How Ranchi's Aruna Tirkey Is Reviving Adivasi Cuisine And Culture

With a commitment to sustainability and a warm rural ambience, Ajam Emba restaurant is a must-visit in Ranchi
Two indigenous dishes on the top and bottom left. On the right is Aruna Tirkey at the Aadi Mahotsav in New Delhi (February 2023)
Two indigenous dishes on the top and bottom left. On the right is Aruna Tirkey at the Aadi Mahotsav in New Delhi (February 2023)Copyright: Ajam Emba/Jharkhandi Foods

When Aruna Tirkey won first prize in the Jharkhand cuisine category at an indigenous food competition in 2016, a light went off in her head. For the last 15 years, she had fielded questions about Adivasi food whenever she visited states like Andhra Pradesh and Odisha in her capacity as a rural management professional for organisations like the United Nations Development Programme and World Bank. She would struggle to come up with an answer because indigenous food wasn't well-known or popular at the time. But after winning in her category, she finally joined the dots.

Why not work on reviving millets that were a staple diet of the indigenous communities of Jharkhand?

After extensive research that involved visiting local communities of the Oraon, Munda and Santal tribes—where gondli (little millet) was fed to cattle rather than eaten as it symbolised poor people's food—she started a restaurant and catering business in 2017 called Ajam Emba, meaning "great taste" in the Kurukh language, to showcase the best of Adivasi cuisine.

Khapra roti with mutton mudawwal
Khapra roti with mutton mudawwal Copyright: Ajam Emba/Jharkhandi Foods

With a clientele ranging from young people to 80-year-olds, this Ranchi-based restaurant has served over 100,000 people from all over the world since its inception, including plenty of overseas tourists. On the menu, you will find items rooted in Oraon, Munda, Santal and Ho cuisines like rice tea, jil peetha (chicken with rice dough and her award-winning entry in the competition), marh jhor (spicy broth made of boiled rice water native leafy vegetables and whole spices), marwa roti and phutkal chutney. Gondli kheer is one of the most popular items alongside millet momos (made with ragi)—a unique Tirkey invention. Her own favourite is red rice with mutton. Prices range from INR 25 for items like rice tea to INR 850 for the non-vegetarian platter.

The inventor and entrepreneur, who hails from the Oraon community, faced opposition from her family for leaving a cushy job in rural management to start a food business, but, in time, they rallied around her, and the venture has been a resounding success.

The interior of the Ajam Emba restaurant
The interior of the Ajam Emba restaurantCopyright: Ajam Emba/Jharkhandi Foods

According to Tirkey, "For the first two to three years, 80 per cent [of our customers were] tribal people, and they would come in huge numbers full of pride for Ajam Emba. One group would come in, and they would bring another two groups [with them]. After COVID-19, 80 per cent of our customers are nontribal people from all over the world. All the tourists and officials who dine here refer this place to others".

Tirkey uses traditional ingredients and recipes, and her restaurant is designed to evoke the warmth and feel of Adivasi households. "I [created an] ambience so that people will come and have the food with [a] rural feeling. My USP is that people eat the food on a sal leaf [and] people [can] sit on the floor. Now we have an upper seating area also", she said. She is constantly innovating recipes and creating fusion foods to appeal to young people who often gravitate towards fast food options.

Aruna Tirkey (R) with her Ajam Emba team
Aruna Tirkey (R) with her Ajam Emba teamCopyright: Ajam Emba/Jharkhandi Foods

There are 12 full-time staff at the restaurant and a further ten people who are called upon when things get busy. The place is run by tribal women, and Tirkey has invested in forming backend linkages with more than 100 local farmers to procure her ingredients. She recently started distributing climate-resilient seeds to farmers in Gumla and Simdega districts to ensure a self-reliant food production system and has trained ten people as chefs to handle cooking duties even when she's not there.

Tirkey has an ambitious and bold vision for Ajam Emba and her community: to serve people clean, good and fairly priced food grounded in climate action and sustainable livelihood. She is part of the global slow food movement and has formed a slow food community in Odisha.

"Slow food means food which comes from seasonal forest produce, and the preparation type is also slow as opposed to fast food", she says. "The Adivasi food system has a small carbon footprint. If we are serving clean and good food, then we have to think about the climate and environment. All of our food is sustainably produced and consumed, so conservation and preservation are important".

Visitors can find Ajam Emba at Kanke road behind Dr Rash Kujur Clinic.

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