Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sidhara – the colocasia concoction

Can you imagine a concoction of colocasia stem, turmeric, garlic, dried fishes, radish and green chillies? The aroma is pungent, the taste is bitter and still it is one of the delicacies eaten by the Terai dwellers especially indigenous peoples like the Tharus, Danuwars, Musahars and others. Sidhara, as the locals call it, is a dried cake of dried fishes, colocasia stem and turmeric. Radish, green chillies and garlic are added to the cake to enhance the taste. (I have used the term colocasia referring the genus rather than using the particular taro plant, Colocasia esculenta – as species other than esculenta are also used in preparing sidhara.)

Fishes everywhere
During the rainy season, when the fields are awash with rainwater and there is no dearth of water, there are fishes everywhere – of all sizes and all tastes. The people in Terai are seen busy catching fishes through all sorts of traditional equipment – fishing rods, fishing nets, chachh, dhasha and konia which are traditional fish traps laid on the flowing waters between two adjacent fields.

The dhasha is the most popular equipment to trap fishes between the flowing waters in paddy fields. It is made of bamboo culms or jute twigs woven together and as the water flows from one field to another field the fishes are trapped in it.

Indigenous ingredients
The fresh fishes are eaten and the remaining are dried to make sukthi, dried fish to be used during the winter and other seasons. The dried fishes and dried vegetables are saved for times when it is difficult to get fresh fish and vegetables.

The Dedhna and Ponthi varieties are preferred to prepare sidhara. Both the varieties are found in abundance in the paddy fields and public water sources. The dedhnas are one of the smallest varieties of edible fishes and can be eaten with its tender bones. They vary in sizes between half an inch to one and half inch in length (so the name Dedhna – meaning one and half). The second variety ponthi is a little bit bigger and wider than the Dedhna and it too can be eaten with its bones.

Colocasia is found in abundance in the swampy places, ditches and nowadays even cultivated in the kitchen gardens. The leaves are eaten separately and the stems are used either for the sidhara or dried after being cut into small pieces. The dried colocasia is eaten in the winter and rainy seasons when there is dearth of fresh vegetables.

The dried fishes, together with the colocasia stem and turmeric powder is ground and made into small cakes. The cakes are left to dry in the sun for 10-15 days and after that it is stored in a dry place for future use.

Food value
Dried fish is very rich source of protein, containing 80-85% protein. Researches have shown that some compounds in turmeric have anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties. Besides being used as a colouring agent in key dishes, it enhances the taste and has medicinal properties as well. Colocasia is eaten widely in the Indian subcontinent. The extra additions – green chillies, radish and garlic enhance the taste, reduce the odour and are good for health.

Pungent aroma and bitter taste
The pungent aroma of sidhara is an open invitation to the neighbours to come and join the delicious dish. When the sidhara cake is crushed and fried in mustard oil before adding other ingredients, the acrid smell spreads in the surrounding and the word spreads that sidhara is being cooked.

Green chillies, radish, garlic and spices are added to enhance the taste. The mixture is cooked as a curry and is bitter in taste but delicious when eaten with beaten or puffed rice.

Next time you visit the Terai, ask for the colocasia concoction and I am sure your taste buds will be delighted to savour the traditional food!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Excuse me, it’s escargot!

When I first sucked out the snail from its shell, it nearly blew away my breath! Then as advised, I kept my lips closer to the opening of the shell, made it air tight and the snail, in a second, was inside my mouth. As it was the first time, the taste was somewhat awkward for my taste buds. However, as I kept on eating one after another – it became tastier with each gulp. The soup thickened with the ground linseed was more delicious than any soup I had ever tasted.

In spite of being born in Terai, I had restrained myself from eating the delicacy called snail. Partly, it was also the look of the dish that kept me away from savouring the recipe my kith and kin had been partaking for such a long time.

