Beautiful might not be the accurate way of describing the Nilgiris. The rich and culturally diverse district of Tamil Nadu is much more than that. Home to six indigenous communities and tribes – the Badagas, Todas, Kota, Irulas, Kurumbas and Paniyars – the breathtaking landscaping of the ‘blue mountains’ (according to popular knowledge, the name comes from the kuruji flower from the region that blooms once every 12 years and gives the mountain range its bluish tint) is also where one will find a stellar range of traditional practices, if exploring history and culture is your thing. In a modern world, many of these ancient practices are lost or are fading slowly, which is precisely why they need to be celebrated and preserved.
In 2022, The Nilgiris Foundation, an internationally-registered organisation and the sister concern of Keystone Foundation, initiated a festival that was then called the Nilgiris Wild Foods Festival. The agenda was rather direct, to highlight the indigenous, seasonal and often rare wild foods of the region. This festival was curated beautifully, with cultural programmes, a showcase of wild foods presented by nearly 25 indigenous communities from the Nilgiris, and of course a chef’s table that featured dishes inspired by the local food of the region, using ingredients that were either sourced locally or from their specific sources.
The 2022-edition, as one of its founding members and director of The Nilgiris Foundation, Ramya Reddy, puts it, brought one thing under the spotlight. That food is never just about food. Therefore, the 2023-edition, which is scheduled between December 19-23, is a celebration of culture, history and food. Renamed to the Nilgiris Earth Festival, this four-day festival will take guests through not just the indigenous and wild produce of the Nilgiris but also give them a taste of the life in the hills and forests of the region.
“Apart from the habba, the talks, dance programmes etc, last year’s edition was also our way of highlighting the Badaga cuisine, which belongs to the Badagas, the largest native community in the Nilgiris. And they have quite the vibrant cuisine, from a plethora of local greens, millets to an incredible breadth of beans,” Reddy says, adding, “We felt there are so many components to food, of which ecology and culture are both so deeply intertwined. We felt it needed to be more inclusive of other stakeholders in the domain of food in the Nilgiris biosphere, which included organic farmers like Vishant, who's a regenerative farmer, growing beautiful produce. Arup, who’s part of the Little Earth group, also has an organic farm themselves. There are so many farmers like them, and we also wanted to bring in the tea component. You cannot take tea out of the Nilgiris. There are so many artisan tea growers here and tea expert Sandeep Subramani will be hosting a session as well. Therefore, the need for a little pivot in this direction to bring in these components with food being the core essence. But as you can see, these are also intertwined with food, ecology, biosphere, culture.”
The farm-to-fork and slow food movement
Vishanth Kumar, founder of Kikui Farms & Red Hills Tea Estate, and a regenerative farmer and chef, who’s going to be showcasing his produce at this festival, and is also a collaborator will take guests through their organic farm and also put together a true farm-to-table experience. “It’s going to be all about fresh farm produce where guests will be invited to even cook with us,” he says.
Talking about the whole process behind regenerative farming, Kumar says, “To me, it’s really just about taking care of your land. Farming is a byproduct. At Kikui, we grow mostly edible vegetables and herbs (for the purpose of harvesting) and it’s not led by demand but by season and soil.” The idea is to maintain a holistic ecosystem, he explains. “We don’t just grow vegetables, we are also into rewilding land,” he adds.
Arup Kakati, the corporate chef for Little Earth Group, Nilgiris, is partnering with chef Avinash Martins of Cavatina Cucina Goa, and Karan Upamanyu, celebrated chef and founder of Wood Street Sauce Co, to host two separate chef’s tables and he could not be more excited. A big supporter of indigenous produce and slow cooking, Kakati says, “When a chef hears the words ‘indigenous’ and ‘organic’, something lights up inside of us. Living in a metro, you won’t really get 100 per cent of either of those. But in the Nilgiris, it’s abundant. What we will be doing is bringing together the local and wild produce, supplied by the local tribal communities, and the skill sets of the chefs to create a gourmet meal that is not only different but also true to its source.”
Both Kakati and Kumar are slow-food champions. “Slow food is the revolution now. While in earlier days, everything was slow cooked, and that too without the help of tech and gizmos, I’d say these days, it’s those who understand gourmet food, understand slow food. Of course, we work in large kitchens and end up using a lot of tools for slow cooking, but we still retain the characteristics of the original ingredients, create something that is new and delicious,” says Kakati.
“For me, the slow food movement is more of a philosophy than a movement. It’s about celebrating everything that is right about the ecosystem and about environmental social justice keeping food as the medium. There is no single set of rules or guidelines but to absorb and follow what is done historically, live with the ecosystem, eat what nature provides, support the system that the environment supports. So no, to me, there is no particular way of cooking; just do what you can to celebrate the ecosystem. Personally, when it comes to cooking, I just allow ingredients to do their thing,” Kumar explains.
One of the most important things to note here is that the festival will also see the return of the Badaga cusine.
From food to dance to walks
The Nilgiris Earth Festival, as Reddy had pointed out earlier, will also celebrate the cultural aspect of the region. “The Badagas aren’t all about food. They are also ballad singers and we will have someone from the older generation, someone who still sings, performing during the festival,” Reddy shares.
The habba at the Keystone Foundation will not only see conversations with experts such as Yon Fernandez de Larrinoa, FAO's indigenous peoples team leader and agricultural economist, but also give visitors an insight into the rich heritage of rice and millets and other produce, music and dances, display of local arts and crafts, and the chance to enjoy speciality dishes by local cafes.
There’s also a forest walk on the itinerary organised by Pollachi Papyrus, not to mention screening of three films by AltEff, which will dive into the complex relationship between climate change and our culinary habits.
The Nilgiris Earth Festival is being held in Ooty, Tamil Nadu, from December 19-23. For details on the events and to buy tickets wherever applicable, please visit The Nilgiris Foundation.