Slow food is the food that is produced or prepared in accordance with local culinary traditions, typically using high-quality locally sourced ingredients. Slow Food is an idea, a way of living and a way of eating. Promoted as an alternative to fast food, it strives to preserve sustainable foods, traditional and regional cuisine and encourages farming of plants, seeds, and livestock characteristic of the local ecosystem.
It was for some time my son was planning for slow food lunch. The Durga Puja days also mean feasting. We decided to go for the slow food lunch at Ajam Emba — an indigenous slow-food eatery, tucked away on the sidelines of the busy Kanke Road, in Ranchi, serving authentic Oraon dishes. Ajam Emba in Kurukh language means great taste, healthy food.
Oraon, also called Kurukh, are aboriginal people of the Chota Nagpur region in the state of Jharkhand, India. The Oraons themselves use the name Kurukh, possibly after a mythical Oraon king called Karakh. They speak a Dravidian language akin to Gondi and other tribal languages of central India. “Oraon” is an exonym assigned by neighbouring Munda people, meaning “to roam.” According to the Indian Anthropological Society, Konkan is said to be the original home of the Kurukh tribes from where they migrated to the Chota Nagpur region, where they settled in the vicinity of Munda-speaking tribes. Historians indicate this may have occurred around 100 BCE.
Conceptualized by Aruna Tirkey, a rural development officer, Ajam Emba, is a restaurant, catering service and cooking school with a vision to serve native tribal cuisine, preserving their culinary heritage, building a viable and sustainable business, both environmentally and economically.
When we reached the Ajam Emba restaurant, we encountered a scene more common to nearby rural hinterlands than to typical urban-styled restaurants of the city. Murals in the style of local indigenous communities decorate the walls. We had to leave our shoes outside before entering the restaurant. I haven’t been to any restaurant before where I had to leave my shoes outside.
The restaurant’s menu is rooted in the cultural traditions of the Oraon community, and in the flora and fauna of Jharkhand. Cooked in earthen pots and served wrapped in leaves, menu items evoke the tastes and smells of the nearby forests from which they’re sourced. Foods are served on Sal (Shorea robusta) leaves.
The restaurant doesn’t have any fixed menu and the items change every day. We were told the items, which were available on that day. Among them, we opted for Marwa Chilka. Chilka is a very popular dish in Jharkhand, akin to crepe or dosa prepared with different material, of course. Marwa is finger millet (Eleusine coracana), which is grown extensively in India and Africa. It’s considered to be one of the most nutritious cereals.
We were suggested to have Beng Saag chutney. Beng Saag (Centella asiatica) is a versatile medicinal plant whose name is inspired by baeng (the Bengali word for frog), for the chorus of frogs announcing the rains coincides with the appearance of this saag. Beng is exceptionally rich in iron and dietary fibre. It is popular across Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.
The next item was something I had no clue about, it was Sanai Phool (flower). These tasted wonderful but I was completely taken aback when I learnt that these are actually flowers of Jute (Crotalaria juneca) plant.
The next item was Bodi Sandhana. It’s a curry made from bamboo shoots. Bamboo (Bambusa arundinacee) is one of the most productive, fast-growing, widespread, sustainable, versatile and environmentally friendly plant species. Bamboo shoots are low in calories, high in dietary fibre and rich in various nutrients. The indigenous people of North Chota Nagpur harvest young shoots of bamboo for their own consumption as well as to sell it in the market. Shoots usually develop every year with the beginning of the monsoon and are harvested during July to the end of September. In North Chhota Nagpur, fresh bamboo shoots are called ‘Karil’, crushed and fermented wet as ‘Sandhana’ and fermented dry as ‘haua’.
Well, the main item was stewed desi chicken, local breeds sourced from rural markets, whose flesh is more tasty and flavourful than factory-farmed chickens. Along with desi chicken, we also had Katnausi, fried small pieces of chicken’s unused parts and offals like neck, liver, heart etc. The taste was superb.
Every dish was excellently cooked and was delicious too — truly “ajam emba!”
The eatery is not only serving fresh, locally sourced and traditionally cooked food, but it’s also quite cheap too. We three of us had our lunch and the bill was just ₹800 ($11.50) only!
We went for pandal hopping after a very satisfying lunch while thinking of our next visit here for other indigenous dishes of Jharkhand. The restaurant is putting India’s disappearing indigenous cuisine back on the menu. I wish such endeavours to flourish and reach other corners of the country. This will also boost the rural economy.