What does it mean to be in tune with changing seasons? Janagiamma, a leader of the indigeneous Kurumba community in the Nilgiris, tells us that it’s good to eat millets and bamboo during the monsoons.
Janagiamma is a leader from the indigenous Kurumba community of the Nilgiris, and a traditional healer of repute. She is on the board of directors of the Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyanar Producer Company, and of Seemai Suddhi—the monthly indigenous newspaper, where she has also been a barefoot journalist.
Aadhimalai, of which Janagiamma is a part of, is a collective of tribal producers of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve. It aims at providing a sustainable livelihood to the community while preserving their traditional way of life and conserving the environment. Here are excerpts from our conversation with Janagiamma, translated from Tamil:
There are so many emotions tied to food. It brings us joy, we turn to it when we’re sad, it reminds us of people we love. What is a meal that always makes you happy?
Keerai pori—puffed amaranth soaked in honey and made into laddoos—is something I enjoy during this season (monsoon). A payasam made of samai (little millet) is also something I love to eat during the monsoons. Ragi kali (ragi mudde) and biryani made of thinai (foxtail millet) are other foods I really like.
When we say monsoon, what food comes to your mind?
We don’t consume much rice. Millets are good for the rainy season. We also eat forest produce like bamboo and different types of keerais (greens).
Does the change of seasons affect the way you eat?
During the monsoon, we don’t know when it will rain, or when it will stop. Nowadays, it rains both in the summer and in the monsoon seasons. As a result, we eat hot food often. Millets, forest greens, and forest tubers are good at this time.
How has adivasi food changed over the last few decades?
The current generation prefers rice to millets, and eat it with whatever they like, at any time. But my generation prefers to eat seasonally. For example, it is jackfruit season now in Aadi month (mid-July to mid-August). Those like me will eat different kinds of dishes that can be made with jackfruit—curries, stir fries, and so on.
Is there a dish or a certain kind of food from your childhood that you miss, that you no longer eat today?
There are some ingredients like lentils called senaligai and genjai that used to be eaten at this time that are less easy to source now. (Senaligai is a dal which is roasted along with genjai is kind of a wheat-like seed. They are then powdered and mixed with honey. Gengai is also a relish by itself when roasted and powdered separately and mixed with a strong arabica coffee decoction).
Eating together, as a family, or a community, is something that we all treasure. Is there a memory that you can share with us that’s related to this, something you’ll never forget, perhaps?
To eat with the family, it is only during some rituals or occasions now. But it is very special. Cooking and eating together invokes the feeling of how our grandmothers and mothers would prepare meals for us.
You can learn more about Aadhimalai, a collective of tribal producers of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, here. Aadhimalai is a sister concern of Keystone Foundation, which has three decades of experience in indigenous empowerment and biodiversity causes in the region. Aadhimala’s projects are supported by The Nilgiris Foundation, including the slow food restaurant Place To Bee in Ooty.
They are currently organising a fundraising campaign to ensure that Place To Bee can be revived to celebrate local indigenous culinary traditions that are fast disappearing. You can find more details on how to contribute here.