The modern food system has a huge carbon footprint. These Indian cafes want to change that.
On a warm March afternoon, Plantina Mujai prepares a meal in the kitchen of her cafe in the village of Khweng, in the Indian state of Meghalaya. She is dressed in crisp white and green jain kyrshahthe traditional checkered cloth worn by women of the Khasi community, the largest ethnic group in Meghalaya.
He pulls out plates full of snacks: bright green banana leaf packets from putharo, a snack made from a mixture of indigenous rice varieties and pale yellow discs of an unnamed snack created by Mujai herself, made from steamed cassava. She is a source of information on indigenous Khasis foods, which include ancient grains, such as millet and native rice varieties, as well as a wide range of wild foods, including vegetables, fruits, berries and roots.
Through the traditional cuisine that Mujai serves in his cafe, he promotes the consumption of neglected and underutilized edible plant species found in and around his village. These forgotten plants are usually gathered from the wild or harvested from paddy fields where they grow as uncultivated vegetables (or “weeds”, in modern parlance).
Mujai—affectionately known as Kong Plantina, kong being a term of respect for older women in the Khasi language, she sits down to share her journey of leading the first of six Mei-Ramew (or “Mother Earth” in the local Khasi language) cafes. These cafes connect food stall owners like Kong Plantina, small farmers, foragers, cafe patrons, and the wider community with the rich native agricultural biodiversity.
As a child, Kong Plantina learned traditional cooking from her grandmother: recipes that used wild vegetables, sour tomato, dried or fermented fish, and many other indigenous ingredients, as well as traditional techniques, such as cooking in a bamboo tube. But when she opened her food stand nearly 30 years ago, she cooked what she calls “market food”: dishes that customers wanted to eat, such as white rice, dal, and potatoes. The ingredients of these dishes were bought in the market, indigenous people were not used.
According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, of the thousands of known edible plant species in the world, only 150 to 200 are actively cultivated for human consumption. Just 12 crops and five animal species make up 75% of the food consumed by humans. Rice, maize, and wheat make up the vast majority of plant crops consumed. The commercial production of these crops and their global transportation has a huge carbon footprint. That overreliance on a few foods also puts the food system at risk of illness and disruption, such as those caused by COVID-19, the war in Ukraine, and the climate crisis. Initiatives like the Mei-Ramew cafes that focus on indigenous agrobiodiversity offer a form of climate resilience.
A mapping exercise by the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society, an organization working to strengthen food sovereignty in Meghalaya, documented 319 edible plants in and around Khweng village. “When we started working in this area in 2012, we saw a lot of biodiversity,” says Janak Preet Singh, Senior Associate for Livelihood Initiatives. “But we weren’t seeing it on people’s plates.”
So NESFAS initiated programs to encourage the consumption of neglected and underutilized food plants, including wild ones and uncultivated green ones. When NESFAS introduced the Mei-Ramew cafe concept to food stall owners, Singh says it was difficult to change most people’s mindsets and make them appreciate indigenous ingredients and cuisine. “After all, the food stalls were their livelihood,” he says. There was a social stigma attached to wild plants, which were seen as the food of the poor, adding to the reluctance of food stall owners to serve traditional cuisine.
Kong Plantina, however, recognized the opportunity in the Mei-Ramew concept. In 2013, she revamped his entire menu and added forgotten ingredients and dishes that he had learned from his grandmother.
By sourcing ingredients from local farmers and foragers, he ensured that his neighbors also earned a regular income. In addition to traditional food, Kong Plantina is constantly innovating and has even created dishes that appeal to younger palates, such as frozen popsicles with traditional hibiscus and tamarind flavors, and tapioca flour cake.
Wild food plants, which have thrived for hundreds of years, are hardier than crops and tend to be more resistant to changes in weather conditions. They are also rich in micronutrients and add to dietary diversity, helping to reduce malnutrition and improve nutritional security. By using ingredients that are harvested or grown locally without chemicals, the coffee shopIt is also to maintain a very low carbon footprint.
Over the years, with her earnings from Mei-Ramew coffee, Kong Plantina has raised and educated her 10 children. Her cooking is so highly regarded that she is regularly invited to cook at large events, feeding thousands of people. She recalls an international food festival held in Meghalaya in 2015 that was attended by more than 50,000 people. “The crowds kept coming for our traditional food,” she says. “Soon, we had nothing else to serve.”
Kong Plantina has also trained several other cooks, including Dial Muktieh. “I am happy to share my knowledge,” says Kong Plantina.
Since 2019, Kong Dial, as Muktieh is known, has been running its own Mei-Ramew cafe right across the street from Kong Plantina’s cafe. He fondly remembers one of his aunts telling him, “When you look out the window, what you see out there should be on your plate.” According to the wise words of his aunt, Kong Dial has a garden filled with a variety of vegetables and herbs that he uses in his coffee.
The owners of both cafes are also trying to grow various wild edible plants in their home gardens in an effort to tame them, including the chameleon plant. Houttuynia cordataalso known as fish mint, the red-flowered ragweed Crassocephalum crepidioidesalso known as fire grass, and the eastern Himalayan begonia Begonia roxburghii. The two cafes in Khweng have become the heart of the village of 100 households, the place where residents hang out late into the night, exchanging stories and information about indigenous plants and foods.
Hendri Momin, owner of the Mei-Ramew coffee shop in the village of Darechikgre, located about eight hours from Khweng, supported his community during the COVID-19 lockdown. From April to June 2020, the closure of food establishments in India was requested and the supply of essential foods such as bread was interrupted. Momin quickly developed recipes for breads using tapioca flour and grains like millet; he baked the loaves at home and then delivered them to his customers.
For some urban youth, Mei-Ramew cafes have become a place to be seen and post on social media. For others, like Gerald Duia, a Khasi travel entrepreneur based in the state capital, Shillong, the cafes have a deeper meaning. He remembers foraging with his aunts and uncles as a child in the fields and forests around his ancestral village of Mawkyrdep. “A lot of traditional knowledge about foraging and identifying plants for consumption and medicinal purposes has been lost in my generation,” says Duia. He himself can no longer recognize the edible plants that he knew as a child. “That’s why Mei-Ramew cafes are so important, to keep this knowledge alive.”
Anne Pinto Rodrigues
is a journalist who focuses on social and environmental issues. His geographic specialty is India, where he was born and raised. Anne has been published in The Guardian, The Telegraph, Ensia, CS Monitor, and several other international publications. He currently resides in the Netherlands and speaks English and several Indian and European languages. She can be contacted at annepintorodrigues.com.