Stepping outside the framework of food as celebration alone, Dr. Dolly Kikon looks at culinary cultures through the lens of struggle, community, and hope. Tansha Vohra speaks to the anthropologist about fermentation, resilience, and the projects that demand her attention.
I am 20 minutes into transcribing my recent one-hour, 37 minute conversation with Dr. Dolly Kikon, and nine of these minutes have so far simply been pure, unadulterated laughter. Should someone have eavesdropped, I imagine it would be hard for them to believe that the premise of our talk was justice, identity, food insecurity, and fermentation—subjects Dr. Kikon has championed as a lawyer, activist, and professor. But that’s how conversations with her are, and I’ve had the privilege of having more than one to know this. (I referred to her paper on ‘Dirty Food: Racism and Casteism in India’ during my research on edible insects in India.)
She has a way of drawing bridges with words and making you feel so comfortable, as though you were talking to a friend you haven’t met in months. We discussed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michelle Yeoh’s new movie Everything Everywhere All at Once (which Dolly insists I must watch), Ang Lee and Indiana Jones, and while this may seem a bit random at first glance, I now see that there is a thread woven through it all. It speaks to the widely cast net from which Dr. Kikon draws influence, the value she attributes to diversity, and her unabashed quest for new ideas.
As a human rights lawyer, Dr. Kikon started her practice working as a junior lawyer at the Guwahati high court and the Supreme Court in 2000. “I sought justice and conducted research in the fields of land ownership and resource management in Northeast India, including extra constitutional regulations like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958),” she tells me, stating that her purpose was defined clearly from the start. “Food followed me through my journey from being a lawyer to an anthropologist, like a shadow. I began to see the landscape through the sights and sounds of food.”
After working as a lawyer for a year, Dr. Kikon found that her true calling was in research, documentation, and activism. “I think it was my love for research and documentation that made me switch from legal practice to anthropology. But in the last two decades, I have realised that law and anthropology are my foundations as a thinker and writer,” she reflects.
While conducting her fieldwork as an anthropologist in 2011, Dr. Kikon recalled how Naga elders narrated stories about crops and village granaries being burnt down as part of the nation’s counterinsurgency operations in Nagaland. These accounts about food she heard as a young human rights activist eventually led her to see the importance of food in the stories of justice that she was telling. Writing outside the framework of food as celebration alone, she looks at issues of food through the lens of pathos, struggle, resilience, and hope. “What is it that brings us together, what is it that rips us apart, and why is food so important?” she asks.
Growing up in Nagaland in a single-parent household meant that Dr. Kikon had seen her share of struggles right at home. She says, “You have to understand, the romantic notions that people form of Naga societies by going to festivals like Hornbill are just that—notions. How people eat at Hornbill is not how people eat everyday. The idea of community feasting and big gatherings really depends on what kind of status and family you come from. As a child growing up in Dimapur with a single mother, this was not our reality.”
As the sole earning member of the family, her mother was unable to manage the household on her meagre salary. To make extra money, she would sell sarongs and pearls. Dolly recalls how her mother also exchanged the sarongs and pearls for fermented soy bean and bamboo shoots from the other women traders. She observed the connections her mother made with other people, and how they supported each other in these small yet significant ways. “Very quickly, as a writer and thinker, I began to tell the other side of what it meant to eat, and for people to connect with food. This is how the concept of pathos and suffering became so central to my perspective,” shares Dr. Kikon.
One cannot separate food from the land and stories of its people; we have watched this truth reveal itself in almost every corner of our planet. It’s no different in Northeast India. Belonging to the Lotha Naga community of Nagaland, Dr. Kikon tells me that so much of her collective culinary culture depends on community knowledge, and access to forests and fields. As a result of which, when curfew is imposed, whether due to conflict or covid-19, access to resources is cut off.
“My friends in Nagaland were telling me that the production of anishi (fermented yam paste) couldn’t be done during the pandemic in the Ao Naga homeland. The yams were growing all over the mountains, but there was no one to harvest them because of the lockdown,” she recounts. These realities of removed access and the struggle induced by food insecurity are deeply embedded into the culinary culture of indigenous communities such as the Lotha people.
The essays and articles written by Dr. Kikon, such as ‘Fermenting Modernity: Putting Akhuni on The Nation’s Table in India’ and ‘Bamboo Shoot in our Blood’ are extensions of her perspective of eating cultures as expressions of resistance, negotiation, and the anxieties of indigenous communities in contemporary India.
Although Dr. Kikon’s time is primarily spent teaching as a senior lecturer in the Anthropology and Developmental Studies program at the University of Melbourne, fermentation is something she avidly dedicates energy towards. “I moved to Melbourne nearly seven years ago, and I miss Naga food more than anything. So now, when I ferment in my kitchen, it smells of home, of a familiar kitchen, of my favourite aunts gathered around each other,” she says, smiling.
Fermentation is deeply intertwined with the ecosystem in which it is occurring; it is a combination of the weather, microbiology, and knowledge that allows the tradition to persevere. “In non-industrialised processes of fermentation, you have no technology to control temperature, or humidity, or anything. You have to entirely rely on what is around you. This is why it’s amazing to look at the different forms of fermentation among the Naga people and other indigenous communities. The stories of the body and the community are very much at the center,” Dr. Kikon explains. The Lotha also call themselves ‘Rhuchon etsoi’, which translates to fermented bamboo-shoot eaters—evidence that culinary culture and ecology shapes identity in distinctive ways.
For Dr. Kikon, fermentation is also about connecting to the world around her. “Fermentation allows me to slow down, and pay attention to the smallest of details,” she tells me. She also enjoys the little stories that fermentation carries, old wives’ tales, as they’re called. “Particularly the one about not farting while fermenting,” she says, as her laughter swallows her whole. Dr. Kikon’s favourite fermentation recipes—a blend of tradition with her own exploration—have been included in renowned writer and fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz’s new book Fermentation Journeys (published in 2021).
At present, Dr. Kikon has co-facilitated an exhibition of Adivasi art at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, one of the largest exhibits of its kind at the venue. She is also the co-editor of a forthcoming book Food Stories, along with researcher Joel Rodrigues, which aims to connect emerging political initiatives that adopt food as a framework to address conditions of violence, dispossession, and justice in Northeast India.
She’s also part of a team working on Practicing Food Sovereignty: Indigenous Peoples and Agroecological Relationships in the Eastern Himalayas, a research project that focuses on indigenous communities and agricultural practices in four countries of the Eastern Himalaya region—Bhutan, Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, Nepal, and Northeast India—and seeks to explore indigenous livelihood practices and food security in the context of present climate change.
Truly confounded by how one person manages to do all of this, I ask Dr. Kikon what her secret is. “What drives me is an impossible, incorrigible spirit of joy,” she says, a smile lighting up her eyes. I can’t help but truly, truly believe her.
Tansha Vohra is a food writer and researcher, currently pursuing a Masters in Anthropology of Food at SOAS. In 2021, she was a resident at the Serendipity Art Foundation’s Food Lab where she initiated her project Boochi, an interdisciplinary investigation into edible insects in India. The project was invited to Dubai Expo 2020 and India Art Fair in 2022. If she could, she would grow gills and fins and live under the sea.
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