Essay by Dolly Kikon
Images by: P. Menangnichet and Mhademo Kikon
It is the season for bambooshoot in Northeast India. Hundreds of women venture into the forests during these months to forage for the tender shoots. Some are consumed fresh, and a large quantity are fermented and preserved. As condiments, fermented bambooshoot (dried or wet) are generously added to meat, fish, and vegetables. In 2019, I travelled with women foragers in Wokha district to document the working lives of indigenous women and the journey of bambooshoot from the forest to our plate. I ended up making a documentary titled “Seasons of Life: Foraging and Fermenting Bambooshoot during Ceasefire”
Early morning, Tsumungi and Pithunglo head to the forest to forage for bambooshoot. Along the way, the call out to Yanchano to join them. Together, they are a team like many other women who forage for mushrooms, plants, and roots across Northeast India. Forging is not easy and fun as it sounds. The bamboo grooves are thick and steep. Yanchano reflects, “When I think about foraging bambooshoots, there are mosquitoes and leeches. It is dangerous. We encountered a snake today. It was scary, but this is our life.”
They spend hours traveling to different bamboo grooves looking for tender shoots, chopping, cleaning, and peeling them. Shoots that are too tender are left untouched. Once the bamboo baskets are filled, they return to the village. And then a week later or so, they return to the forest again. It is a seasonal activity between June – September (depending on the elevation of the mountains), but an important means of livelihood for many households across the region.
All the three foragers depend on income generated from harvesting and processing bambooshoot. Pithunglo reveals, “My youngest son is studying in Dimapur… I supply it [bambooshoot] to Dimapur. My son sells the bambooshoot and pays his rent.” The income from foraging and fermenting bambooshoot also helps families who depend of subsistence agriculture.
Bambooshoot is chopped, grated, pounded, juice extracted, soaked in brine, or dried. There are many forms to preserve the tender bambooshoot. They are an integral part of many food cultures and households across the eastern Himalayan region.
My cousin Nchumbeni makes amazing dishes. Whenever we meet, she cooks, and prepares a meal of fish or pork (sometimes both) with bambooshoot and they taste heavenly. So, I requested her to join me in documenting our rich food heritage. Our history as a people includes the food that sustains our lives.
What we forage, cultivate, and eat is part of our history, knowledge and practice. I believe in celebrating and taking forward these stories about food and how they bring us together. The dishes looks delectable, but so are the friendships and bonds we share. We often see bambooshoot in our kitchens and dining tables. However, I wanted to create this ethno-photography to highlight our rich culture of food and fermentation.
What stories are these images telling you? What is the place of foraged produce and fermented food in our lives? Reclaiming bambooshoot and fermentation as an integral part of our food heritage, also means forging connections and seeing foragers and cultivators as political allies. If bambooshoot enhances and lifts the taste of our food, knowing where they come from, the lives of people who forage the produce, and the forest that sustains our lives is important.
Mhademo Kikon is the founder and director of Feather Frames Production in Dimapur, Nagaland. He has a diploma in editing and videography from MAAC Institute in New Delhi. He regularly covers social events such as weddings, meetings, church gatherings, including funerals.