What a group of people eats is a big part of who they are.
That means it’s not a good idea to be too picky about one’s food while travelling. This is especially true in Meghalaya, where they eat just about everything. All the dietary habits which characterize the rest of India go right out the window: beef, fish, chicken, and, most importantly, pork, are all happily consumed.
But what really sets the Riwar diet apart is the incredible quantity of rice your average Khasi eats. There’s all manner of exotic bush meat that also gets ingested, but that’s the food of special occasions. Meghalaya’s single greatest spectacle of consumption is simply witnessing a normal Khasi eating a normal Khasi meal. It seems almost to defy the law of the conservation of mass, but I have never seen a human being ingest more food at one sitting than a Khasi eating what is for him or her a typical bowl of rice. The image itself almost doesn’t make sense: here’s a stick figure of a person, so toned and sinewy and solid looking, with a body mass index of probably -20, consuming, easily, a mountain of carbohydrates half the size they are. But nobody ever seems to gain any weight.
This can put me in a tight spot; a Khasi might be able to ingest a bowl of rice several meters in diameter, but when he or she, out of that overwhelming spirit of generosity villagers so often exhibit, invites me to eat at their house, the thought is that since I’m roughly twice the size of the typical villager, and a visitor, and probably hungry, I should receive a bowl of rice roughly four times as large as the normal southern Meghalaya portion. At best, I’m only able to down about half as much rice as your normal Khasi, so I find myself confronted with roughly eight times the amount of food that I could possibly ingest without going off like an overfilled water-balloon. It would be hard for me to go hungry even if I wanted to. In 2015, one of the first things my friend Heprit said to me after I finished hiking in the villages for a solid five weeks was: ‘You look like you’ve gained weight.’
But I’m not complaining. I’d rather be full than starving, and the villagers treat me better than I deserve. The food itself is very agreeable. I think the single best word to describe it is wholesome. Yes, I’ve often been stuffed to the verge of bursting with rice in Khasi villages, but then I’ve found myself climbing thousand-foot mountain slopes a few minutes later. One suspects a stomach-and-a-half full of pizza or biryani would be an impediment under similar circumstances. But that’s the whole point of Khasi cuisine. The taste may not exactly jump out at you, but it gives you energy, and in a rugged place where just going to the house next door is a struggle, one always needs plenty of calories to burn.
Other than rice, what the villagers eat unsurprisingly consists mostly of fruits and vegetables. Yams, known locally as shriew, are an important vegetable which grows well in hilly areas. They’re rather different from what I thought of as ‘yams’ in the U.S. They’re not sweet, and they’re usually mashed up, sometimes to the point of being almost a soup. Before communication with the outside world improved, they were a staple Khasi food, though over the years they have been partially supplanted by rice.
Jackfruit is also a food one can’t avoid in Riwar. This is especially true in the summer, when the great green spiky fruit hang obscenely in clusters from their trees, or lie cracked open on the jungle floor, having plummeted to the ground and burst, their innards spilling out and emitting a strong, sweet, sometimes rotten smell. At a pinch, one can eat jackfruit at most stages in their development (and, in several pinches, I’ve had some nasty-but-necessary under ripe jackfruit meals), but I’m told that the very best is to have the fruit right when they’re entering their sweetly pungent stage, but just before they go truly overripe and begin to rot. I fear my nose is not quite sufficiently attuned to that narrow window of jackfruity goodness to distinguish the deliciously mature from the recently putrid, so when I’ve had jackfruit at its very best, it’s been provided to me by discerning locals. On those occasions when I’ve tried picking and eating one on my own, the chosen fruit tasted like wet cardboard covered in glue. I regretted it.
