Bastar in Chhattisgarh is breathtakingly beautiful place with stunning waterfall, forest areas, caves etc. It also bears a rich tribal heritage and tradition that is nurtured by the tribal population over here. Attracted by this rich cultural and natural diversity, we went there to explore the place through the lens of food. To guide us in this journey we joined our host Rajneesh Panikar who runs a pleasantly rustic homestay named Aamcho Ladi in Maanjhipal village. Located amidst tall trees, farms and village settlement, it is quaint place with mere basic facilities. It is an endeavour to promote the tribal culture and heritage.
Because of the forest cover, the inhabitants over have very little scope to cultivation crops. As a result they mostly consume a variety of plants available in the wild habitat. After getting a general overview about Bastar, Rajneesh took us to show the preparation of the most staple dish, the jondhara pej which is a millet based gruel. this simple dish involves a laborious making process because the maize used in it is pounded using a dheki that too in multiple stages to obtain both coarse and fine powders. Rajneesh's wife and her sister attended it with an effortless ease. This was followed by the preparation of baasta aamath, a vegetable and rice based curry.
When done, we tasted the pej with aamath. The comforting starchy taste of the former nicely complemented the spicy and tangy taste of the later. The soulfulness of this meal was enhanced by the sal leaf bowls and spoons in which they were served. After this we went to the jungle to fetch a very intriguing ingredient for a quintessential condiment. It was red ant eggs and red ants. The nest was perched high up on a tall tree. Bringing the nest down seemed to be a treacherous task, but the village youth were unperturbed by the danger. We kept wondering how could they withstand the sharp bites of the ants once the nest was down. Rajneesh informed us that ant bites have medicinal benefits.
When we got back, Urmila ji whipped up the famous red ant chutney called chapra using a stone grinder. We tried it with the traditional liquor, mahua. The sharp acidic taste of the chapra was quite addictive. After that we took a quick tour of the surrounding places and once again gathered for dinner. Dinner comprised of rice, jhurung, laal bhaji and dal. The deeply satisfying earthy taste of the dishes left us happy and contended.
It was indeed a memorable trip in Bastar. Heartfelt thanks to Rajneesh for all the insights and warm hospitality.