green wheat in close up photography
Culture,  Himachal Pradesh,  Sustainability

The Himalayan Superfoods of Yore

A 70+ year old Himachali couple from the Tirthan Valley recount their organic, seasonal, farm-to-table way of life – and how food has changed in their lifetime

Story by: Premlata Devi and Padam Singh

Hear the audio version of this story

Life was very different in our youth in the Tirthan Valley. We remember, to get salt, our elder brother and uncle would walk over 100 kilometres – a 4-5 day journey by foot – to and from Darang in the Mandi district. By day, they would walk through the winding trails and forests, home to tigers and leopards. By night, they would eat the food they carried from home and sleep in the wilderness. They would come back with stocks of salt to last us the entire year!

Bihar village in Tirthan Valley, that Premlata and Padam call home. Photo: Himalayan Ecotourism

Other than salt, not much else came from the market.

We grew most of what we ate. In our youth, saryara (amaranth) rotis, jo (barley) kheer, raungi (black eyed peas) and walnut seed chutney were common dishes. We cooked with apricot oil and used pots of mud, copper and brass. Our soil was fertile, we used only cow dung and food waste as fertilizer, and we had great love for our fields. After all, they were the only way to feed our family.

Premlata and Padam reminiscing about the food they once ate. Photo: Hema Marchal

In those days, there were no storage godowns (warehouses) to preserve food grain with the help of chemical preservatives. Instead, we ate seasonal foods and had a new crop every six months.

Life wasn’t easy though. We had a saying: Shawane mase shoye kamo ba, ashade maye barobaro shathe kamo. It roughly translates to: We do a hundred chores during shawaj and 60 chores during ashad. The crops of those days demanded time and labor, and time and labor determined how much food we’d have for the next season.

Saryara (amaranth) growing in Bihar village. Photo: Hema Marchal

Unlike now, we lived in big families so the work could easily be divided. Women did the household work, while men cut wood, carried compost to the fields and ploughed. After sowing the seeds, women did most of the work like removing weeds and harvesting the crops.

Back then, we grew jo (barley), bathu and dangar (cheno podium varieties), saryara (saliyara / amaranth), dhan (local red rice), kauni (foxtail millet), kodra (finger millet) and red wheat (red coloured) or other desi beej (traditional seeds). We had five solid months of winter, and corn did not grow well in such cold weather.

Amaranth grain. Photo: Hema Marchal

It was common to grind amaranth, chenopod, red rice, foxtail millet or finger millet into flour and make rotis. Amaranth rotis were sticky but soft to eat. Finger millet rotis were a bit sandy in texture, similar to corn rotis. And red wheat rotis were our favorite! Sometimes we made rotis with potatoes instead of flour, and sometimes we boiled chenopod or amaranth to substitute rice. These were typically eaten with the legumes we grew – raungi (black eyed peas), urad (black gram), rajma (kidney beans), masoor (red lentils) and kulthi (horsegram).

We often made chutneys with apricot kernel seeds, walnut seeds, pudina (mint) and stinging nettle, paired with some salt and spices. These we grinded by hand, using a sil and batta (traditional grinding stone). We still make these chutneys at home, but mostly use a mixer grinder now. Gud sharbat (jaggery drink)with hot rotis and barley kheer were desserts that delighted all our guests.

green leafed plants
Stinging nettle. Photo: Stephan H (CC)

Around 45 years ago, things began to change.

Apple entered our lives as a cash crop, and white wheat arrived in our valley. At first, we were reluctant to sow white wheat seeds, but the yield was triple that of red wheat! Gradually, people began to shy away from the hard work in the fields. Younger people simply go to the market now with one truck of apple and come back with sacks of white rice and refined aata (wheat flour). Hardly anyone eats red wheat rotis except in very remote villages with no road connectivity.

The weather patterns have been changing too. Snowfall has decreased significantly, and corn has replaced the old crops. Barley is now considered animal food because it is too time consuming to cook for humans!

red apple
Apples replaced traditional crops. Photo: Anna Kaminova (CC)

The soil has been poisoned with artificial fertilizers. That has reduced the productivity of traditional seeds, which have become rarer to find. People only grow vegetables to sell in the mandi now. The youth has lost their connection with the fields, and get subsidised, stale grain supply from the godowns.

Their lives might seem easier, but they’ll never get to taste a jo kheer, experience the joy of gud sharbat with amaranth roti or realize the value of the common salt. Those were joys we can only savor in our memory now.

Hear the audio version of this story

Meet the storyteller

Premlata Devi and Padam Singh

Premlata Devi grew up in the Bihar village of Tirthan Valley, and is approximately 70 years old. She is a lifelong farmer. She spends much of her time taking care of her family, and has dealt with many difficult situations in her stride.

Padam Singh is about 80 years old. He was a farmer and daily wage earner in his early life. He was fond of traveling and learning new work, including stone work, wood work and purchasing / selling of apples. These days, he spends a lot of time in the apple orchards, chasing away monkeys who love apples!

Himalayan Ecotourism
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Himalayan Ecotourism is a social enterprise offering experiential tours and treks in Tirthan Valley, near the Great Himalayan National Park. They believe in sustainable development by promoting conservation and empowering locals, especially women.

One Comment

  • Divya

    Breaks my heart to see the massive lifestyle changes we have gone through. From being close to nature to sourcing via artificial means. And that’s why we are vulnerable to so many diseases which our previous generations never heard of!

    The more close to nature we are, the more healthier we become. I’m glad I’m making changes in my food habits, and cut down on artificial means.

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