First Food

Slow Food Founder Carlo Petrini, Meghalaya CM & Manjit Gill Set Tone for Indigenous Terra Madre, Which Opens in Shillong on November 3

Posted: November 1, 2015 at 3:59 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

Manjit Gill asks chefs to join the global culinary revolution for sustainable ways of eating

I DO NOT generally open my stories with pronouncements of politicians, but Meghalaya Chief Minister Mukul Sangma made a significant point at the New Delhi curtain-raiser for the Indigenous Terra Madre opening in Shillong on Tuesday, November 3.

Governments, Sangma said at Meghalaya House on a balmy Saturday night, “must help people engaged in agriculture to remain in the communities where they belong”. Making a strong case against rural migration and the urban imbalances it causes, Sangma said the process needs to be reversed by making agriculture sustainable and more remunerative to our farmers.

Carlo Petrini, Founder-President, Slow Food International, who was present in the gathering, must have found it most heartening to hear a politician echo the sentiments of the civil society. In his speech, which had all the hallmarks of his straight-from-the-heart oratory, Petrini said “global food corporations and intensive commercial agriculture” were “destroying the planet”.

He said the Indigenous Terra Madre (ITM) represented 500 million small and marginalised agricultural producers in 170 countries, and they were in “great difficulty”, which was “absolutely unacceptable”. Making an impassioned plea to safeguard local communities and the local economy, and usher in “participatory democracy”, Petrini said: “Global financial and economic dynamics are creating pain and suffering in the world. The time has come to change the paradigm. Food is not just a commodity, it is the way of life of communities, and the source of their culture and spiritual well-being.”

Introducing the Indigenous Terra Madre, which this year will lead up to Meghalaya’s annual Mei Ram-ew food festival at the Mawphlang Sacred Grove, 25km from Shillong, Phrang Roy, President, North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS), said indigenous people formed 4 per cent of the world’s population, but contributed to 95 per cent of its cultural diversity; they owned 22 per cent of our planet’s land surface, but were custodians of 80 per cent of our biodiversity.

Bringing the point closer home, Roy, one of the country’s foremost champions of agrobiodiversity, gave the example of the world’s first citrus fruit species, Citrus Indica (the wild orange, or Memang Narang), which can be found today only in the Nokrekh Biodiversity Park in the West Garo Hills district of Meghalaya. The state, he said, is blessed with 67 per cent of the country’s biodiversity.

“Local food systems are an important aspect of the new and emerging design of our well-being,” Roy said, adding: “We welcome our traditional systems, but we also welcome modern science. We have to see how best they can be combined in an agro-ecological approach to development.” His sentiments were echoed by Manjit Gill, Corporate Chef, ITC Hotels, and President, Indian Federation of Culinary Associations (IFCA), who shared the perspective from the last mile of the food production system.

Gill urged fellow chefs to become ambassadors of the sustainable value chain that reduces the distance between farm and table. “We are the cusp of a global culinary revolution and a new food consciousness,” Gill said.

Chefs must join this revolution by devising “more sustainable and reliable ways of eating,” he added. Without chefs the revolution will remain unfulfilled because “cooking is the creative process that connects the toil of the farmer to the bounties of the table.”

The evening ended, as you’d expect from a celebration of indigenous agriculture, with a Meghalayan feast laid out by Daniel Syngkon, Shillong’s much-acclaimed young chef and a member of the International Terra Madre Cooks’ Alliance, and a team from ITC Hotels led by Rajdeep Kapoor and Sunil Gadihoke, ably assisted by Sabyasachi ‘Saby’ Gorai and Sujan Sarkar, who, though a guest, pitched in as a server, making Chef Gill joke that “a chef can become a maitre d’ but the reverse can’t happen.”

My favourites were the blood sausage fritters encased with crunchy deep-fried local black rice and the main course items: rice cooked with banana florets and flavoured with local fresh turmeric, local pepper, local ginger and chicken stock; chicken slow cooked with locally fermented soya beans; fresh wild ferns tossed with garlic and local spices; and the best: prime cuts of pork cooked with traditionally fermented bamboo shoots and local bird’s eye chilli.

The preparations exploded with flavours, yet they were not heavy on the system — reminding us yet again that the indigenous system of cooking has successfully over centuries extracted the best of flavours from the gifts of nature without using the crutches of butter, cream, corn starch and refined sugar. Nature knows how best to pamper our taste buds.