Lathika George explores the food and farming traditions of Indian agricultural communities

Updated: 12 August, 2018 12:42 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

The one thing that organic gardener and landscape designer Lathika George learnt during her sojourns into the farmlands of India is that their kitchens were centres of alchemy

Bollamma's Pandhi Curry
Bollamma's Pandhi Curry

The one thing that organic gardener and landscape designer Lathika George learnt during her sojourns into the farmlands of India is that their kitchens were centres of alchemy. To some, this description might sound like an exaggeration. But, George, who first-hand witnessed how the "food grown on the farm or collected from the wild was elevated to magic," would ascribe this talent to only a rare few. They don't follow recipes while cooking, yet, each time, they bring something astoundingly fresh and delectable to the table, she says.

Lathika George
Lathika George

George's new book Mother Earth, Sister Seed: Travels through India's Farmlands (Penguin Random House) is a tribute to these alchemists, the traditional agricultural communities, who thrive and survive in the hinterlands of India. A culmination of four years of research, George takes us through the length and breadth of rural India - from the fisherfolk of Mandapam, Tamil Nadu and coffee growers in Coorg to the Irani chikoo farmers in Dahanu Maharashtra - and explores the ancient systems of farming, which have now become an intrinsic part of the country's food narrative. She also offers us a peek into their kitchens to show what and how these farming families rustle up their meals.

"People in farmlands and those into food production have an instinctive way of cooking," says the Kodaikanal-based writer. "Firstly, all the food is seasonal, fresh and naturally grown. I was also very fascinated with the way they cook. They are very practical - if some ingredient is not available, they make do with what they have," adds George. That's also why some of the rural recipes that find mention in the book, come devoid of measurements. As George writes in the book, it's not the ingredients that determine the recipe, but "the sun, the moon, the rain, the condition of the soil, and the worms, and insects."

The rural kitchens also stand out as large social spaces. For instance, most homes at the Yangsum Farm in Rinchenpong, Sikkim, had at least three kitchen units. Away from the main house is a large kitchen, and opposite this kitchen, George says is an outside kitchen, which has a separate unit attached to it, where only chang, a local alcoholic beverage, is prepared.

The book, she says, helped her see farmers not as statistics - as they are often reduced to - but as ambassadors of India's food tradition. "I think I could be accused of writing a very self-indulgent book that romanticises farming. But, I see farming as romance, because food defines who we are. Everything right from our tradition, rituals and celebration is inspired by this."

Excerpted with permission from Mother Earth, Sister Seed: Travels through India's Farmlands by Lathika George, published by Penguin Random House, India

Bollamma's Pandhi Curry, Coorg

Pork cubes: 1/2 kg, Red chilli powder: 1 tsp, Turmeric powder: 1 tsp, Coriander leaves, chopped: 1/4 cup, Coriander seeds: 1/4 measuring cup + 1 tbsp, Peppercorns: 1/4 tsp, Fenugreek: â…› tsp, Small jeera: 2 tsp, Mustard: 2 tsp, Onions: 2, large, Green chillies: 5, Ginger and garlic paste: 1 tbsp, Kachampuli (dark tart vinegar): 1/2 tsp, Oil: 1 tbsp, Salt to taste

Marinate the pork in red chilli powder, turmeric powder, coriander leaves and salt. Roast the coriander seeds, peppercorns and fenugreek till dark. Also separately roast the jeera and mustard. Crush the chopped onions and green chillies coarsely. Cook the pork in its marinade till the liquid has evaporated. Heat oil in another pan, fry the crushed onion and chillies with ginger garlic paste till the oil separates. Add the cooked pork and the roasted powders, reserving half of the jeera and mustard powder. Add water if necessary and cook the pork till soft. When the meat is tender, add kachampuli and sprinkle the reserved spice powder, sieved; simmer over a slow fire till well-cooked.

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