“Ma’am?” said Kapil Singh. “Hold on, we are going around a bend now.” In Rajasthan, many professional drivers decorate their vehicles with “Horn Please” warnings; statues of Ganesh, the godly remover of obstacles; and colorful tassels intended to repel raging demons. They have good reason. Years before, another driver revealed the secret to successfully navigating the back roads of India: “You must have three things on your side,” he claimed. “Good horn, good brakes, good luck.” It became my mantra. Wheat was ripening on the ood plains when I arrived in Godwar, a marginal province of Rajasthan between ancient city rivals Jodhpur and Udaipur. Women tossed sheaves into bullock carts that lumbered off to threshing grounds. It is grueling labor, made almost unbearable in the months before monsoon with the arrival of a hot wind known as the Loo. Some call it the devil’s wind. It rises unbidden from deep in the Thar Desert, bringing destruction and madness. So the harvest is hurried. This grain came to India by way of the Levant, around 6000 BCE. Flatbreads integral to the northern Indian diet — naan, papad, paratha, roti, puri, chapati — developed as a result. Riding in the back of an open Jeep steered by the angular young Kapil dressed in starched paramilitary khaki, we circled mounds of tan chickpea plants drying in the sun. Black-faced monkeys hung together near the entrance to a cavernous shrine. Young girls pumped water into clay pots at a village well. A boy pushed along a rubber tire with a stick, a load of re- wood balanced atop his head. A Hindu priest wearing a white tunic slowly descended a long ight of stairs cut into the hill where, moments before, a leopard perched. The people of this region seem to have a concord with large cats — no one has been attacked for ages, although dogs go missing now and then. Godwar isn’t far from the original setting Rudyard Kipling intended for The Jungle Book. My tailbone ached and my face felt as hot as a ghost pepper. Turmeric stained my ngers from the fritters bought for breakfast at a street stall. My left foot itched from a possible infection. Just when I couldn’t take anymore, an overcrowded bus roared toward us from the
opposite direction. Men clung perilously to baggage on the roof and, as we swerved, tossed something down at us. Accustomed to being the target of nasty projectiles in more hostile situations, I inched. Flower petals rained down on my head. A cheer went up from the passengers, all waving and laughing at the successful prank as the bus moved on. They left us where we had pulled over, by the side of the road, bemused.
At the end of this long day we passed through Sena, Kapil’s home village, at the base of a granite hill streaked by millennia of harsh weathering. In the soft evening air, the smell of cooking oil drifted out of courtyards where, visible through an open doorway, women sat on a cool concrete oor, winnowing grain. “What are you doing here?” asked Dheera Ram, curious. His floppy-eared Sirohi goats pressed around the parked Jeep, kicking up dust. He nudged the flock along with a cane. He had an extravagant beard. His vest and loincloth were bleached white. Ram’s red turban identified him as a Rabari tribesman. Its thirty feet of fabric — artistically rolled atop his head — is handy for concealing packs of cigarettes, coins, and a cell phone among the folds. The word rabari loosely translates as “outsider.” The tribe’s exact origin is unknown. They worship Mata Devi, the great mother goddess; their own family structure is consequently matriarchal. Women tend to business; men tend to livestock. For most of their history, Rabari have wandered the Indian subcontinent on annual migrations. Only recently have they settled in villages, unintended victims of the Criminal Tribes Act and increasingly restricted grazing. In 1871, India’s British colonial rulers imposed a law that classified many nomadic castes as habitual criminals, curbing their movements and forcing them to register with police. It was intended to combat bandits who attacked unprotected travelers on the northwest frontier, but it also discriminated against traders, entertainers, and pastoralists who didn’t conform to a settled existence. The law was repealed in 1949, post-Independence, but the stigma remains.
This article is an adaptation from the recent book “Far Afield: Rare Food Encounters from Around the World” Published by Ten Speed Press.
James Beard Award-winning journalist Shane Mitchell and photographer James Fisher have traveled the world on assignment for food and travel publications such as Travel + Leisure and Saveur. Along the way, they have encountered the fascinating people who are keeping some of the world’s oldest food traditions alive, such as taro farmers in Hawaii who have never left the islands, Maasai warriors in Kenya, and Icelandic shepherds who still use the techniques of their Viking ancestors. Full of compelling photography from far-flung locations, Far Afield profiles these people, sharing their unique and captivating stories along with forty recipes.
James Fisher and Shane Mitchell are the creators of the recent book Far Afield: Rare Food Encounters From Around the World, published by Ten Speed Press.