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Lessons in Eating: Field Notes from the Western Ghats

GoyaComment
Lessons in Eating: Field Notes from the Western Ghats

Ecologist Anisha Jayadevan writes about living in the Western Ghats,  getting to know its fascinating flora and fauna, and finding bliss in a mouthful of wild honey. 

The afternoon sun makes its way through the forest canopy and dapples playfully on my notebook. I feel a drowsiness creep over me. We quickly finish our work for the morning and walk towards the river for lunch. 

Rivers have character. They flow gently, rush and bubble forth. Or just remain calm and sedate as though wondering where to go next. And associated with each kind of flow, each of the many rivers within a river, are specific species of fish. Imagine what happens when a dam is built.

Rivers have character. They flow gently, rush and bubble forth. Or just remain calm and sedate as though wondering where to go next. And associated with each kind of flow, each of the many rivers within a river, are specific species of fish. Imagine what happens when a dam is built.

In a shaded spot by the river, Manoj and I sit on a boulder and unwrap our lunch, packed in areca leaves. Lunch today is mashed tapioca and a spicy curry made out of the fruit and leaves of Solanum or black nightshade. It is simple fare, but I feel content as I eat it, relishing the hint of woodfire in the tapioca and the heat of wild pepper in the curry as I watch the river rush past. I fall asleep on the boulders, listening to the gurgling water and the cackles of a Malabar grey hornbill.

I am in Sakleshpur, a little village in the lush forests of the Western Ghats, one of the most bio-diverse places in the world. I have been living here many months now, studying how forest rodents help disperse rainforest trees, sometimes just by safely storing their seeds to eat later on and then forgetting about them. 

I had decided to be something of a hunter-gatherer here, and eat what the forest offered. This is of course, quite a daunting task, because in a rainforest almost every tree looks like the other. I used to spend long torturous minutes craning my neck to squint up at a tree before hazarding a guess to what it might be. The forest is also full of plants with secondary metabolites – compounds that make them distasteful or mildly poisonous to animals. And then there are poisonous fungi. I try not to balk at this, and arm myself with useful books, Manoj’s plant-identification skills and a few hazy memories of Botany class. 

In a rainforest, there's treasure everywhere; underfoot, skulking in the undergrowth, high up in the tree canopy or hidden away in a tree hollow, in a puddle of water, under a stone. 

In a rainforest, there's treasure everywhere; underfoot, skulking in the undergrowth, high up in the tree canopy or hidden away in a tree hollow, in a puddle of water, under a stone. 

As the days pass, I get better. I learn to pick out the heart-shaped leaves of wild yam, the long slender leaves of cardamom and distinguish between the oyster mushroom and its similar-looking poisonous cousin, the white Omphalotus. I find that the young leaves of the leguminous plant Cassia tora taste much less bitter than the mature leaves, and make for a nice stir-fry with mushrooms. 

My kitchen is a small room with a window overlooking a giant jackfruit tree. Its walls, like most of the vessels in it, are blackened with the soot of wood fire. A small earthen stove and a clay pot sit in a corner, alongside a stack of wood. Two baskets sit by the door, waiting to be filled with whatever we have foraged. A pickle jar of Colocasia leaves stands atop a table along with a few modest spices, and a hollowed section of bamboo, which I use to steam tapioca and yam in. Sometimes a big jackfruit lies by the wall, filling the room with its heavy, sweet scent. 

This is a Malabar pit viper - found only in the Western Ghats of India. It was coiled like this, as though in deep contemplation, outside our room for the better part of a day.

This is a Malabar pit viper - found only in the Western Ghats of India. It was coiled like this, as though in deep contemplation, outside our room for the better part of a day.

The kitchen comes alive at night, when I do most of my cooking. The flames of the fire cast a gentle, shifting glow as Manoj gives me ideas for new recipes or tells me stories about the forest. One of my favourites is the one about the flowering of the bamboo, which occurs every couple of decades or so. The bamboo flower blossoms throughout the forest, and entire families go out with big sheets to collect the seeds. They are then used as an alternative to rice, or sometimes, in a payasam.

