Golden fields of paddy ready for harvesting, and rolling hills surround us, as we listen to the scintillating Sufi music of Rehman-e-Nusrat, a young music group from Uttarakhand. I am at the ninth edition of the Ziro Music Festival, in the Ziro Valley in Arunachal Pradesh, that started way back in 2012, and is today one of the most eco-conscious outdoor music festivals that is attended by music lovers from all over India and abroad. The festival, which features independent musicians and bands in different genres, is being held after a long gap, because of the pandemic.
As much as the eclectic music which is a big draw, people also come here to experience local food and drinks, and get a feel of local culture of the Apatanis, the dominant tribe here. Arunachal Pradesh is home to as many as 26 major tribes, and therefore has a rich culinary diversity, each tribe having its own special culinary speciality. What stands out about the festival is the pristine venue and the general discipline of the audience, unlike many music festivals full of inebriated guests.
Sustainability is built into the festival at every level, with stalls made out of bamboo and pine wood, with a central food court, where people sit down on rustic benches, with family and friends and socialise. I walk through the stalls that are run by young home chefs and entrepreneurs, with handwritten menu cards, who sell smoked pork, slow cooked pork stew, chicken smoked in bamboo, amin- a rice porridge with fermented bamboo shoot and local herbs, papuk (banana flower with chicken, red chilli and fermented bamboo shoot). Most of the food is cooked in tiny kitchens behind the stalls by family members or a group of friends. Some stalls are not for the faint hearted, selling insects like fried silkworm and grasshoppers.
The most crowded stalls are those serving smoked meats, especially the meat of the mithun (a special bovine found here). Many dishes are served with rice wrapped in a banana leaf and pehak, a chutney made from fermented soya bean and chilli. Some stalls also sell food from other parts of the North east like Singju- a Manipuri salad made with local vegetables and herbs and Choila- a Nepali salad with smoked tomatoes and pork. For the vegetarians like me, there is vegetarian chowmein, momos stuffed with cheese, and fried rice, chura sabji - a kind of soup made with fermented cheese, yak or cow's milk and spicy bhut jolokia chillies, as well as the regular Indian fare of Pav bhaji, Biryani etc as well as exotic dessert stalls, like the one selling ice cream rolls which does brisk business. The festival is eco- friendly, and tried to generate minimum waste, and everything is served in banana leaves or paper plates.
Taking centre stage at the festival is the Signature pavilion, run by Diageo, the liquor giant (and one of the sponsors of the Festival) with a Cocktail Masterclass by celebrity mixologist Yangdup Lama, whose bar in Delhi made it recently to the Top 50 bars in the world. At the Masterclass, Lama demonstrates how to make refreshing cocktails using indigenous ingredients that one can find in the kitchen from Himalayan pink salt to cumin syrup, bay leaf and palm candy. My favourite cocktail is the one that uses local rice beer, called Apong, with kiwi juice added to it for a citrus kick, and served in tall, bamboo mugs.
I walk through the narrow lanes of Hong, one of the largest Apatani villages, with my local guide, Koj Ribya. The village is lined with ritual platforms called Lapang, bamboo and pine houses built on stilts, with kitchen gardens, a large central hearth and small shrines outside. Large totem poles that are used during the annual Myoko festival loom above the modest dwellings. Food in a Apatani home revolves around rice. Most homes have the paddy drying in front of their homes on bamboo mats. I meet an elderly Apatani woman with strings of beads around her neck, facial tattoos, and dressed in her traditional skirt, cooking a simple lunch of boiled meats, greens and vegetables with rice. Above the fireplace is pork fat, that is smoked and dried for as long as a year, and used to feed guests in ceremonies and festivals.
At the local market in Hapoli, women sit on platforms, selling wild coriander, squash, byako (small eggplants that are slightly bitter) and common ingredients used in cooking from mounds of fiery ghost chillies ( bhoot jolokia, locally called haathi mircha), bundles of fiddlehead fern, bottles of fermented bamboo shoot, and a wide variety of local greens. Koj tells me about Tapyo, the indigenous plant salt, that is made locally by burning certain plants and shrubs like finger millet and pepu ( like bamboo) and using the ashes, harking back to a time in the past when this region was not well connected and had to wait for a shipment to come by truck. When the Apatanis did not have access to rock salt or sea salt from the markets of Assam, tapyo was made so that they had iodine in their diet. They mix this ash with water which is then evaporated, and wrapped in leaves and left to smoke over a fire or sundried.
"The Apatanis have their own seasonings and their cooking methods are healthy- generally they just steam the vegetables or boil the meats. They also use Salyo, a fruit, ground into a powder and tastes like Sichuan pepper," says Koj.
Besides the food at the festival, there are stalls selling a range of indigenous brews made from fermenting either rice or millets. Apong is the star- the milky rice beer with a sour taste, served in bamboo mugs. Besides that, there are stalls selling all kinds of fruit wine made in Arunachal Pradesh, from kiwi and apple wine to even a ginger and peach wine that takes as long as eight months to ferment. "Fruit wine has become a great livelihood option for rural families," says a stall owner.
With the winds of change and modernisation, one wonders how long the Apatanis will preserve their unique culture, food and drink traditions. But I am glad that the Ziro Music Festival gave me that brief window into their lives, besides of course the musical feast that has enriched me with memories of a lifetime.
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