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Food Basics

“Staple food” a term commonly used to describe food with ingredients that is easily available, prepared regularly and is a dominant portion of the diet for the people of a particular region. And for this very reason has somehow lost its credibility.

But Muthubi here, when shared a story from her childhood, changed the perspective of it all.

Muthubi is an employee at the government resort we were staying at, in Kadmat island of Lakshadweep. Kadmat is a small island around 12km in Iength, dotted with coconut trees as can be imagined in any coastal setting.

Just a day or two into our stay at the island, I met her as she was carrying her routine work at the resort. The clear blue waters and the peaceful sound of the waves compelled me to compliment her about her home island. She smiled and agreed with me. But with her gaze towards the sea, she started talking about the downside of staying so remotely.

The island being small does not have the space or the kind of soil for extensive agriculture. So rice, pulses and other important food items arrive here by ships in a periodic fashion now. But back during her childhood times, the story was very different. The ships arrived once in 4-6 months. So there was a longer gap before fresh supplies would arrive. And heavy rains & high tides would hamper the arrival time of the supplies even further. The islanders are fishermen by occupation. Therefore fish and coconut were the 2 items that was available and accessible to them. Heavy monsoons did hamper the supply of fish to some extent too.

Those times were difficult she recalled. She was a part of a large family and had many siblings. She remembered that her father would go for fishing and at times return with not enough for the whole family. “But there were Dweep unda’s for us children as a main source of energy rich food” and closed her fist tightly as one would do to imply strength. Dweep unda’s are a local sweet delicacy of which I had not heard of until that point. It is entirely made out of coconut that can be prepared in bulk and consumed when needed.

Her narrative not only changed my perspective about life in such remote islands but also about the way I understood food – especially the ones we casually categorize as “staple”.

Dweep unda’s I believe are a creation of the islanders keeping in mind the shortages of food, the ingredients that are readily available, the nutritious value and at the same time tasty enough to lure children into eating it. Thought, skill and experience would have gone into coming up with something like this especially when your resources are so limited.

I started to give more attention to local food thereafter. During the span of my stay, I heard of many other “Dweep” specialties. One that stood out for me was the octopus pickle. Fish pickles aren’t uncommon, but I had not heard about octopus pickles before. One evening while lazing around at the beach, I saw the islanders walking into the reef with metal spears in their hands. 

                                                                                           Locals on Octopus Hunt

On inquiry, they said they are going to hunt octopus which usually hides beneath the rocks that is exposed during such low tides. Octopus is an easy catch and pickling them increases the time of storage – so it serves well for the times when fishing isn’t possible.

Another such “staple” I came across was the one time we were invited by a local to his house for a cup of tea. To our surprise the tea was served with a plate of shredded dried fish mixed with pieces of coconut – as a snack to go with tea. If you come to think of it, what else would you find as an ideal evening snack when you have only fish and coconuts available to you? And if you do like eating dried fish, this combo with black tea actually went well!

The brief conversation I had with Muthubi changed the way I understood food in general. We often talk about food as a cultural heritage, of traditional value, or of its evolution in the modern times. But rarely is it spoken from the perspective of necessity or the situations under which such recipes came into existence. After all food is indeed driven by necessity and everything else is just a frill to this fact. Muthubi just reminded me of that.

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