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Traveling in India: Food Culture

Okay, maybe that title is slightly misleading. When I was in India I ended up with dysentery so bad that I couldn’t eat much at all. But I do remember some of the things I ate or chewed upon.

I was in Meghalaya for a month and the Khasis tend to eat their food fairly plainly. Rice, chicken, beef, with these green, little bullet peppers on the side. Begung was one particular dish I remember (and the spelling is more phonetic than anything else). It was a dark green leafy vegetable chopped into small pieces and fermented or aged with something savory. Think Asian sauerkraut but completely different. They also made a beef jerky over the fire used to distill the local rice drink, kyat. This was like drinking very very green saki.

Khasis also eat a lot of boiled eggs. This got to be too much for us on the second day. At one point we got takeout. There aren’t many restaurants and takeout involved getting some kind of noodle dish served in a banana leaf. All biodegradable but now days they put those dishes wrapped in banana into a plastic bag for carrying and once you’ve finished eating you toss the leaf and the bag. It was a sad thing to see that Western culture was encroaching all the bad aspects there as well.

The one other item in Megahlaya that I tried wasn’t really a food item. It would go more into the realm of entertainment, or a side, or like smoking. This was kwai, or betel nut. The Khasis eat theirs fairly pure. You take a peppercorn leave–it’s actually a betel leaf though they called it peppercorn because of the peppery taste, put a dab of lime paste on it (this is not made from fruit). Then you take chopped up betel nut (or areca nut, which is similar to nutmeg in hardness and texture) and fold the leaf over the the ingredients. Then you chew and chew and chew. It’s very hard and takes the lime and the leaf to help break it down.

Betel nut is also a slight stimulant (and has been found to be a carcinogen). It tended to make me turn beet red, which everyone found quite funny. I didn’t notice more than a little rush. Many Khasis eat it often and it tends to stain the spit and therefore the lips red. One woman called it Khasi lipstick. Betel nut is eaten throughout India but it may be sugared, have candy sprinkles, spices or a host of other items to sweeten it up as it is pretty harsh and bitter. In India it is called paan.

Although I got into the habit of trying it in Meghalaya I didn’t continue in the rest of India because it was too sweet. Just as well since it is known for destroying gums and teeth because it is so hard. I remember being in some government buildings in India and seeing corners in halls stained red as if someone had been stabbed to death. People would just spit into the corners and it was never cleaned up.

Through the rest of India, I actually didn’t get a chance to try as much as the food as I would have liked. Dhal (a lentil stew) was common but I can’t eat lentils. And I also had dysentery, which prevented me trying many of the dishes I wanted. I do remember the yogurt being remarkably creamy and not bitter like it is here. You could get a salty or a fruit lassi, made from yogurt and they were a lot of what I survived on when I was very sick.

I’m afraid I never got to try curries and other local dishes. By the end of the two months I was too sick to remember much about the food, except to stay away from the Campa Cola, which was made in Italy but shipped to India because it was carcinogenic. What fun. It’s one regret, that I never got to try more foods while there, especially because I love spicy.

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Traveling in India: Memories of Meghalaya

When I went to India, I was poor. I saved up every penny, including sitting on the street corner and selling used books and ornaments (you could still do that in the West End at that point). My friends lent me the money for the plane ticket, which I paid back over the next year.

I was gone for two months and the first month was in the state of Meghalaya. There are seven autonomous states in northeastern India. They are: Assam, Meghalaya, Arunchal Pradesh, Mizoram (known for eating dog), Nagaland (known for eating these giant spiders I saw), Manipur. Meghalaya’s capital is Shillong, where I stayed but we did travel around some.

Hanocia, my friend from Meghalaya who had lived in Vancouver for years, was of an old family. There are last names, which denote some aspect of nobility or lineage that has carried on for generations. There are three major groups in Meghalaya; the Khasis, Garo and Jaintia with the Khasis being the largest. They are a rare thing in the world, a matrilineal society. Few cultures follow matriarchal culture and fewer matrilineal. Hanocia was the only daughter of a youngest daughter.

Instead of the oldest son of the oldest son it is the youngest daughter who traditionally inherits the family lands, partly because she will be around longest to take care of the aging parents. She also would oversee the family lands and riches. Children take their mothers’ last names and a divorced man moves back into the home of his mother. Clan leaders tend to be male but voted in by the women of the clan. Women handle the money a lot and men hunt. The Siyiem, equivalent to a king in their traditional society, will not see his son inherit but the son of his sister. The position does not have as much weight as it once did and Hanocia said one Siyiem lay in state, after he died, in the royal estates for a very long time because no one would take up the job, and he could not be buried until there was a successor.

The Khasis are a Himalayan hill tribe, traditional hunters with the bow and arrow. I saw the equivalent of horse races one day when we went out to a field where archery butts (stacks of sticks or reeds tied in an upright cylinder were set about a field. Then many men would kneel and shoot as many arrows as possible within a set time. I believe they then counted how many arrows were closest to the center (demarcated by lines or string) and the person who had bet closest to that number would win. Although the Indian government tried to discourage gambling, this was a very popular form for the Khasis.

They are a diminutive people, with the average height of women being under 5’4″ and men around 5’5″. There were a few taller people but often mixed with other blood and at 5’4″ myself, I towered above many of the people. Although many Khasis are now Christian, their traditional religious beliefs are animist. They believe there is a spirit in most things and we visited a scared grove of trees.

I was there in late October and November and was lucky enough to attend the seasonal festival. It ran three days and clan chieftains came from all over to meet. There was a dance that did not necessarily have prescribed steps and reminded me partly of Native American dances. In the sun, three Khasi women, sisters of the Siyiem I believe, danced very slowly, either holding parasols or someone holding one over their head (lighter skin is a sign of nobility). The women were done in the Khasis robes, (a nongkrem–this might actually be the name of a place and I’m misremembering), like a silk sari but folded in such a way to be pinned in a sheath over each shoulder. A longer sleeved top was worn beneath and on their heads stood tall and elaborate headdresses made of gold. Many Khasi women wear a gold necklace with a large ruby in it. In a circle around these dancing women men would dance running and moving quickly. It’s been a while so I don’t quite remember the details.

The animist Khasis also hold the rooster as a sacred animal as they believe that it conveys their messages back and forth to U Blei Ka Blei. U denotes masculine and Ka, feminine (spellings could be off a bit, so if I remember correctly it translates as “the god” or “he god she god”). At this festival there were men who did chicken divination, wringing the necks of the birds and using their fingers to pry the bodies open and remove the entrails. I’m not sure if the bodies were first cut or if they were actually pried apart.

I also went to a night festival that few women frequent but there was no rule against it. It took place in a building made completely of wood; even pegs and joins were of wood. Within was a fire and a tall pole. The men would get up and dance near or around the pole and high pitched pipes were played. I’m not sure what the purpose was and think that in some cases they were reluctant to tell me. It was probably something to do with fertility but I’m just guessing. I was also in some discomfort because I’d eaten some sort of preserved bamboo shoot and the preservative was causing a bad reaction (there was also no toilet on site so it was a bit of a conundrum).

I will write more on the Khasis of Meghalaya, but although Wiki says that permits were not needed by foreigners past 1955 this is not true. I went in 1989 and I had to get a permit. I was one of three white people that I saw, one other being Hanocia’s husband and one being a school child. I’m sure there were a few others but people tended to stare because tall white people were a rarity. Meghalaya is culturally protected, meaning that only Garo and Khasis can own land. They are not Hindu and in fact, eat beef quite regularly, which is cheaper than chicken. I believe that now permits are no longer needed though they may be for some of the neighboring states, which are also self-autonomous.

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