Rajasthani delicacies like Sangari, Kair and Kumatiya, now considered gourmet delights, have provided nutrition for generations in the harsh desert clime

Traditional western Rajasthani delicacies are fast becoming a gourmet's delight in India and abroad. In fact, no Marwari feast is complete without the ‘exotic' Sangari, cooked as a dry subzi or with gravy. Of course, Sangari, the fruit of the versatile Khejari (Prosopis cineraria) tree, indigenous to the vast Thar Desert, has provided nutrition and nourishment to the local communities over generations.

As the sun rises on the eastern skyline, Chunni Bishnoi, 65, begins milking her three buffaloes and three cows in the outer courtyard of her ‘pucca' house, shaded by the thorny Khejari trees that grow thick and green in the villages of Guda Bishnoiyan and Khejarli, 22 kilometres and 26 kilometres, southeast of Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Guda Bishnoiyan, spread over 36578.4 bighas, has a population of 8,434, while the cattle here number around 6,000.

Interestingly, the Khejari is held sacred by the Bishnois. An extremely drought resistant tree, its long needle-like nutritive fruit, Sangari, is a staple in Chunni's home, as in every other home here. Moreover, she uses its branches as fuel, the leaves are dried and used as fodder for the cattle, the thorny twigs are used to build fences, and the wood is used to make furniture.

The women of Guda Bishnoiyan and Khejarli have mastered the optimum use of indigenous fruits and other vegetation, which have been traditional sources of survival for generations in this hot and dry land, especially during drought. Sangari is the star in kitchens here. It can be dried and stored for an unlimited period and cooked whenever required.

There's also Kair (Capparis decidua), an ideal source of nutrition, rich in minerals like calcium, phosphorus, iron, as well as protein and carbohydrates. It is cooked as a fresh vegetable or preserved and stored for use around the year. In fact, Kair has also made it to five-star hotel menus and its pickle is exported all over the world. Kumatiya (Acacia senegal) is another small circular, flat, black-brown fruit, which is a rich source of fibre and is commonly prepared with Sangari and Kair.

Once cooked, these vegetables can be eaten over days and don't need refrigeration. Shobha Panwar, 18, knows this well. Compelled to quit school after Class 10, as both her parents work on construction sites, she cooks meals for her family on a wood-fired stove. Unlike the rich folk in her village, their family has only one goat, which yields just enough milk to suffice for tea. They mostly eat ‘bajre ki roti' (millet flatbread) in winters and ‘gehun ki roti' (wheat flatbread) during summers with the indigenous Sangari, ‘Kachra mirchi' (local cucumber cooked with green chillies) or ‘Kande ki sabzi' (onion vegetable).

In fact, ‘bajre ki roti', milk, ghee, yogurt and buttermilk (chhach) is the staple diet in these villages, where agriculture and animal husbandry are the chief sources of livelihood. Dr Neelam Wason, professor of food and nutrition at the Jai Narain Vyas University in Jodhpur, explains, “The preparation of traditional vegetarian Rajasthani food among the rich and poor in these two villages is almost the same. The difference lies in the consumption of other expensive items like fruit, which the rich bring home while returning from the city. Ghee, milk and milk products form an important part of rich people's regular diet, but the poor can only afford buttermilk.”

Traditional western Rajasthani cuisine has evolved over centuries to suit the harsh climatic conditions of the region. It is sourced locally, is nutritious and has a long shelf life. Samdhu Bishnoi, 60, who lives in Chhota Guda village and has five cows and five buffaloes, lists their common foods: “Til ke laddoo (Gingelly bound into small balls with ghee and jaggery) and Rabori (Bajra cooked with buttermilk and sun-dried) can last for an entire season. Panchkuta, which includes Sangari, Kair, Kumatiya, red chillies and Goonda (Cordia mixa), can also last for weeks. Since we have plenty of milk and ghee, we make kheer (milk cooked with rice or ‘saboodana'), and ‘aata' and ‘sooji ka halwa' (sweet made with wheat flour or semolina).”

Shedding light on the nutritive value of these local preparations, Dr Wason, who has been working in Jodhpur for the past 30 years, says, “Cereals – wheat, pearl millet (Bajra), sorghum (Jowar), and pulses – whole and split Bengal gram (chana), green gram (moong), moth beans (moth) – are rich sources of protein and energy in their diet. Gingelly seeds and methi dana (fenugreek seeds) provide protein, energy and iron. Jaggery is a good source of iron for rural folk, while the local and seasonal vegetables provide vitamins and fibres. Kachra (Cucumis callosus), radish and green chillies, eaten raw, are a source of Vitamin C.” Therefore, it's important to understand that despite poverty, access to good nutrition is possible if people make the right choices and vice-versa there are low cost but nutritious options available to ensure adequate nutrition. Local cooking and feeding practices also have an important role to play in the same.

To prepare food, most Bishnoi homes use fuelwood (Prosopis juliflora) or dried cattle dung cakes, barring the rich, who have gas stoves. Asha Shravan, 25, of Khejarli village, who has three children studying in a private school, is one of the fortunate ones to own a gas stove. But Baby Kumari, 38, mother of six, walks three hours daily to fetch fuelwood. Her husband works in a grocery store and they can't afford milk sold at Rs 30 a kilo. Even wheat is too expensive for them.

For centuries, the Bishnoi community has warded off starvation by scrupulously preserving the patches of green cover around their settlements. During the mid-15th century, this region had experienced an eight-year-long drought during which many people and cattle perished.

A young man of Pipasar village, Jambaji, then realised that in the past his clan had survived drought because of the abundance of trees in the area. But deforestation had destroyed this support system.

Jambaji distilled his thoughts into 29 principles, which he taught to his people: Cut no living tree and kill no animal; grow indigenous trees like the Khejari. Their faith was famously put to the test when Maharaja Abhay Singh of Jodhpur decided to build a new palace in 1730. The masons needed lime for the construction. There was limestone available but it had to be baked. So they decided to cut down Khejari trees for fuel but the Bishnois strongly objected.

Anxious to protect the trees, a local woman, Amrita Devi, and her three daughters ran out and hugged the trees. The Maharaja's soldiers hacked them down. Other Bishnois came forward and they too were killed. As many as 363 people from 84 villages died resisting the onslaught. The people's revolt forced the Maharaja to give in. The repentant king then conferred on the valiant clan the right to prevent felling of trees and killing of wildlife in their area.

The Bishnois formed a jury to oversee issues related to deforestation and hunting. The penalty was mostly paid in grain for the birds or fodder for the cattle and hunters were not allowed to take away the kill, which was buried with full rites. Of course, this was when hunting was still a sport and a royal pastime. But even today, Bishnois uphold their 500-year-old tradition of conservation in Rajasthan, tending groves of tall trees around their villages and protecting animals. Incidentally, the Guda Lake near these villages attracts hundreds of migratory birds every year.

The environment-friendly Bishnoi community can certainly teach the world a thing or two about sustainable living, conservation, and most importantly, how to extract a nutritious meal from arid environs and sandy soils.

PHOTOS: Neena Bhandari/ WFS

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