Mei-Ramew Café: A Vehicle to Promote Nudes (Neglected and Underutilized Species)

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By Bhogtoram Mawroh and Janak Preet Singh

Currently, 75% of the world’s food is generated from just 12 plants and five animal species, despite an estimated 250,000-300,000 known edible plant species worldwide and 150-200 species already used by humans for food. One implication of this increasing homogenization has been the continued marginalization of so-called NUS or Neglected and Underutilized Species, many of which are highly nutritious and have great potential to adapt to climate change. According to Stefano Padulosi, Phrang Roy and Francisco J. Rosado-May in their 2019 report “Supporting Nutrition-Sensitive Agriculture through Neglected and Underutilized Species – Operational Framework”, the term NUS was first developed by the International Resource Institute phytogenetiques/IPGRI (predecessor of Bioversity International) to designate plant species (wild, or semi- or fully domesticated) left on the margins of R&D. ‘Neglected’ highlights the low level of research investment in them compared to major staple crops, while ‘underutilized’ alludes to their untapped subsistence potential. In Meghalaya, these refer to the many traditional food plants (both wild and cultivated) that are part of the food systems of indigenous peoples but have been marginalized over the years.
The 2018 participatory mapping exercise with Dietary Diversity Score Survey (DDS) conducted by NESFAS/North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society in 32 villages in Meghalaya and Nagaland revealed that while local indigenous communities still harbor a large amount of agrobiodiversity – an average of more Over 200 food plants per village, dietary diversity was very low, i.e. the daily diet was homogeneous and lacked many food groups , especially micronutrient-rich foods. This could have devastating repercussions on the food security and food sovereignty of communities in addition to making them very vulnerable to climate change. To counter these threats, integrating NUS or traditional food plants (which include wild foods) into the overall narrative is an important strategy. These food plants are an integral part of local cultures and are increasingly featured in efforts to revitalize local traditional food cultures. In this regard, the efforts of Mrs. Plantina Mujai and Mrs. Dial Muktieh to promote traditional Bhoi-Khasi cuisines through their Mei-Ramew cafes are very noteworthy.
The Mei-Ramew Café is an indigenous café and community food business promoted by NESFAS that serves local foods and encourages innovation in local recipes with maximum use of locally available ingredients. Plantina and Dial are residents of Khweng (a village in Bhoirymbong C&RD block) and have been running their own grocery stores for many years now. Plantina, the older of the two, started cooking and serving food in 1992. Initially, the shop was located where the people of Mynri (a nearby village) gathered with their polo (bamboo baskets ). With the arrival of the road, she moved her shop to the current location, near the taxi stand. Despite the change in location, customers continue to come to her shop because they enjoy traditional dishes made with local ingredients. Dial first entered the food trade by preparing food at home and selling it to other shops and households in the village. But when she got married, she decided to set up her own grocery store.
Although Plantina and Dial now exclusively cook and serve traditional dishes, they didn’t start out as such. Plantina’s first activity was to bring goods from the village to sell them at the market and vice versa. At that time, barter was the main mode of transaction. People in the community would bring local rice and in return she would give them the vegetables and charcoal she had bought at the market. Sometimes she also brought rice from the market to sell in the village. Little by little, she turned to the food business which she has been pursuing ever since. Kong Dial, on the other hand, started in the food business but sold traditional and non-traditional snacks like samosas, longs, momo, etc., for which she underwent training from RRTC (Rural Resource and Training Center ), Umran. With the intervention of NESFAS, she shifted her menu to more local foods. It now serves exclusively traditional dishes.
Faithful to the matriarchal tradition of the Khasis, it was the grandmothers who taught Kong Plantina and Kong Dial to cook traditional dishes. At the age of 13, Kong Plantina went to live with her grandmother in Syntiewmaw, her ancestral village. It was there that his grandmother taught him how to cook traditional dishes and gather wild foods from the forest. Likewise, Dial learned to cook from his grandmother who was known to be an excellent cook in the village. However, with age, her eyesight began to fail and she could only teach her granddaughter through instructions. Impressed by the cooking, her grandmother encouraged Dial to open her own grocery store. In a way, the respective Mei-Ramew Cafés are a tribute to their grandmothers who had passed the baton of tradition to their granddaughters.
Although Plantina and Dial are followers of traditional Bhoi-Khasi cuisine, they have made innovations in order to add variety to the menu and meet the demand of their customers. In the past, wild foods were only cooked with ktung (dried fish). Now Plantina serves them with pork and taro. Recently, it has been preparing and marketing ice cream made from jajew (Roselle – Begonia spp.), tamarind and soh shang (wild olive or bastard oleaster). Similarly, in order to make phandieng (tapioca) more palatable for his children, Dial came up with the idea of ​​a phadieng cake on a Christmas which later became very popular in the village as well. She is also adept at cooking in bamboo tubes called tyndong. The mushroom rice prepared by Plantina and Dial is out of this world. Over the years, the two have made more than dozens of such innovations.
One of the important ingredients in all dishes prepared by Plantina and Dial are wild foods, harvested from vegetable gardens, rice paddies and the forest. The report “Supporting Nutrition-Sensitive Agriculture through Neglected and Underutilized Species – Operational Framework” mentions NUS like wild mango in India and African leafy vegetables like spider plant, juicy marshmallow and nettles as having excellent nutritional and being rich in vitamin A and iron. In this context, Plantina has an interesting story about the nutritional and medical properties of jamahek (Rhynchotechum ellipticum). A relative of his was admitted to hospital some time ago and told that he needed a blood transfusion. Since the family was financially weak, he was brought back to the village. At home, the grandmother asked the family to make the young man eat jamahek regularly in his meals. Very quickly, he fully recovered without needing to return to the hospital.
Plantina and Dial are part of NESFAS’ Mei-Ramew Café initiative, the first especially since 2013. After adopting the concept, Dial also renamed their shop Dial Muktieh’s Mei-Ramew Café in 2019. In the past, they had received training from RRTC with MBDA (Meghalaya Basin Development Authority) and ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research) also providing them with support in form of training and platform to sell their food. Dial indeed won the top prize during the 2022 International Women’s Day celebrations organized by ICAR-KVK. The local MP, George Lyngdoh, also gave him financial support to repair the roof of his cafe. During the SHG Mela 2022 held in Bhoirymbong, Plantina and Dial were invited to sell their food.
In the context of Meghalaya, traditional foods or NUS are important in the food systems of indigenous peoples, which have great potential to tackle not only the problem of malnutrition, but also climate change. This was recognized globally when “Insights on Sustainability and Resilience at the Frontlines of Climate Change”, which is a case study of Meghalaya, won the award for Best Global Sustainability Report 2021. Plantina’s and Dial’s Mei-Ramew cafes are important interventions in this regard to be supported and emulated.
PS: Plantina Mujai and Dial Muktieh are also taking orders for catering. Interested persons can reach them in their village (Khweng) or contact NESFAS.
About the Authors: Bhogtoram Mawroh is Senior Associate, Research and Knowledge Management at NESFAS and can be contacted at [email protected] Janak Preet Singh is Senior Associate, Livelihood at NESFAS and can be contacted at [email protected]

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