In November of 1621, the first Thanksgiving was celebrated as a union between the pilgrims and the “Indians.” Little did the pilgrims realize they were not actually in India. In fact, they were nowhere near the subcontinent. That goes to say, neither the people they were meeting nor the dishes they were eating were Indian. Indeed, Thanksgiving is not celebrated in India.
Even so, both Americans and Indians have much to be thankful for from the globalization of diets that has occurred since the pilgrims hit shore in America.
So, What Is Eaten in India While Americans Chow Down on Turkey?
Indian cuisine varies immensely from region to region. In the scattered villages of India’s Eastern Himalaya, locals are very much tied to their land in the way Native Americans were. To give perspective on what is eaten in these villages, this post explores the lesser-known diets of some of India’s northeastern villages. These villages are part of an ATREE-USAID project on villages surrounding Singalila National Park and Senchel Wildlife Refuge.
Corn is common both to the American Thanksgiving and the local Indian diet. Interestingly, corn originated in the Americas, and would not be growing in India were it not introduced later on.
Part of corn’s popularity comes from the fact that it can be stored for quite some time after it has been picked. While Americans have the gift of electricity to fuel their Thanksgivings, these villages don’t have that privilege. In fact, 20% of the villages involved in ATREE’s Eastern Himalaya project are without electricity altogether. The remaining 80% have limited access, which means that refrigeration is out of the question. So, food needs to be eaten in season or properly dried and stored so that it can be consumed safely.
When it’s not eaten immediately, corn is picked, shucked, and hung to dry over a choola (a cook stove that usually runs on fuel wood) to dry. Kernels are then removed from the cob and further left to dry. These can be eaten as they are, fried into a sort of popcorn, or ground into cattle feed. The cornhusks involved in this process, too, are ground up and used in cattle feed. Amongst all the corn picked, the healthiest are stored to be used as seeds for the next growing season.
Another method of food storage is pickling. One stable in India is called achaar, a South Asian pickle made from different crops, oils and spices across India. In this area, achaar is often made from red chilly peppers, radishes, wild sesame and mustard oil. Comparable to how Americans might use gravy on Thanksgiving, Indians generally use achaar like a sauce to give meals a kick of flavor.
While mashed-potatoes are the starch of choice for Thanksgiving, one of the most central components to any Northeast Indian meal is rice. Unlike most other foods consumed in these villages, rice isn’t grown locally. Instead, it must be purchased from the local market. This rice can be expensive, but Indians can be thankful to the government for providing rations, which make rice a viable option for villagers.
Agriculture and Livelihood
Like the Native Americans in pre-colonial America, these villagers subsist mainly on agriculture. Villagers work year-round on their farmland, and usually split their produce between themselves, their animals, and the market. In general, these crops don’t fetch enough fair at the market to live on, and supplementary sources of livelihood are taken up. People often end up creating other goods, practicing animal husbandry and/or working as laborers.
A common source of additional nutrition and income comes from livestock. Villagers can be found to keep chicken, cattle, goats and horses.
Just as many Americans center their Thanksgivings on turkey, chicken is the centerpiece of quality meals in the villages. Ultimately, Americans have South Asia to thank for chicken because domesticated chickens originated in South Asia.
In addition to their meat, chickens are kept because they produce eggs. Since there is high demand for eggs in the market, they are generally sold off rather than consumed at home.
Animal products are useful in other ways as well. Milk, for example, can be processed to create chhurpi, a traditional Himalayan cheese. Production can take anywhere from 10-30 days, and involves boiling milk, straining and drying curds, compression in a mold and cutting into blocks. The production of this milk comes from cows, which both Americans and Indians can thank Europeans for because domesticated cows are originally from Europe.
All of these crops come together to make up peoples diets. Since working in the fields is strenuous, breakfasts are almost always heavy. Usually, they include a collection of vegetables served with rice and/or roti (circular flat bread). Similarly large portions are made for dinner.A lunch of boiled potatoes, achaar and salt. (Photo by Saad Amer)
Lunches tend to be lighter to allow for more time to work in the field. Sometimes they can include nothing more than boiled potatoes and achaar.
Just like pre-colonial America, late fall and winter in the Himalayas can be brutal. The lack of electricity means there is no heating. During that time, thukpa, a Tibetan noodle soup, becomes ubiquitous in the villages. Another popular staple includes momos, a South Asian dumpling usually filled with cabbage, potatoes or meat.
Even these two local staples are largely borrowed from neighboring countries, showing that even foods tied to local customs are often imported from elsewhere.
Some Food for Thought
While foods across the world can be a source of national pride, it is important to understand that much of the food we eat originates elsewhere. Indeed, while it may seem that Thanksgiving feasts have always been the way they are, it is clear that Americans, Indians and Europeans would all be eating different foods were it not for globalization. In this way, it is important to understand where our food comes from, and how that impacts both Thanksgiving and our daily lives.
What’s more, while we may have differing dietary preferences in different countries, it is important to realize that all of our food comes from the same Earth. Native Americans and Indians alike respect the Earth that creates our food. So, be sure to give thanks to our planet for all it provides during this year’s Thanksgiving feast!