On the outskirts of the city of Shillong in Meghalaya, the most northeast region of India, a group of young culinary students in spotless white chefs jackets gathered in reverence as Navajo Nation elder Roy Kady sang a song of thanks for the pig that would feed them that day. Roy had traveled with Aretta Begay and Franco Lee from their home on the Navajo Nation in North America in order to represent the Navajo Churro Sheep Presidium at Indigenous Terra Madre 2015, a first of its kind global gathering of indigenous peoples to share knowledge and build solidarity towards achieving “The Future We Want.”
In the morning, they gathered at IHM Shillong, the nation’s leading culinary school, and began with a strong cup of tea and sweet pastries prepared by the students. Joining Roy, Aretta and Franco were other pracitioners of Slow Meat, an approach to meat that values sustainable and humane practices, from near and far. They were German master butcher Jürgen Kroeber, and a dozen local butchers from the Ka Seng Ki Nong De Dohsniang Butchers association. Each group demonstrated their own means of animal slaughter, methods developed to limit the suffering of the animal. An expert from each culture also demonstrated their differing techniques for cleaning the carcass and preparing the cuts of meat. The butchers appreciated each other’s expertise, and were pleased to share their own skills with their colleagues from halfway around the world.
After this, the work of cooking began. Just as the butchers had not needed to speak the same language in order to understand the skill employed in preparing the meat for cooking, the common language of taste was more than enough to ensure that everyone understood the message of respect for tradition and flavor that guided the work in the kitchen. Pork is the most common meat in this region of India, and the Khasi butchers were keen to share a signature dish of boiled pork and crisp red onion with their guests called dohklieh.
Jürgen demonstrated the sausage making skills of the Germanic pantry, with students staying late into the night to gain all they could from the experience. Chef Franco demonstrated the nose-to-tail approach of pre-colonial cuisine in North America by preparing crispy tripe, among other dishes. Without even planning it, three versions of blood sausage were made, one Navajo, one Khasi, and one German: a testament to the remarkable fact that human culture – and cuisine – is infinitely variant, yet we will always find points of similarity within our differences.
These chefs, butchers, and students began deep friendships in those days, which were celebrated at the Mei Ramew Festival. Among the many food stalls offering up delicious dishes from the incredible variety of indigenous cultures in Northeast India, was the Slow Meat stall. The group of chefs, students, and producers reconvened in order to spend the day preparing and serving dohklieh, grilled ribs with sumac, and pork schnitzel to a curious and delighted crowd of thousands. From the first moments of kind hospitality at IHM Shillong to the final act of conviviality, when the last morsel of meat was handed out to those gathered in the smoky evening air, this group was living the power of Slow Meat, and Slow Food. To bring people together in a pleasurable revolution, to honor the knowledge of indigenous peoples who protect the earth and its multi-species inhabitants, to lift up and love those who care for the animals and the earth that feed us by joining in a meal prepared with care – this is a powerful art that needs no translation.
by Megan Larmer