Feast with Arunachal's Adi Tribe: A Lesson in Sustainable Living

Monday, March 07, 2016

Apong served in hollow bamboo canes
Apong, local rice wine made by the Adi Tribe in Arunachal Pradesh, served in hollow bamboo canes with a leaf stuffed to constrict the flow
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 100 different subtribes. One of them is Adi, a major tribe in Arunachal whose name literally translates to “hill or mountain top”. True to their tribe’s 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.

Siyom River in Along, Arunachal Pradesh
Siyom River and the lush hills of West Siang district as seen near Along town

A typical Adi Village
A typical Adi village - clusters of thatch-roofed houses set deep inside the thick jungles of Arunachal
So, when the men of Adi Tribe go on hunting expeditions in the dense forests of Himalayan foothills in eastern India, they have to travel - quick and light. Carrying heavy vessels or plenty of food supplies for the hunting party wouldn’t obviously 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 there in 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 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.

Fish and Rice served in Banana leaves
Rice and Fish, just removed from the bamboo stems after cooking over fire(L); Dried bamboo shoot powder that has a tangy flavor, used extensively as seasoning by the Adi people(R)

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 uncle, together had 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 to not 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.

Our hosts ready the food for serving
Our jolly hosts readying the rice to be served to us in banana leaves

Rice and Hilsa fish cooked in hollow bamboo canes
Rice and meat wrapped in a protective leaf is cooked inside the hollows of the bamboo stems, which is then slowly burnt over fire

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.

Watch house in the Fields
Sun sets over the fields and verdant landscape around Along in Arunachal Pradesh 

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.

This immensely enjoyable lunch was organized as part of Magical Mechuka trip by Kipepeo.

Have you ever been captivated by the ways of the indigenous?

Also Read:
To the Far East, In the Land of Rising Sun - Arunachal Pradesh
A River Runs Through it - Mechuka: Ladakh of the East

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  1. Blown away by this experience! I would love to try this… I love the idea of everything coming from the land and going back to it!

    1. Me too, Chaitali! Do get in touch with Piran of Kipepeo(linked at the end in my post) to have this experience arranged on your northeast tour. It's incredible.

  2. In Mizoram, we cook a dish called vaipaden with bamboo. A mixture of veggies and meat cut into small pieces with chilies and spices and then grounded after cooking. The more modern way to prepare vaipaden is with pressure cooker. It's been ages since I had vaipaden cooked with bamboo. I guess most tribes in North East use bamboo for cooking and drinking water or local booze, well it was the glass!. No necessarily today of course. Using bamboos is more of an exotic thing today though. Our ancestors fetched and stored water with big bamboos tubes.

    Here's a painting

    Search for "tui chawi" meaning fetching water

    1. Fascinating! And I'm going to hunt for vaipaden when I visit Mizoram. But such a long overdue trip, sigh. :'(

  3. Awesome experience u had! Wish I get to have such awesome food cooked in bamboo!

    1. I'm sure there must be something like this in Karnataka too. Would love to try it out in south as well.

  4. What an amazing description you have given. Wish somebody made something similar here in Bangalore. :P :)
    Great captures too!

    1. Ha ha, not sure about Bangalore I'm sure there must be something like this in western ghats. :)

  5. Your words took me to a place I have never been to before. I could almost taste the fist and the alcohol and feel the joys. Would ask you more about this when I plan to go there.

    1. Thanks Anshul, it was indeed an incredible experience! Also, you'll have to get in touch with Kipepeo, the company I went with, for more details on this. I was too focussed on chugging down gallons of Apong to remember the logistics. :D

  6. Loving the Arunachal series Neelima .. planning a trip to the Seven Sisters in near future and your words act as the inspiration to do that fast. :)

    1. How wonderful! I love northeast and would be very glad to help you with any queries when you head that side. :)

  7. What a delightfully beautiful post :) Loved reading it again.


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