Remembering a forgotten way of life – foraging for food – from greens to fish and birds to small game in Assam’s verdant valley

Long before Danish chef René Redzepi made foraged food fashionable with his Copenhagen restaurant Noma, for a lot of people in remote corners of India, gathering different kinds of edible plants and roots from the wild was a way of daily life. Though the dependency on foraged food has gone down considerably today, in certain pockets of the country, the custom still prevails.

In the ’80s, my father, a chemical engineer by profession, quit his job at the oil refinery in Digboi, to set up a farm in a remote village in upper Assam. From mustard to medicinal plants and livestock to fishery, and eventually, tea, he dabbled, it would seem, in pretty much everything. The one word to describe our lives on the farm would be – unpredictable. We woke up to a view of the snow-capped Himalayan ranges in the distance and listened to the howling of foxes in the dark of the night and a symphony of croaking frogs during the monsoons. Situated in the valley of the Brahmaputra, our little village – Borhapjan – was lush, fertile and green as far as the eye could see. In the early years, before people started growing tea instead of vegetables in their backyard, this verdant landscape meant an abundance of wild plants and fruits, small animals and birds – literally, a bazaar in your backyard!

This was not unusual. From the time of the Ahom rule in Assam in the 16th century, every household, small and big, would have a bari or garden in their backyard – growing everything from plants to fruits, and even, betel nut. Pretty much self sufficient, one shopped only for foodgrains, spices, meat and fish at the market. Of course, in many small villages like ours, people also grew paddy which meant that they had their own supply of rice too.

The edible tea flower
The edible tea flower

And if your garden wasn’t bountiful enough or you didn’t possess green thumbs, there was no reason to worry. I remember our cooks collecting edible plants growing wild on our farm pretty much every other day. Case in point, dhekia xaak – the fronds of a young fern that grows wild across Assam. Simply sautéed and seasoned or used to make tenga (a sour curry), this is a staple dish in the Northeast. Similar to spinach in taste, the nutritious green is also packed with antioxidants. Imagine my surprise, when a few years ago, I came across the humble dhekia in the news! Celebrity chef Vikas Khanna, as part of a sattvic meal being prepared for former President Barack Obama, had prepared a dish of fiddlehead ferns (which is when I realised that dhekia had an English name).    

The fiddlehead fern or dhekiya
The fiddlehead fern or dhekiya

Like the dhekia, there are apparently 350 species of wild edible plants (this includes fruits, tubers, flowers, seeds and even bark!) in Assam. According to the journal, Wild Edible Plants of Assam, written by botanists Brahmananda Patiri and Ananta Borah, modern day foods that we are dependent on, consist only of 20 species of plants. Also, it was with the settlement of the British in Assam that locals had access to various types of pulses and vegetables such as cabbage and potatoes. In place of potatoes, for instance, people would use kath alu or wood potato – a tuber that would grow wild. With the same starchy profile as potato, the slightly purplish tuber would be sliced and fried or boiled and mashed.  

Another aromatic herb worth mentioning is the man dhaniya – used to flavour tenga or other curries. As sublime as lemongrass, this green leafy plant is used widely across Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura as well. Fruits such as leteku (a piquant sweet and sour white fruit similar to mangosteen) and ou tenga or elephant apple (used to flavour dal or tenga) are unique to the landscape too. Wild mushrooms were also consumed – although one had to have a trained eye to tell the poisonous ones from the edible varieties. 

Tea garden workers, who were identified as Adivasis, were initially brought over to Assam by the British from present-day states of Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal, Telangana and Chhattisgarh. Over time, their descendants have adopted much of the local customs as well as brought in their own. Having grown up playing with their children, I learnt firsthand their unique food habits. Like the Assamese, the Adivasis too would source a much of their daily requirements from the natural habitat. I remember one particular family gathering the small white flowers from our tea seed trees – unlike the bushes from which one plucks tea leaves, these were fully-grown tea trees from which we collected seeds during the months of October to December. These flowers would be cooked simply, much like a sabzi.

The elephant apple
The elephant apple

I also remember the locals, tea tribes as well as Assamese folks, hunting for green pigeons known as haita in Assam. While the tea workers would shoot them down with a catapult, my father would use his hunting rifle. The bird would usually be seasoned lightly and roasted over an open flame or pan fried. Gamier than poultry, the pigeon was, nonetheless, tasty. Wild fowl, wild hare, ducks and boars were all fair game. In most households, though, villagers would raise cows, chickens, ducks and pigs for their needs. Fish was another important part of the diet. While river fish was generally bought from the weekly market, many a times, villagers would catch different kinds of small fish from streams, ponds, and even the paddy field using makeshift nets, cane fishing baskets and bamboo fishing rods. Certain Adivasis were even known to hunt down foxes whose meat was recommended for relieving ailments such as arthritis.       

I left home, like most young people from the Northeast, in search of better opportunities almost 18 years ago. Even at that time, life had already changed considerably. The Indian Oil Company was aggressively drilling for new oil sources in our village and most locals had started growing tea in small patches of land. All this meant the erosion of forest cover and greater dependency on local markets and shops for daily requirements.

But if I close my eyes and focus, I can clearly see my playmate Phoolmoni, the daughter of a tea garden worker, and myself knocking down sour, green jalphai (Indian olives) and bogoris (jujube) from one of the many trees on the farm – some grown, some wild – and settling on a haystack to enjoy our spoils. An incredibly satisfying feeling!