Meet the Gastronomes – Raja Sharma Rymbai

It’s Meet the Gastronomes day, and today I am bringing you the other Indian in our cohort, Raja.  Raja  was the last one to join the group here in Bra, due to some visa issues, but was a great last addition.  He is absolutely someone that you have to ask the right questions to learn the answers.  What I mean by that is that when I first met him, and asked his story, he shyly said, what story?  I continued asking, “you know, who are you?”.  Again, “I’m nobody in particular, just a guy.”

Through a series of a questioning I finally learned a bit about his story.  A journalist in an earlier life, he fell in love with food and opened a restaurant with a friend.  They were chosen to cater the 2015 Slow Food Terra Madre in India, that’s when Carlo Petrini took notice.  Raja’s food made such an impact, Petrini brought him to UNISG here in Pollenzo.  Oh and in true humility, that accomplishment and impressive part to his story, isn’t even mentioned in his post below.

Enjoy a small view into the life of Raja…

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I’m talking about nineteen eighty nine. I was a skinny little school boy then and though it was over 20 years ago, I remember clearly how Shillong always seemed to wear a cloak of gloom; even the peak of noon invariably shrouded in dark clouds. I am of dual ethnicity, my father belongs to the Sylhetti community and my mother to the Jaintia tribal community of the state of Meghalaya located in India. Shillong was, at that time, marred with constant clashes between the tribal and non tribal communities and I belong to both.


Some of the memories that vividly come back to me are of the days of the communal riots that took place around the same time I developed my inclination for food. Respite came in the form of one hour’s relief during the indefinite curfews that marked the riots. People would rush to nearby shops to grab their absolute necessities. These one hour windows passed like one second flashes and in a blink of an eye, the streets were empty again. The hovering mist only added to all that drama. 

With the curfews also came paucity of food as the state was, as it is today, dependent on imports from the rest of the country. And thus necessity bred ingenuity. Foraged vegetables, leaves, shoots of ash potatoes and pumpkins became the stars of our meals. It would be worth a mention that where, for us, pumpkin shoots and flowers were eaten out of need, in some countries, they are actually a delicacy. So those aromas that enveloped me as I walked along the alley ways were born out of scarcity, and conflict, but also,  resourcefulness, and love.

Dinner was thus, never boring. Sometimes it was everything pumpkin; from the shoots, to flowers, to the vegetable itself. With one pumpkin shared by the neighbour from his harvest and shoots and flowers foraged from the empty plot nearby, my grandmother could churn up an appetiser, a side dish and a main course. Pumpkin blossoms dipped in rice flour batter and deep fried made an excellent starter. The side was made of pumpkin shoots and tender leaves cut into inch long pieces, fried with potato wedges and cooked in mustard. The main dish was a rendition of ‘Lau Chingri’ (bottle gourd and shrimps). Yet instead of bottle gourd and fresh shrimps, my grandmother used sweet pumpkin and dried shrimps. So, with just onion, garlic, dried shrimps, cubes of lush orange pumpkin and a dash of magic she created what we called the neighbour’s envy.

Conflicts in Shillong have taken different forms since, but the aroma and magic of this cuisine remain the same in my mind.

Photo Credit: Rifka Verma
@thefeistyfork

Upon finishing my graduation in Mass-Communications in Shillong, like most youth from small towns, I headed for the big city, New Delhi, the capital of India. Through dedication and hard work, I landed jobs with many national and international media giants in India including NDTV, Times of India, Hindustan Times and National Geographic Channel. I turned my attention to food and slowly it turned into more than just a hobby. I soon built my life around it and eventually became a chef, exploring food cultures and how it is perceived by people, I began writing and doing shows on food, and finally became an entrepreneur.

Photo Credit: Rifka Verma @thefeistyfork

While for some, food could be the sole motive for living, for others it could simply be a source of nourishment, experience, comfort, adventure, or even status. To me food is identity; the food that I was introduced to when I was a child defines me and that is how I connect to my roots. So I came back to my Northeast after a stint in Delhi and set up the first indigenous fine dining restaurant in Meghalaya called “Café Cherrapunjee” with my friend. Our aim was to highlight the importance of preserving local indigenous cuisine by serving people authentic, ethnic food, and representing and acknowledging it in various international and national travel and culinary shows.

Apart from being a chef and entrepreneur, I was more interested in the story behind the producers and the produce, the cooks and the cuisines, the ingredients and their organoleptic properties. During the partition of India in 1947 into what India is today, Paskistan and Bangladesh, the Sylhet district, which was inhabited by Hindu and Muslim Syllethis, fell under Bangladesh. In this separation all the Hindu Sylhetis migrated to different parts of India including Calcutta and Delhi.  My grandfather, a young man then, migrated to Shillong. My father was born later, neither a citizen of Shillong nor of Sylhet. While in India, West Bengal remained to lament the loss of Bengal and East Punjab to lament Punjab, no Sylhet was left here to speak of the Sylheti experience. The continued violence faced by the Bengali Hindus of Sylheti origin in the Brahmaputra valley after 1947 silenced the community. In the interest of survival none of the people raised their voices to assert their history and victimisation. This meant that thousands of testimonies of the Sylhet Referendum were never recorded.

My father has no land that he belongs to nor any land that will accept him and his child. The only other way I can connect with my grandfather’s and father’s tradition and identity is through our culture and food. Land, culture and a region’s food systems, I believe, are inseparable from each other. Food is religion to me; it is what makes me – my mind, my soul, and every bit of my flesh and blood. I hope that one day my father’s cultural and food values are as well represented, documented, acknowledged and recognised as my mother’s, through my efforts.

Over the last three years I developed a close relationship with an organisation that gave me many opportunities to exercise my desire to further contribute to good food practices known as the Northeast Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS). I am glad to be associated with NESFAS because its approach and its works to empower communities to become food sovereign, co-habit and prosper, echoed my aspiration for my communities. Established in 2012, NESFAS embodies the principles of two international organisations – Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty (The Indigenous Partnership) and Slow Food International, from whose collaborative activities the Shillong based organisation was born. While Slow Food stresses on the importance of pleasure through good, clean and fair food, which goes hand in hand with our responsibility towards the environment, the Indigenous Partnership asserts the value of local food systems and the age old role of Indigenous Peoples as guardians of agro biodiversity, an essential element of cultural identity, and their rights towards food sovereignty and food security. As a budding chef and entrepreneur I try to apply these principles in my business as my contribution to the betterment of my Northeast. I have just started this journey in UNISG in Italy and I am excited to see where it takes me next.

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When I first received this post from Raja, I was floored.  First of all, I didn’t know he could write so beautifully.  Second, this is an entirely new chapter to his story that I never knew.  Just goes to show, there is so much to learn from people, we will never know it all.

Reminds me a lot of my Papa, I would learn something new about him, a skill or experience, from my dad and run to question it.  Papa would chuckle and tell me yes it was true.  After hearing the story I would always exclaim that I couldn’t believe he hadn’t told me about that before.  To which he would reply, with a twinkle in his eye, that I never asked.

People are so much more than what we see or even already know.  Papa would tell me, “Be charming, always asking about others.  You should leave knowing more about them than they do of you.” May we all continue asking questions to see the breadth and blessing of our diversity.  Others are holding so many stories we can’t even imagine, and are dying to tell us, if we only ask the right questions.

-The Very Hungry Traveler

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