Food of the Earth
A couple of hours of driving from Kozhikode by the sea, a scenic uphill drive of nine hairpin bends takes the traveller to Lakkidi, the gateway to the verdant Wayanad district in northeast Kerala. The landlocked district is bordered by Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and has traditionally been inhabited by several tribes. Though settlers arrived from neighbouring areas and the winds of change transformed the landscape, tribal culture still prevails in pockets, and the state government is promoting it through its Responsible Tourism initiative.
Interestingly, even as ingredients from across the world make their way to plates, the focus of Wayanad’s tribal cuisine is local and seasonal ingredients, sourced from the forest, where they grow naturally and organically, and are prepared and eaten fresh! To experience Wayanad’s unique indigenous culture, the typical itinerary of a traveller here may include a visit to the tribal archer Govindan, the drum maker Kunhi Krishnan , the artist painter Remeshan, the Uravu bamboo craft centre, a potter’s work space, a unit where eucalyptus oil is extracted and enjoy traditional tribal cuisine.
The word Wayanad means Land of Paddy Fields and it is said that over 100 varieties of rice were once cultivated here! Thankfully there are efforts to grow many of these and among them are Gandhakasala (an aromatic rice as the name suggests), Jeerakasala, Chennellu, Chomala, Thondi, Veliyan, Mullankayama, Valichoori, Onavattan, Kurumottan, Kunjoottimatta, Marathondi, Chenthadi, Koduveliyan, Thuroodi and Thonnooran Thondi. One of the tribals committed to ensuring the survival of indigenous rice varieties is Raman – a simple son of the soil he is regarded as a custodian of a valuable rice gene pool- who is organically farming and storing 38 traditional varieties of indigenous rice seeds.
Given the sheer rice varieties available and the ease of preparing rice, it forms a staple of meals and is eaten with dry and curry vegetable, root, and meat dishes. The distinct plant produce available in Wayanad is evident while travelling through the district as one passes stores selling spices, tea, coffee and forest honey as well as vegetable store selling an array of rhizomes and root vegetables (such as different types of yam and roots of common colocasia), green leafy vegetables (common and wild colocasia leaves and leaves that look like spinach) and cucurbitaceous vegetables (like pumpkins and cucumbers belonging to the gourd family).
Return to the Roots
Interestingly as natural, organic, local, seasonal and fresh are now catchwords of modern cuisine, Wayanad’s tribals have prepared food that way for millennia. The fresh and local produce, and the direct preparation techniques of roasting, steaming, boiling, frying on wood fire and cooking on coals yield preparations that are full of freshness and natural flavours.
“Wayanad’s tribal food is simple and tasty. Tribal food has lots of local vegetables, root vegetables, yams, tapioca, green leafy vegetables, local river fish, small crabs, meat and chicken. The food is generally spiced with raw pepper, raw chilli, curry leaves and dried Indian gooseberry and has preparations such as gooseberries preserved in forest honey. Many of the ingredients used in preparation have medicinal value.”, says Velayudhan K, Executive Chef, Wayanad Wild resort, who includes a tribal cuisine preparation in the buffet as well as food demonstration to spread awareness of Wayanad’s tribal cuisine heritage.
Traditionally the tribals prepared food in large earthen vessels on a fire with whole spices or hand-pounded spices. “They did not use ground coconut in gravies, however they may add coconut pieces to the gravy and use coconut oil for cooking. The gravies are thin. Ragi flour is used for coating fish and chicken, and they make porridge with ragi that they have with fish curry”, adds Chef Velayudhan.
Rice cooked in a bamboo shoot, chicken wrapped in a banana leave and cooked over charcoals, curries of rhizomes and tubers collected from the forest, curries of herbal leaves and leaves collected from the forest, and wild mushrooms prepared with spices are among the preparations cooked by the tribals. And in true Kerala style of ending a meal with payasam, a tribal meal may also end with delicious payasam, yet one made with the bamboo rice!
For Wayanad Responsible Tourism village life experience packages please contact Sijo Manuel +91-95443 13351. There are two packages presently being offered –The Nellarachal village life experience package and The Cheruvayal package that includes village life experiences, craft making and lunch of traditional tribal cuisine.
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