Christmas-time comes once year, but the bamboo flowers once in sixty. Image by Siddarth Machado.

Christmas-time comes once year, but the bamboo flowers once in sixty. Image by Siddarth Machado.

I could wax lyrical about the other periods of plenty in the rainforest – the fruiting season from May to June, and the months following monsoon. My sambars, which usually echo the harvest of each season, become the most exciting item on our menu during these months, featuring jackfruit, wild mangoes, leafy greens and bamboo shoots. Manoj and I set out to harvest bamboo shoots after the first monsoon showers, amidst a chorus of cicadas and the pitter-patter of falling raindrops. We pick the newly emerged tender shoots of Ochlandra reeds, which grow on the banks of rivers.  These shoots, when soaked for a couple of days, leach out their acids and gently ferment. They are then dunked into sambar, pickled in brine, or fried along with vegetables.

The fruiting season is a bonanza for the animals too, and they often get to the ripe fruits before I do; I have never succeeded in reaching the ripe starfruit before the birds do. I spot the telltale signs of elephants who have indulged in wild mangoes, and watch giant squirrels thoroughly absorbed in gnawing on figs.

A jungle-striped squirrel busy eating bamboo flowers, in the western ghats of Maharashtra.

A jungle-striped squirrel busy eating bamboo flowers, in the western ghats of Maharashtra.

One day, I take the advice of a dear primatologist who suggested I follow the macaques and eat what they eat. And so began the discovery of many fruits: the small, purple, sweet and sour Maesopsis eminii, which is also a favourite of hornbills; the grimace-inducing Garcinia that is often used as a substitute for tamarind; wild jamuns, the dark fruits of Canthium diccocum, which taste like dates and turn my tongue black. I also quickly learn not to stand under the trees while the macaques are feeding, to avoid being knocked on the head by a piece of carelessly tossed half-eaten fruit.

The busy forest rodents remind me that I should try eating some seeds. They often leave heaps of seeds on the forest floor. I try the seeds of Sterculia guttata, which are tiny, oval and as black as the pupil of your eye. They are nestled in vermillion-coloured fruits, visible from afar. Roasted and salted, the seeds taste like groundnuts. Starchy jackfruit seeds when steamed, mashed and gently spiced with wild pepper, quickly become another favourite.

And then there are wild raspberries, growing like rubies on branches; grape-like Zizyphus berries that I gorge on every time we go for a hike and find ourselves on a grassy slope. And then there is forest honey. 

Manoj once came home gingerly holding a leaf of freshly tapped honey from a beehive. It tasted like no other honey I had tasted before. I closed my eyes and savoured it, wishing I had the ability to hunt for my own honey like a sloth bear. Since then, I found that honey tasted quite different depending on which tree the honeycomb was found on. 

A gray langur pauses to look at me inquisitively, before leaping noisily from branch to branch.

A gray langur pauses to look at me inquisitively, before leaping noisily from branch to branch.

There is no end to these revelations and surprises, in the rainforests of the Ghats. And so much that I am yet to taste: I haven't yet summoned the courage to discover what Manoj’s favourite weaver ant chutney tastes like.

If it’s not something new, there are always the old faithfuls to count on. One sultry summer’s day, a langur dropped a fig fruit, which is a constant, no matter which season it is. It landed right next to me just as my tummy grumbled impatiently. When in a rainforest, I tell myself, as I pick it up under Manoj’s approving gaze, eat as the others do.

Anisha Jayadevan is an ecologist and a writer. She loves plodding through forests and watching savanna skies. You can follow her here.

This non-fictional account of a wildlife biologist living in the Western Ghats is based partly on first-hand experiences in the forests of the Western Ghats and partly on information gathered in the process of research. Inputs on edible forest plants from Dr. Ajith Kumar and Siddharth Machado.

 

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