Ferment. Foment: Food, Loss, and Belonging in a Foreign Land

Reclaiming one’s culinary heritage is a form of both coping and resistance. Collectively, such efforts are part of the larger struggles for social, economic, and environmental justice.

In a quiet neighborhood at the heart of Silicon Valley, devoid of all distractions, and with nothing but memory to guide me, I am learning the art of fermentation as it has been practiced by generations of women in Nepal and large parts of South Asia. I am making Gundruk, essentially fermented greens, partly for its unique umami filled sourness and benefits as a probiotic. But more than anything else, what is motivating me is the chance to learn a technique that has been part of my culinary heritage. With the last bit of my meagre supply — sent lovingly by aunts and grandmothers from home — gone, and with no desire to buy an industrially-manufactured package from the store, I am left to make my own. With the zeal of a new convert, I have thrown myself to the task, determined to retrace the steps that go into this spectacular transformation of raw ingredients into a much-loved rustic Nepali food with the aid of just microbes and heat from the sun.

In a world where migration is discussed mainly in terms of the burden it places on receiving countries, the idea that migrants go through irrevocable cultural losses is not something that’s sufficiently discussed. Photos by Rubeena Mahato.

Prepping greens for Gudruk. Fermentation has found a new lease of life among culinary and gut health enthusiasts in the West, but growing up in Nepal fermented foods are common among the country’s many ethnic groups, it was always a part of my life.

The story of migration is much more than the loss of one’s place and identity, it’s also a story of loss of one’s food culture.

I close my eyes and picture the women of my family: My mother from her younger days in her apartment in Kathmandu, my grandmother outside her textile shop in a bustling small town in Eastern Nepal, my aunts and cousins in a sleepy village in the plains only miles away from the Indian border, all of them washing and chopping buckets full of seasonal greens and vegetables. They would dry and pickle the vegetables to preserve them for the winter months. Throughout the year, but especially in times when fresh vegetables are hard to source, meals would be served with accompaniments of these fermented products, adding both flavor and nutrition.

Fermentation has found a new lease of life among culinary and gut health enthusiasts in the West, but growing up in Nepal fermented foods are common among the country’s many ethnic groups, it was always a part of my life. That changed after I left Nepal to pursue my studies eight years back. In the new world I found myself in, fermented food, as many other ethnic foods, ingredients and cooking styles, were simply not a big part of the culinary repertoire. Even though I continued cooking and eating traditional Nepali meals, many of the foods that I grew up eating — such as Tama (fermented bamboo shoots), Arikanchan (made with greens and lentil paste), Adauri (fermented lentil nuggets with taro shoots and leaves) — disappeared from my plate. Not through a lack of trying but simply because they were hard to source where I lived or required efforts that my new living arrangements would not allow. Nepali cooking uses a big variety of ingredients, cooking styles and techniques even for everyday meals. Ideally you need close-doored kitchens separate from the living area, a sun-soaked terrace for sifting, drying, and pounding things, and more crucially, neighbors who do not mind the sounds and smells wafting from your kitchen. These were luxuries not to be found in apartment-living in England. And so, like many other immigrants, I grew accustomed to the disruption in my diet and treated it as a minor loss, trivial in comparison to the bigger losses that become part of a migrant’s life.

In a world where migration is discussed mainly in terms of the burden it places on receiving countries, the idea that migrants go through irrevocable cultural losses is not something that’s sufficiently discussed. That something as basic as food could be a strong part of that loss is even harder to fathom.

But the story of migration, as I soon came to discover, is much more than the loss of one’s place and identity. It’s also a story of loss of one’s food culture, and more crucially, the loss of intergenerational knowledge and skills that comes from leaving one’s niche.

I, for one, left home long before I could learn from my grandmother how she preserved heirloom seeds, identified plants in the wild, concocted potent herbal medicines for minor ailments and fed her large family using farming practices that today would be hailed as being organic and sustainable. I left before I could ask her how to decipher the stories in our songs and folk art, or how to ferment and preserve any surplus food. Like many of my peers who moved abroad, I never got around to learning how our elders protected our water and forests, and nourished and sustained entire communities without disrupting the ecological balance. We grow up looking West and traditional knowledge like this was not considered important. Being successful meant pursuing a different, more Westernized form of knowledge and that’s what we all did.

community garden
This year, I began to grow vegetables with my husband in a plot in a community garden in Mountain View, California where I now live. Not just for food, but for the chance to dip my hands in the soil. Photo by Rubeena Mahato.

But moving between the East and the West and inhabiting two different mental worlds, one starts to notice the things that once didn’t seem to matter earlier. While I feel fortunate and privileged to have the life I have here, it’s hard for me not to think about the other consequences of my move: A break with my community, a gradual loss of cultural knowledge and context, and a gnawing awareness of the voids young people like me create when we leave our homelands by the millions. Worse, the sense of uprootedness and loss I have always felt since I left Nepal, has become overwhelming under the shadow of a pandemic. I’m anxious about family and loved ones scattered all over the world, worried about how they are coping and if they are eating well. I try to find solace in memories and heirlooms, and recipes of my childhood. I try to teach myself skills that have gone to disuse even back home in hope of passing them on. Whether it’s learning to ferment or growing my own food, I try to find ways to stay rooted.