Frankly speaking, I was drawn to eating snails only after I saw the French eating snails as delicacy. When I was offered escargots, as they call it, I had to gulp down few pieces without even chewing. Then slowly I started liking it. When I compared it with the snails cooked in our villages in Terai, I could feel the difference. The French culinary is fabulous and you need not suck the snail out of its shell. However, the Terai dwellers have not been able to modernise the recipes.

Having high protein content
Had changes been made in the recipes, the delicious snails would have been one of the major delicacies along with the momos and chowmeins which have been imported from China. In fact the snails have higher calories and more protein than the red meat, fish and legumes. A research conducted by Ranju Rani Karn and Jeevan Shrestha from Tribhuvan University states that the protein content in “ghonghiBellamya bengalensis (local name for water snail) is 57.5 per cent which surpasses all other food items like cereals, pulses, meat and eggs. The protein value of apple snails Pomacea haustrum is reported to be relatively high at 72.9 per cent. In practice it means that out of 100 gram of snail protein, 72.9 gram human body proteins can be made.

Glut of ghonghi
When the paddy season is on the full swing and people are busy planting rice in the Terai region, the paddy fields, ponds, river streams, all have plenty of snails. This is the season you will find loads of snails kept to be sold in the weekly haats (makeshift marketplace) in the Terai.

You will see women and children busy collecting snails from the public water sources. The collected snails are then left overnight in a vessel to get rid of the soil and waste inside the snail shells. The next morning, the tails are cut so that when cooked it is easier to suck the meat out of the shell.

The snails are then boiled and cooked like regular curries, but the most essential part is the addition of ground linseed which not only makes the gravy thicker but also enhances the taste. The snails are eaten as delicacy along with rice. The combination of rice and snails had been a staple food for ages for the indigenous people in the Terai.

Traditional beliefs
It is believed that snail meat provided the immunity power to the indigenous people like Tharus, Botes, Majhis, Danuwars to fight against malaria when they were the only inhabitants in the densely forested Terai.

In the Tharu communities, the old people with broken bones were suggested to eat snails. The Tharus believe that snails build stronger bones. Eating snails clears the bowel movement and helps keeping the eater healthy. In the past, snails were offered to pregnant women as protein supplement.

In the Terai, still mired in superstitions, the snail is considered a witch’s weapon. If you happen to eat a snail smeared with vermilion, you will die within the span fixed by the witch (a superstition that I abhor). It is believed there are no medications for diseases caused by “jog” (the vermillion smeared snail).

Need to conserve snails
In spite of such superstitions, snail eating is gaining more popularity among the poor people, as it is a cheap and easily found source of protein. Slowly the snail is becoming favourite also among others apart from the traditional eaters like Tharu, Rajbanshi, Santhal, Jhangad, Bote, Musahar etc. However, the overharvesting of snails from the water sources has led to the near extinction of the varieties in high demand.

The rapid urbanisation has not only led to the encroachment of public ponds but has also polluted and dried the water sources which directly affects the snail population. The rampant use of pesticides in the paddy fields is another factor depleting the snail population. The commercial fish farming in the village ponds has also contributed to the vanishing of snails.

These days when I suck the juice out of the snail, it feels like I am also one of the reasons behind the extinction of some water snails which are in high demand in the Terai. However, looking at the brighter side, I ponder modernising the snail recipes and popularising them among the Gen-Y.

Will you eat snails after reading this? Just consider them escargots and you will relish the recipe!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Unprincipled peace

By Gyanu Adhikari (Courtesy: The Kathmandu Post)

There was a time when the Maoist party argued that land, the precious commodity of feudal Nepal, was the most unfairly distributed asset in the country. During their “protracted civil war,” the Maoists forcibly seized land from many comparatively richer landowners all over the country and said that they were handing it over to the landless. They attacked the Land Revenue Office in many districts, seized the land ownership certificates (ironically called Lal Purja, the Red Certificate) and burned them. The justification for this war on landowners was that the feudal land arrangements were deeply unjust and that Nepal needed “scientific land reform”. The justice argument (Jasko jot usko pot) was supported by the economic efficiency argument — Adhiya farming was also unproductive since the incentives for the farmer did not exactly match that of the landowners.

