelance writer and founder-editor of Jalebi Ink, an award-winning media collective for children and youth. A compulsive city-walker, she loves exploring urban cultures and is a columnist for NY-based Karta, a collaborative urban mapping project. Her most memorable adventure was in Afghanistan as digital media advisor, setting up citizens' media centres.