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The Forest On My Plate: Musings On My Favourite Dishes From Assam

Updated: Aug 8, 2021

The forces of "modernity" has brought about many changes to the tribal way of life. However, one area which continues to connect the past and present is the food sourced from the forest.

Image for representation purposes only. By Ashish Birulee

Tribal population has been known to derive its sustenance from the forest. They have sustainably lived amidst trees, rivers, and hills for thousands of years, and have played a crucial role in saving nature and the overall ecosystem. This is because they, by design, make optimal utilization of the natural resources available to them. The so-called “civilization” and “modernity” has brought a lot of changes to the tribal way of life, especially for people who dwell in urban areas or semi urban peripheries. For instance, more and more people in these areas are receiving formal education which has added a new dimension to the way knowledge is disseminated. Tribals and Adivasis have historically passed on information through orality. Other than that, people are also adapting to modern medical practices. They are receiving modern/ scientific health care facilities rather than going to see a traditional healer.

Perhaps the biggest sign of change, however, is in the culinary habits. Urban and semi-urban Adivasis are consuming food that has global reach such as North Indian, Chinese, and Italian cuisine, among others. Yet, a large number of people who live in the rural setup are co-existing with nature. They draw water from the rivers and streams, they consume food available in the wild, and they prepare their houses with the material sourced locally.

I am a Santal from a Santal village in Assam. Home has always been my favorite place. My house is surrounded by tall green trees and there’s a lake nearby. In the evenings one can watch the beautiful sunset on the riverside. There are fresh green vegetables that grow around me which are served on our plates regularly.

I miss the food I grew up with, especially those sourced from the forest. Yes, globalization has reached us too. My sisters and I have received formal education as have the other children from my village who go to government schools. Houses are constructed with bricks instead of clay. Traditional ploughs have been replaced by tractors and the indigenous paddy has been replaced by the High Yielding Varieties. Amidst all these changes we have managed to keep our livestock intact and we still continue to use cow dung as manure in the field. Thus our soil still breathes better and produces many seasonal wild plants that are edible and nutritious. We have been kind to nature and nature has been kind to us too. I consider myself fortunate enough to be able to collect some of the wild ingredients and transform them into delicious dishes. In this article I am going to share some of my personal favorite foods that are sourced from the forest.

Wild yam leaves are healthy and delicious. Photo by Naomi Hembrom

Vegetables: I don’t remember a time when I have come home and not eaten the curry made of wild yam leaves. It tastes better when plucked and kept for a day so it dries out a bit. We then boil the leaves and fry them in oil with burnt garlic and some salt. The simplicity of the recipe is no match for the taste it can bring to the palate. Another favourite is a wild fern. Then of course there are the mushrooms that bloom during particular seasons. I also have a fondness for mushrooms, especially the straw mushroom (Busup’ Ut’), pull out mushroom (Or Tut’ Ut’), flower mushroom (Dhant Ut’) and Cobbler Mushroom (Muci Ut’). I can eat it every day and at every meal. It’s like the taste stays with you forever.

The Mid-Night Horror Flower. Photo by Naomi Hembrom

Edible flowers: The Mid-Night Horror Flower is one of my favorites. It’s subtly bitter in taste. It is also considered medicinal and helps in blood purification. Another flower I recently discovered is the Mahua flower which when cooked with gram tastes amazing. Mixing a proportionate amount of flowers adds fragrance and sweetness to the dish.

Frog meat is a great substitute for factory chicken. Photo by Naomi Hembrom

Non Plant Based foods from the forest: Among the non plant based food, frog meat is my favorite. If you are penniless or you just want to avoid factory-produced poultry and fish preserved in ice for days, you can opt for it. Frog meat is fresh and it tastes better than chicken. Since I belong to a hunting-gathering community, I cannot skip mentioning rat meat which is a part of our culinary culture. For me it’s the non vegetarian version of mushroom.

On rainy days when one can’t go out much and vegetables get drowned in floods, we have two ways in which we can continue to eat great meals. Yes, the first ingredient is fish! As the water flows out of ponds and rivers, we keep traditional fish-catching tools or use nets to trap the fish. Last year we ended up eating fish twice and sometimes thrice a day. While today we can cook in whatever way we want to, I love it when fish is mixed with salt and chili, wrapped in leaves and then roasted on the coals of an open fire. Ah! The scent of the burnt leaves is mouth watering. Another food item that is common during rains is fresh carbs. One can eat a full plate of rice with just the crab chutney

Today I feel a connection with my family, the people of the community, and overall way of life, because the taste of the food feeds my soul too.

About the author: Naomi Hembrom is a development professional currently on break from work, spending quality time with her family in the village. She can be reached at


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