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Food Culture Of Tribals From South India

Adivasi Awaaz creator Kavi Priya talks about the traditional food culture of the tribals from South India, in the following article, discussing the consumption of various unconventional food items (according to the mainstream), that have resulted in their 'otherization'.

Tribal women of Tamil Nadu using firewood to cook meals; Image Source: Internet

Different communities have different food cultures, which often gives an insight into the way of living of these communities. For instance, the food culture of tribals depicts their closeness with nature. Even today, many tribes in India are dependent on forest produce for their food and sustenance. The growing interests surrounding sustainable living and environmental concerns have prompted research on tribal communities and their food habits. Fruits, millets and tuberous food like elephant yams have been some common food items of tribals residing in the southern parts of India, although food cultures vary across different tribes.


Tribal food culture is heavily dependent upon the seasonal availability of various food items. Items such as cereals and mushrooms are usually consumed during the summer season. During winter, potatoes and yams are preferred. Also, during the winter season, people usually consume boiled food. Additionally, the tribal communities follow the tradition of consuming seasonal vegetables. While a lot of greens are gathered from forests, these communities also cultivate seasonal vegetation for consumption. Spinach is a popular food item amongst tribal communities of south India. It is a customary practice to include spinach in their daily food.

Mushrooms, a seasonal food item of the tribal communities of south India; Image Source: Internet

The tribal food culture also includes a lot of meat. Due to their dependence on nature, they have traditionally consumed fish, crabs, snails, etc, that are found abundantly in water resources. However, it should be noted that these food items have predominantly been for self-consumption and not commercial purposes, due to which wastage and overutilization of resources have been avoided, enabling these communities to practice sustainable living. Apart from these tribal communities have also been involved in cattle rearing and farming. Hence, goats, chickens, etc., have been a constant source of food for them.

Extraction and consumption of honey has been a traditional practise of many tribal communities of south India; Image Source: Internet

One of the most popular and cherished food items in tribal culture has been honey. Many tribal communities like the Paliyars are involved in extracting honey from forests as their traditional occupation. In pre-globalized and neo-liberal societies, the extraction of honey was mainly for self-consumption, but now they are also sold commercially. Honey has a long shelf life and hence can be consumed over a long period of time. This makes it a perfect preserved nutritious source of food. The tribal communities of south India, heavily consume honey. It is a regular part of their diet as it is believed that it has many medicinal properties. Spices too are a big part of the tribal food culture. Spices such as turmeric, cloves, cinnamon, mustard seeds, etc., are said to carry many medicinal properties and are hence consumed frequently.

Various spices; Image Source: Internet

The tribal food culture is different from the mainstream food culture. It is centred upon food items that are believed to carry medicinal properties and are found abundantly in nature. Their consumption of non-vegetarian food items is also different. They consume snails, rats, crabs, etc., which is not a part of the mainstream food culture. This creates a perfect foundation for their 'otherization'. They are often looked upon as 'uncivilized' individuals, who consume anything and everything as food. But the fact remains that their food sources are rich in varied nutrients and their dependence on forests and nature, has shaped their food habits. Presently, many researches are focusing upon these very food items in an attempt to secure health benefits and promote sustainable living. Bamboo rice, a traditional food item among various tribal communities, is one of the examples of such an attempt.


This article is created as a part of the Adivasi Awaaz project, with the support of Misereor and Prayog Samaj Sevi Sanstha.


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