Land was an issue that resonated with many Maoist supporters. For example, the Tharus of Dang believed that their land was unfairly usurped by the Pahadiyas, the hill people who migrated down south. Supported by a state that favoured them, the Pahadiyas accumulated more land than they could farm. Many Tharus became peasants who toiled in lands that once belonged to them. The new power balance was humiliating. Tharu girls were forced to become servants at the landlords’ houses in order to secure the man’s favour, for the landlords big and small, fearing the selectively implemented tenant rights (mohiyani granted the farmers a stake in the land they worked on, so the landlords changed their tenants once every few years).

The land issue reached tragic heights when the Maoists decided to take on the then Royal Nepal Army with their attack on the Army barracks in Dang. But in order to fully grasp the story, a little bit of political history is required. The Tharus are the biggest voting block in Dang. Fooled by the communist land reform propaganda, they have, till date, overwhelmingly favoured the radicals among the left parties. During the 1980s, they gave shelter to various underground communists. After the democratic reforms of 1990, they voted for the CPN(UML), the then radical party whose leaders had been selling them the dreams of land reform throughout their underground years in exchange for free shelter.

The Army suspected that the core Maoist support in Dang came from the Tharus, especially since the Maoists had been issuing “revolutionary” orders which would allot two thirds of harvest to the farmer, instead of the previous arrangement of dividing it equally. In the aftermath of the Maoist attack on the Army’s barracks in the district headquarters, revenge-hungry Army soldiers in civilian dress found an easy way to identify Maoist supporters: the Tharus who wanted two-thirds of the harvest. One horrifying morning, the Army team in civilian dress gunned down 11 Tharus from a single village. And this particular case of human rights abuse, among others, are kept alive today by the very NGOs that the leader of the Maoist-led government has accused of “sowing conflict to harvest dollars.” It’s sophistry: In the strange land that the Maoist establishment thrives in, the initiators of the decade-long bloody civil war blame with an indignant face, the human rights defenders of sowing conflict.

Today, of course, the Maoists (at least the establishment faction lead by PM Baburam Bhattarai and Pushpa Kamal Dahal) have made a u-turn on the land issue by agreeing to return all land the Maoist party seized during the war — without the state making a provision for the genuinely landless peasants or an alternative initiative for land reform. The issue, most likely, will fade into oblivion, but the resentment of those deceived is sure to linger. At the same time, the Maoist establishment has explained its decision by invoking the need for compromise to expedite the peace process. Since returning seized property has been the long-held demand of the Nepali Congress and the CPN(UML), this explanation, although incomplete, is believable. But the fact remains that the politics over land is an example of communists’ (especially the CPN(UML) and the Maoist) hypocrisy.

Land is not the only issue that has fallen victim to unprincipled politics. Five years after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), it’s amazing to see how selectively it is interpreted. Important clauses related to ending feudal land ownership, land reform and the democratising the Nepal Army, which includes determining the right number of personnel in the Nepal Army, appear to have been sacrificed, ostensibly to achieve a consensus among the parties. And the ugly thing about consensus is that although it sounds pleasing to the ear, it is more about sharing power (and the national treasury) than about social justice and social transformation envisioned by past struggles and agreements.

When you think of the 11 Tharu farmers in Dang (and countless others in the proposed Tharuhat region) gunned down for asking too much from their landlords, it’s clear that they’ll be punished twice for buying into the communist propaganda. First, the dream of land reform never materialised. Second, the prospect of justice for those who were summarily executed look bleak. PM Bhattarai, having shut down the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, is advocating a “forgive and forget” philosophy. If he and his men get their way, one of the biggest commitments of the CPA — the formation of a truth and reconciliation commission and the commission for the disappeared — are sure to be rendered toothless in punishing the violaters of even the grossest of human rights abuses.

About a month ago, PM Bhattarai told the media that he was “sacrificing personal principles for the sake of the peace process.” This significant line leads to a natural question, just what kind of peace do you expect from leaders without principles?