In the villages, meat is generally something of a luxury. The Khasi diet is often described as being ‘Southeast Asian,’ which is short form for saying that they’ll eat just about anything. But that doesn’t mean Khasis are eating just about anything all the time. Outside cities, the meat one is most likely to get comes dried and in small quantities. Chunks of preserved beef are often the only protein in a meal. I’ve carried strips of it myself. It’s not exactly fancy, but it keeps body and soul together. Dried fish, either from Bihar or Bangladesh, are another important source of protein. You eat the things whole, heads and all. I’ve always found them rather tasteless, but not hard to get down when calories are wanting. Pork seems to be the favorite meat in Riwar. The fatty parts are especially prized, and sometimes during feasts I’ve found myself more or less chugging lard. It’s an honor of sorts, though I tend to feel less than energetic the next day.
Chicken, of course, is common, but wild jungle birds are also eaten with some frequency. The ones I’ve had (and I have no idea what species I was being served bits of), had odd, oily, after-tastes. I have been told that hunts for various kinds of mammals, including monkeys, bear, deer, etc. still regularly take place, despite being illegal (all of the animals listed above are threatened, having been extirpated over large tracts of Riwar).
The consensus seems to be that monkey meat isn’t anything to write home about.
However, I do know from experience that eating rat is not nearly as awful as one might expect. In the village of Rymmai, in a region called Katarshnong, I was once offered a bowl of rice and mashed yams, accompanied by a small chunk of flesh of unknown origin. I enquired as to what kind of meat it was, and was told ‘Doh-Knai,’ ‘Doh’ meaning meat, and ‘Knai’ meaning rat or mouse. The bit of it I had was chewy and rather too bony for my taste, but not awful. I wouldn’t order it at a restaurant, but at the time I was happy to get the protein.
Rather less edible were boiled tadpoles, which I had over rice and lentils in a village called Phlangmawsyrpat, incidentally, while watching the film Mad Max: Fury Road. As Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron fought for survival in a post-apocalyptic outback, I attempted to put away one slimy frog larva after another. It was not easy. The tadpoles were considered a delicacy, and great care had been taken to only harvest ones which had entered that particular stage of tadpolehood in which they had developed tiny legs, and sometimes arms, though the tails had yet to disappear. This is thought to lend the young amphibians a slight al dente consistency. I ate strategically, dividing my efforts between my tadpoles and the perfectly edible rice and vegetables on my plate. By going at a moderate pace, taking small but frequent bites, I hoped that I could appear appreciative of the food which had been so kindly provided to me without giving my hosts a justification for supplying me with another helping. In this I failed. Upon swallowing my final tadpole, another fifteen were gladly spooned out to me. I remember looking at the appalling post-apocalyptic vehicular carnage on the T.V. and thinking those jerks had it easier than I did at the time.
It’s also perfectly normal to eat insects in the Khasi Hills.
Flying ant-drones are one such six-legged delicacy. One evening, just as the sun was setting, I was walking down a narrow path in the jungle. Up ahead, I saw a mosquito net set up all by itself in the middle of a clearing. A villager was inside the net, furiously grasping at things that seemed to be swirling all around him. I was reminded of those ridiculous game shows where a contestant is put in a glass box and currency notes are being blown around inside, the idea being that the contestant gets to keep however many notes they can grab within a set time.
I went over to the net and looked through the transparent material. Inside, I saw that the villager was covered, head to toe, in small flying insects. I asked him what he was up to, and he explained to me that he was catching a snack for his kids. Grinning, he showed me that in each hand he had a great wriggling wad of crushed bugs which he was about to stuff into a plastic container. With the species of ant involved, the drones all leave their nest together at about sundown. This results in thousands upon thousands of the insects suddenly filling the air outside the entrance. If you put a semi-transparent mosquito net over the hole leading into the ant-colony, the ants inside won’t know what you’ve done, and when the drones come out in the evening they will all be trapped inside the net, easy to gather up and take away, providing you don’t mind going in there with them.
The next day the ant harvester invited me to his home to try some of the drones, which he had de-winged and fried up, along with some small freshwater prawns. The ants were something of a disappointment. They reminded me of stale popcorn without butter. But the prawns were quite tasty.
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