Mother Earth's Table

Run by women, the Mei-Ramew cafes in Meghalaya are showcasing traditional indigenous cuisine
A teenager plucking wild greens
A teenager plucking wild greens

Shnong Khweng. Her hands are the recent memories of Mei Ram&eacutew, of Khweng I carry with me. Kong Platina Mujai and Kong Dial Muktieh. This is their story. 

It was a hot Friday afternoon. I pack my bags with very little concern for my two-day - one night trip to Khweng. A village located in Ri-Bhoi district, Meghalaya.

The city was bustling with echoes of horns contradicting one another. The opinions on the traffic run all day long nowadays in Shillong. Cars almost kissing each other&rsquos bumper and squeezing door to door to fit in the narrow lanes of the town. More than the essentials that I needed to pack, I made sure to carry an extra dose of patience when driving in the city. It&rsquos becoming almost impossible without.

But after an hour of traffic, once you reach the diversion and turn right from NH 6, to join NH 28, everything changes.

There&rsquos lush green, with a tint of yellow on the paddy fields on both sides of the Shillong bypass. You&rsquod probably have to stop. I had to. The moisture in the air inside the car was too much. Using the air conditioner is never a good idea, and rolling the window down didn&rsquot make much of a difference either. But interrupting this line of overlaying thought was the sun dipping.

Soon the breeze from the rice fields brought an array of childhood memories. It was almost as if time had stopped and I was creating new memories in my mind. Memories I never once experienced, but somehow etched inside.

The only information I had about Khweng (Shnong), or Khweng village were the names of two women. Pioneers, if I may say. Preserving, sustaining, and cooking healthy local-indigenous food for people, is what they choose to do in life. Kong Platina Mujai and Kong Dial Muktieh, their hands, and what they choose to serve us. This is their story.

On reaching Bhoirymbong, Google Maps&rsquo autobot gives me the last heads-up of where I was heading, and when I was going to reach it. It should&rsquove taken another twenty minutes from the highway, had I not gotten lost. But I was on the concrete road, just as the skies wore colours of pink, orange, and white. So, it didn&rsquot bother me much. Another five minutes after asking a young fellow who wore a blue half sweater and checkered school shirt, I see my destination approximately fifty metres from a straight road leading to their abode.

Mei-Ramew Cafe. 

Kong Mujai&rsquos and Kong Muktieh&rsquos NESFAS food stalls stand side by side. The teacher and the follower, Mujai and Muktieh.

I parked the car behind Mujai&rsquos home in a breath. The four benches and tables in the stall were empty, except for a cat basking in the sun&rsquos last rays near the window. The rooms breathed a simple life, every day. One we don&rsquot often get to experience in ours.

I was greeted by Kmenlang, one of the seven daughters out of ten of Mujai&rsquos kids. I sat down and sighed in relief, while everything surrounding me caught my eye. I&rsquom awake.

Kong Mujai arrives from the back door and shakes my hand firmly, but her smile touches cheek to cheek, her voice coated with rasp and candy. Her hair was down. She was just done with her daily power nap and bath. She wore an aero blue blouse with flower prints on them. A jai&ntildekyrshah, and a jai&ntildepun - a long traditional Khasi apron tied on one side of the shoulder, and a traditional wrap-around for women in most parts of the Northeast. She introduces me to her kitchen, her nar-shawla which is a small metal structure usually rectangular or circular in shape that holds burning coal, her kettles and her pots, especially those made of clay, her spices and her fresh produce from the garden, fish from the nearby pond, and edibles from the weekly market. Each and every element had its own colour, texture, taste and smell. Though her culinary room was small, and only had natural light seeping through corners of wooden cracks, humbleness ran through every cavity of the food shed.

I had already arrived starving for food. Kong Mujai quickly calls for one of the youngest helpers, Risuklang Maring and asks her to prepare a platter of whatever was left of the day&rsquos cook. A plate of khaw saw or red khasi rice, doh syiar tyndong and doh sniang tyndong, which is chicken and pork cooked in bamboo tubes baked on fire or dpei. The traditional khasi platter is incomplete without its wild greens freshly picked from Mujai&rsquos kitchen garden. Jyllang, jamyrdoh, khlieñ syiar, are all wild vegetables that served as salads. Not to forget, red tea or sha saw which is a must during or after meals in khasi jadoh or tea stalls.

By the time I finished my food, the church bells rang and Mujai got up to inform the other helpers to be quick with work. Mujai lives in a rural space where a convention like the church binds the community together, almost infinitely.

I stepped out of the stall, kids running around barefoot, washing their feet, hands and face, to attend jing&iumlaseng or church service. Auto rickshaws, particularly Bajaj Maximas, pass by me every fifteen to twenty minutes. It was a Friday. Sons and daughters who worked in the city came back home to spend the weekend with their families.

My walk continued. Sometime around quarter to seven, the rain started pouring. Kong Margina, the Community Facilitator of NESFAS was kind enough to accompany me to my place of sleep. The lights had already gone off, and apparently it does so every five to ten minutes every single day.

I call it a day after light supper and decide to get some rest. Kong Mujai reminds me of her daily routine before I leave the kitchen. She gets up at four in the morning, and by six, food is ready. Before she closes her shop, she keeps all the ingredients ready whilst reflecting on a new menu for the day that follows.

Saturday was all about recipes. I meet Kong Mujai in the wee hours of the morning to watch her perform her daily rituals of cooking and tasting.

