“If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him…the people who give you their food give you their heart.” – Cesar Chavez
On one of my visits to Sohra I met an old lady who I fondly remember for her hospitality and graciousness. I recall being extremely hungry when she came to my rescue and offered me food that she cooked with her own hands. As she laid the table for me she said, “Khun, I can’t offer you food that you usually eat, but I can offer you a cup of tea and some Phandieng (tapioca) and PhanKaro (sweet potato)”
That day, this dear lady might not have given me food that I was accustomed to but she gave me hers. It was food that killed my hunger and brought us together, breaking barriers of language and culture.
The work that brought me to Sohra to meet this old lady, is part of an Initiative that I represent called the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society or NESFAS. NESFAS as a society strives to promote the sustainable agricultural practices of the Indigenous peoples of North East which is embedded in their culture and traditions. It also highlights the role of these peoples as custodians of biodiversity and promotes food which is Good (Tasty), Clean (Chemical Free) and Fair (Fair in terms of prices both to the consumers and the producers).
The mission of NESFAS is to connect people to the pleasure and importance of local food, the same way that lady from Sohra connected me to her food and then to herself.
By now you must have figured out what this talk is leading to. It is heading towards something so vital to all living beings that without it their survival is impossible, something for which we all work timelessly. FOOD, we all know, not only fills our hungry and growling stomachs, but also shapes us and our society. It is pointless to delve into the aspect of diversity in food because this talk must come to an end somewhere. Let me talk instead about unity in food like a recipe which brings simple ingredients together to make a satiating dish.
So, if a man is what he eats is, FOOD becomes his Identity which is synonymous to his culture. Through our food people not only learn about who we are but also where we come from.
To support my point, I’d like to share the example of a festival called the “Mother Earth Festival”, locally known as the Mei Ram-ew festival that our society co-organizes every year with several grassroots communities. During the festival communities come together under one Umbrella, share, enjoy and celebrate- Harmony and unity in diversity.
A salient feature of the event is the “gift exchange”, which as the name suggests is an exchange of gifts, usually food products, that are unique to the community. The gesture of gifting reinforces solidarity amongst the participating communities. Commodities such as shawls, fishing equipments, seeds and fruits we exchanged amongst them.
The revelry in cultural diversity also became an opportunity for cultural exchange between chefs of north India and north east India who worked together there with local ingredients. Five star chefs Ms. GunjanGoela from ITC and Ms. Balabynta from IHM, Shillong worked together at the fest to produce some mouth watering dishes. This diversity on show went on to unify two people who had never known each other for a common cause.
I must however be told that this diverse food of ours is today facing the threat of homogenization arising from change in dietary habits of the world. Junk foods are rapidly invading our lives, making us more vulnerable to diet related diseases while pushing our healthy traditional foods out of our plates. Another threat of a homogeneous global food basket is that it makes agriculture more vulnerable to drought, pests and diseases, which are likely to worsen in many parts of the world as a result of climate change.
This is not only destroying our food diversity, but is also slowly killing us and our culture. Ann Wigmore rightly said, ‘The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.’ The choice is ours.
The speech was made by Janak Preet Singh, Associate Trainee, NESFAS, on the topic of Unity in Diversity through food, dress and culture at Ramakrishna Mission, Vivekananda Cultural Centre, on the occasion of Swami Vivekananda’s 150th Birth Anniversary which was celebrated on the 28th of April. At least a thousand students of Ram Krishna Mission Schools were present during the event. A session of sensory games, which was thoroughly enjoyed by the students, was facilitated by NESFAS there that day.