The Raute are a nomadic hunter-gatherer group that travel through the middle hill region of Western Nepal between the high Himalayas and the Siwalik foothills, a zone bordering both temperate and tropical ecotones. The subsistence economy of the Raute has been characterized by Reinhard (1974)[i] as primarily the hunting of two species of monkey (langur and macaque) with nets, the trading of wooden vessels for agricultural produce (mainly rice), as well as the collecting of wild yams and other forest plants. Over 90 plants make up the culinary toolkit of the Raute[ii], though their apparent reliance on wild yam, a few species of forest fruits, and forest greens has been used to suggest they are not broad-spectrum foragers. Instead, complex decision-making about when and why to draw from and incorporate these wider resources seems to be at play. The rationale for these choices of what constitutes Raute cuisine: what culinary elements are important, why they are important in the practical and cosmological order, how their mode of use is rationalized in indigenous science, forms the basis of the proposed enquiry.
Through interviews with tribal members Fortier (2009) makes a clear case for how the Raute disinterest for food production and preference for hunting-foraging is a keystone of group identity. And yet, this sphere of identity formation, as well as Raute mobility are two features that are most under pressure for change because of external actors. Killing and consumption of monkey is considered unclean by Hindu agriculturalists who revere the monkey-god Hanuman, and encourage Raute to take up farming[iii]. Further, the expansion of agricultural practices and the shrinking of forests— a phenomenon visible across the length of Nepal— is reducing the forest pantry from which the Raute draw their cuisine. With forest degradation estimated at up to 61% in some regions[iv] and national forest reduction in Nepal going from 57% to 23% (1947-1980)[v] the threat to the Raute’s culinary way of life, and indeed their cultural integrity at this time, is imminent. As recently as December 2014 local newspaper The Himalayan Times reported how Raute leaders had sought official assistance to feed the 240 strong population. Supplementing the hunting-foraging economy with traded agricultural foods has been part of Raute practice for decades, if not centuries. However, the Raute traded wooden bowls made from trees harvested from the forest, a restricted practice following government forestry regulations in the last few years (The Himalayan Times, Dec 4th 2014). In addition, in a bid to incorporate the Raute into wider ‘develop’ initiatives the government of Nepal introduced a 1,000 NPR allowance per individual into the community, which had previously never experienced the concept of ‘money’ and as a result, a decline in traditional barter trade has been reported (The Himalayan Times, Feb 24th 2011). Raute cuisine, an intangible heritage practice at the very heart of Raute cultural identity is, thus, under threat.
Cuisine studies are an investigation into the processes by which foods are evaluated for perceived properties that inform their role in production and consumption practices. Though more recently, the value of taste has weighted a notion of ‘cuisine’ as a refined, often class-related knowledge about acceptable ways to combine and consume foods cuisine is not restricted to a single social stratum, or represented by culinary exotica alone. Instead, cuisine is the reasoning process and the values behind all food choices. As such, the cuisine perspective describes sophisticated relationships that intimate human-environmental interactions bring about. In the mountainous environments of the Himalayas where biodiversity is high, seasonal climate flucturations are pronounced and topographic relief is a contributor to food choices Raute ecological interactions are specialised affairs.
[i] Reinhard, J. (1974) The Raute: notes on a nomadic hunting and gathering tribe of Nepal. Kailash, A Journal of Himalayan Studies, 2 (4): 233-271.
[ii] Fortier, J. (2009) Kings of the Forest: The Cultural Resilience of Himalayan Hunter-Gatherers. University of Hawaii Press.
[iii] Fortier, J. (2009) Kings of the Forest: The Cultural Resilience of Himalayan Hunter-Gatherers. University of Hawaii Press.
[iv] Prabhakar, R. Somanathan, E. Bhupendra, S. M. (2006) How degraded are Himalayan forests? Current Science 91 (1), 61-67.
[v] Myers, N. (1986) Environmental repercussions of deforestation in the Himalayas. Journal of World Forest Resource Management 2, 63-67.
Project in development
Cuisine and the Raute hunter-gatherers
Photo: Manoj Nair