&ldquoIt all started in the year 1993,&rdquo she says. Almost thirty years of learning about local cuisine just from plucking wild edibles, learning how to fish, and experimenting with all the possibilities to squeeze out a plethora of flavours from the produce of the land she calls her home. She laments over the fact that there is comparatively lesser produce now due to the wide prevalence of mono-agriculture or monoculture. She remembers the time when ja-shulia was plentiful, but now the nearest place you can get your hands on this Khasi morning staple is at the Bhoirymbong market. Times are changing, she says while reiterating the need to love what we have, to use what is available in the most sustainable manner. &ldquoNESFAS reached out to us, educated us, taught us better ways of making use of our edibles,&rdquo she says.

&ldquoDa phi ieid ia ka kam, ka kam ruh kan sa ieid iaphi. Da phi burom ia ka kam, ka kam kan sa burom iaphi&rdquo. This translates to &ldquoIf you love your work, your work will love you. If you respect your work, your work will respect you.&rdquo Kong Mujai smiles at me, and asks, &ldquokadei ne em kata&rdquo or &ldquoisn&rsquot that so&rdquo I nodded feeling like a child again, sitting with my grandmother near the fire.

The menu for this Saturday included three types of rice ja doh which is rice cooked in a mix of spices and mustard oil, ja-shulia or sticky rice cooked in dried gourd and ja tyndong which is rice wrapped in sla ladew or banana leaf and cooked inside bamboo tubes. The rice is baked over fire for over an hour. The chosen meat for the day was doh kha dkhar or local fish with jai&uumlr which is local black pepper in its raw ground form and dhania khasi, or local coriander. Kong Mukai uses these ingredients instead of tomatoes. They are rather quite different from what we get in the city as well. There&rsquos a prominent zing-zing in the tongue that stays for quite some time from the spices. According to Kong Mujai, these are the best. She laughs and gets up with pride on her shoulders as she walks to the garden to get some of the wild greens.

Other dishes for the day included a boil of lungsiej or bamboo shoot, sohmynken or chillies and sohthangkalor and the other is a salad made out of wang-panai or a family of the taro plant mixed with nei-lieh or white til-seeds. The chutney that made it to the plate that day was tham or crabs. Mujai burns, grounds the crab with smoked chillies and tung-tap or small preserved fish. The chutney has a distinct smell and its taste hits home-run for most localities in the state.

While the dishes were on open fire, the doors and windows of Kong Muktieh&rsquos stall opened. She is a young woman of forty one, and the most prominent follower of Mujai. This is the first time I&rsquom meeting her, since she was unavailable the previous day. But just like Mujai, her dishes had an assortment of local chicken, smoked beef, different types of rice, crab chutney, smoked fish, smoked pork, and a wide range of greens. Like Mujai, Kong Muktieh also came from humble beginnings. She narrates a story of how from being a caretaker at home at a young age, she began experimenting with khasi snacks. She narrates a story of how from being a caretaker at home at a young age, she began experimenting with Khasi snacks, and earned some money by selling them. NESFAS has continuously supported both Mujai and Muktieh in their endeavours to preserve local culture. To learn to adapt to climate change and spread awareness through the consumption of local food.

Kong Muktieh&rsquos younger brother, Bah Barwell Muktieh also helps in the kitchen every day. He sits by the fire outside, shy of the camera while he monitors the ja-tyndong over crackling wood of fire. Her helper Kong Bethisda Muktieh, smiles at every customer walking in, serves them well and does her chores quickly and efficiently. In Khasi, we would call such spirits &ldquosting-met&rdquo which translates to an energetic body.

I sit down after Muktieh has cooked all of her dishes, almost the same as Kong Mujai&rsquos. She puts a leaf over a plate, and serves ja-stem or yellow turmeric rice, with doh-syiar khasi kylla nei-&iumlong or local chicken cooked in black sesame seeds, a piece of smoked beef, crab chutney, wang-panai and a variety of wild vegetables. I couldn&rsquot help but devour every item on the plate. Even the ones I was hesitant to try at first.

These are glimpses of the lives of two indigenous women. These are women who have paved the way to what can be a revolution in the area of food. Kong Mujai and Muktieh follow a simple yet impactful routine. While the roads are inching closer to villages, buildings are objectifying the meaning of development, these women are working towards sustaining what&rsquos left of culture, tradition and healthy local cuisine. &ldquoWe&rsquove already lost so much&rdquo, Mujai says, and we know that we can&rsquot lose any further. Since the shop&rsquos opening in 2013, Mujai has been serving the community food that respects mother earth and its yield.

NESFAS, and these two Mei-Ramew cafes in the region, strive towards preserving age-old food customs, culture, local produce, and improving the lives and well-being of indigenous women and men in the state.

After sitting with the two women for hours, it was almost time for me to wrap things up. Kong Mujai had just woken from her nap and was ready to share one last cup of red tea with me. She speaks of her excitement to feed people who come to her shop. She speaks of how foreigners love her food in delight.

Though tired, Kong Mujai says she would love to work and look after her stall with her husband Mington Lyngdoh in the coming years as well.

I get up from my seat slowly, and bid farewell to both Kong Mujai and Kong Muktieh before I return to the city. But I leave with my heart and hands content and full. A bottle of ashar or achaar, two bottles of umsoh jajew, and a pack of putharo or flat local rice cakes.

Kong Mujai tips me with one last gesture before she sends me away. She gives me kwai or betel-nut to chew for the drive. 

A tradition followed by the Khasis, the Pnars and the Garos all over the state. A tradition that perhaps will never disappear.

A tradition perhaps that will be saved by women like Mujai and Muktieh. 

Anissa Lamare is a mountain biker and bike mechanic by day and a freelance writer by night

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