This year, I began to grow vegetables with my husband in a plot in a community garden in Mountain View, California where I now live. Not just for food, but for the chance to dip my hands in the soil. Like many Nepali families, our grandparents had been farmers, but we were raised by parents who pursued other professions, as by their time working the soil was generally looked down upon by the educated class. We grew up knowing very little about farming. The family kitchen garden was the extent of our agricultural knowledge. But the soil in this part of California is rich and forgiving, and the sun never disappoints, so even our rookie efforts reward us with bumper harvests of vegetables and greens, which we duly proceed to share with neighbors and other farmers. With our share, we make endless batches of Nepali curries and pickles and set aside the rest to ferment. Everything we grow is suffused with a sweetness that reminds us of the wholesome produce from our ancestral homes. For the first time in eight years of a mostly itinerant life, I feel a fleeting but deep connection to a place in a way I had thought was impossible since leaving home.

The excitement of packing up everything, pushing suitcases along the cobbled streets of a different European city, learning, speaking and thinking in a new language, pursuing dream jobs, and then leaving all of it to do that all over again in the United States, all the things that had kept my husband and me busy had also kept us distracted from the deep-felt need for connection to land.

Like others of my generation in the Global South, who grew up on ideas of globalization and cosmopolitanism, and left the dim circumstances of their home countries to pursue Western education and opportunities, we had never imagined all the forms loss could take. The rhetoric of globalization hides from many migrants the reality of being dispensable, of being easily exploitable workers in a global economy who can be set adrift at any moment. It hides from them that as they move, they may add to the diversity of their destination countries, but they also get subsumed under a monoculture of modern, industrial life that they may not necessarily like.

Cooking, growing food, reclaiming and sticking to one’s culinary roots, are their own forms of resistance and coping, and that’s what many migrants do. And as trivial as they may seem, these small actions are our saving graces, and further, they make us part of the larger struggles for social, economic, and environmental justice.

Food, after all, is so much more than just what we put on our plates and into our bodies. As many people came to notice, food has become a recurring theme of this pandemic, from how the initial spread was linked to practices in industrial farming to later disruptions in food supply chains as countries began to enforce lockdowns. Fittingly, it was also through food that many people are seeking comfort, connection, and healing during this time. The dynamics and interdependencies that underlie our food systems are the same that govern our economic and political systems. Reforming the food system becomes, in this sense, inevitably about dealing with other systemic issues. Fixing food is about recognizing the wisdom of indigenous people and non-mainstream societies, accepting and accommodating diverse food cultures, and learning to live in harmony with our natural environments.

In saying all of these, I am not trying to downplay the extent of environmental and cultural deterioration that are occurring in our home countries as well. Far from it. With each passing year the painful realization that the home we left behind and pine for no longer exists gets stronger. Despite all my yearnings for a rural, untainted, more wholesome life, I know that I cannot really find that back home. For our societies too, have fallen victims to the same oppressive insistence for uniformity, efficiency, and economic growth that marks much of the developed world. Industrial and chemical-intensive farming have taken over family fields. Traditional crops and seeds have disappeared because people have stopped growing them, either due to market pressures or because of flawed notions of local food being inferior to new, imported varieties. Processed foods dominate diets of our people. Pesticides and plastic flow in our rivers. And toxic fumes and factory exhaust fill our air. Truth is, there is no home to go back to, where our imagined, idealized ways of lives remain. Everywhere is broken. And the finality of that realization, more than anything else, feels just devastating to me.

It’s well known now that the global economic system, which is built on environmental exploitation, disproportionately benefits developed nations and has created masses of climate refugees in Global South countries. Decades of droughts and flooding driven by human-induced climate change have rendered our villages unlivable and incapable of supporting traditional livelihoods. So our people pack their bags and turn up in the packed metropolises of Dhaka, Delhi, Kathmandu, or Manila to work in sweatshops. Many more go to Gulf countries where they are held under conditions akin to slavery. Others make perilous boat journeys, traversing thousands of miles in the open sea to work in farms and factories of rich countries as cheap, undocumented laborers. The cycle of exploitation, of humans and nature, of cultures and histories, continues in the altar of capitalism.

The middle classes, self included, who migrate to the West as students or white-collared workers fare far better, although they too struggle with questions of identity, belonging and cultural continuity. It’s a tragedy all the same. Migration has always existed in history but what we see today is an exodus, unprecedented in scale and intensity. The exodus of able bodies and minds creates demographic and democratic crises in poor countries, creating path dependencies for further ecological damages, just as in the West they foster anti-immigration fervor and Right-wing populism.

I know that the resistance that’s needed to topple these destructive systems would have to be far greater than individual actions can manage, even though the joy and meaning these pursuits bring, the communities they create, and the connections they nurture are worthy rewards in themselves. No amount of organic gardening, ethical eating, vegetable fermenting, or ethnic cooking is going to make a dent in the monstrous systems we have helped create without fundamental and systemic overhauling. But built on the back of countless individual actions, a coalescing of a bigger, coherent movement should be possible.

A movement which can re-establish our relationship with nature, and rebuild our knowledge systems with the wisdom of our ancestors, and that’s the big solution I have pinned my hopes on, as I place my jars of Gundruk in the sun.

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