Sitting under the shade of a tamarind tree, one afternoon in October, Laxmi Nimble shares her recipe for tamarind amti — the ideal accompaniment to bombil (Bombay duck) fry and rice. The quiet 70-something, a tribal woman from Aarey Milk Colony in the western suburbs of Mumbai, explains that, apart from chilli, salt, jaggery and oil, which are used to prepare the simple recipe, the tamarind itself is foraged from the forest. “We get everything we need to survive; we use what grows here,” says Nimble, “There are more gems in this forest which are not explored.”
Spread over 3,000 acres, which were once on the outskirts, Aarey Milk Colony has been absorbed by an ever-expanding Mumbai. Established in 1949, Aarey has 27 tribal padas, or hamlets, with an Adivasi population of over 10,000. It is also home to more than 290 wild species of flora and fauna. The Katkaris, Mahadev Kolis, Mallar Kolis, Warlis and other tribals who live in the hamlets inside Aarey, rear poultry and goats, and cultivate over a dozen varieties of crops including banana, chikoo, jackfruit, guava and paddy.
All of this stands to change as nearly 2,000 trees were cut, despite huge public protests, to make way for a metro car shed. Petitions to declare Aarey a forest were dismissed by the Bombay High Court on October 4, with authorities beginning the process of chopping trees the same night. As the city erupted in protests, the tree felling was stayed by the Supreme Court. A special bench of the apex court is scheduled to hear the matter on October 21.
The felling is likely to change the tribals’ way of life and one of the things that will be affected is the unique food culture that has developed inside Aarey. For the last few years, there has been a growing awareness among Mumbai’s foodies about this tribal cuisine, thanks to the food festivals and other initiatives organised by groups such as We Will Help, which works for the upliftment of the community.
The cuisine, however, needs documentation as well, and this is where Shyam Bhoir, son of the tribal activist Prakash Bhoir and resident of Kelti pada in Aarey, steps in. He shoots videos of local recipes and uploads them on a YouTube channel called Qisa Taste, which was set up in 2009 to share rare Adivasi recipes from across the country. “I want more people to be aware about the forest, which is the only surviving green lung within Mumbai. We have a rich culture and heritage which needs to be introduced to the rest of the world,” he says.
Bhoir says that Aarey’s food culture is important because it is in sync with nature and the seasons. “We always use what grows naturally in our surroundings and do not go against nature. We heavily rely on tamarind, river fish, bamboo shoots, ladies’ fingers and wild vegetables in our staple diet,” he says. The videos that he shoots are rustic, made using only his phone and a microphone, right outside his hut.
Bhoir was encouraged to start documenting Aarey’s unique food culture by Ankush Vengurlekar, co-founder of Adivasi Lives Matter, an online platform to challenge the neglect of tribals in India. The platform highlights the struggles and triumphs of India’s indigenous populations. Bhoir recently uploaded a recipe for bamboo and prawn curry on the YouTube channel.
He adds, “You will find the use of tamarind water across our cuisine. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, tamarind is abundantly found here, and thus economical for us. It also provides flavours, unlike plain water, and is a substitute for dal (lentils) which is expensive.”
On the slopes near Devicha Pada, a hamlet named after the temple of a local goddess, grows a vine of karande, an aerial yam which is native to the region. A local from the pada, Mohan Dalvi, picks up a specimen of the tuber, which has fallen to the ground. “It will first be served to the god at the Diwali Puja. Only then will we start using it in our food,” says the 60-something. Karande will be available for the next three to four months. Dalvi adds, “If you break it open, and cook or eat it directly, it will be inedible. It has to be cooked overnight in coal heat, so that all its bitterness is sucked out.”