For tribal people, the thrill of food lies in the knowledge and awareness about picking the right food at the right time
Asking tribal people for a recipe is one of the dumbest things to do. The request is often met with a puzzled look, followed by an answer so brief and off hand, that it is over even before you thought it had begun.
When I asked Lamtibai Rathuria of Chapwar village, Dindori district, Madhya Pradesh, to explain the recipe for cooking peepal leaves, she furrowed her brow and replied, “Khatta daal ke paka lete hain, aur kya? (We cook it with something sour, what else?).”
The strange response probably has to do with the nearly opposite ways in which urbanites and tribal people view food. For urbanites, the joy of food means an elaborate and creative cooking process. We try to dish up something new out of the same old ingredients. Tribal people, on the other hand, cook most of their food in the same way but it never becomes repetitive because nature introduces new foods throughout the year. For tribal people, the thrill of food lies in the knowledge and awareness about picking the right food at the right time. The more the knowledge, the more the variety they can enjoy.
Towards the end of March, tender pink leaves appear on the peepal tree (Ficus religiosa). These heart-shaped leaves are a favourite of the Baiga tribe of Mandla and Dindori districts. Though available for a brief time, the leaves add a variety to the palate.
The leaves are tender enough to cook only for a fortnight, after which they become hard. The tribal women make sure their families get to enjoy several meals from these leaves while they are available. Sometimes, as many as five in a day. The delicate leaves and leaf buds are known to cool the body. Consuming five to six meals of peepal leaves during a fortnight is said to protect from the simmering heat and related problems.
Peepal leaves, bark and fruits are known to have curative and laxative properties in Ayurveda and folk medicine. In book Herbs That Heal: Natural Remedies for Good Health, H K Bakhru writes that peepal leaves are used to treat fever, heart diseases, constipation, dysentery, scrofula, mumps and boils. Traditional healer Anantram Shrimali from Sagar district says that the leaves, bark, roots, fruits and latex of peepal are used to cure as many as 50 different ailments, one of them being sexual debility in both men and women. “Since there is a peepal tree in every village, it is easily accessible,” says Shrimali. “During the spring season, everyone would pick a leaf or two at any time of the day and chew. It is also known to be good for teeth,” he adds.
Peepal ki bhaji
Wash the leaves and boil till soft. Drain out the water. Add either the tamarind or sorrel flowers or buttermilk to the leaves, according to taste. Add a little water and cook till the water is absorbed. Add salt. Serve with rice.
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