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The modern food system has a huge carbon footprint. These Indian cafes want to change that.

On a warm March afternoon, Plantina Mujai diligently prepares food in the kitchen of a café in the village of Khweng, Meghalaya, India. She is dressed in crisp white and green jain kyrshah, a traditional plaid cloth worn by women from the Khasi community, the largest ethnic group in Meghalaya.

He brings out plates full of snacks: bright green banana leaf packets putharo made from a mixture of local rice varieties, and pale yellow discs made from steamed cassava by Mujai himself. It is a source of information on Khasite indigenous foods, which include ancient cereals such as millet and local rice varieties, as well as a wide range of natural edible foods, including greens, fruits, berries and roots.

Through the traditional cuisine that Mujai serves in his café, he promotes the consumption of neglected and underused edible plant species in and around his village. These forgotten plants are usually obtained from nature or rice fields, where they grow as uncultivated greens (or “weeds” in modern parlance).

Mujai – affectionately called Kong Plantina, Kong is a tribute to older women in the Khasi language – sits down to talk about the six Mei-Ramew (or “Mother Earth”) local cafes on their journey. These cafes connect food stall owners such as Kong Plantina, smallholder farmers, feed stores, cafe customers and the wider community with a rich local agrobiological diversity.

As a young girl, Kong Plantina learned traditional cooking from her grandmother – recipes using natural green, bitter tomatoes, dried or fermented fish and many other local ingredients, as well as traditional techniques such as bamboo baking. However, when he started his own grocery store almost 30 years ago, he prepared what he called market food: dishes that customers wanted to eat, such as white rice, potatoes, and potatoes. The ingredients of these dishes were bought from the market, no native ones were used.

According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, only 150-200 of the world’s thousands of known edible plant species are actively grown for human consumption. Only 12 crops and five animal species account for 75% of human consumption. Rice, corn and wheat make up the vast majority of the crops consumed. The commercial production and global transport of these crops have a huge carbon footprint. This over-dependence on some foods also puts the food system at risk of diseases and disruptions, such as those caused by COVID-19, the war in Ukraine and the climate crisis. Initiatives such as Mei-Ramew Cafés, which focus on the agrobiological diversity of indigenous peoples, offer a certain type of climate resilience.

A mapping exercise organized by the North East Slow Food and Agrobiversity Society in Meghalaya documented 319 edible plants in and around Khweng village. “When we started working in this area in 2012, we saw so much biodiversity,” says Janak Preet Singh, senior researcher on livelihood initiatives. “But we didn’t see it on people’s plate.”

Thus, NESFAS launched programs to encourage the consumption of neglected and underused edible plants, including wild and uncultivated green plants. When NESFAS introduced the Mei-Ramew cafe concept to food stall owners, Singh said it was difficult for most people to change their mindsets and appreciate the ingredients and cuisine of indigenous peoples. “In the end, the food counters were their livelihood,” he says. Natural plants that were considered poor food were associated with social stigma, which increased the reluctance of food tube owners to serve traditional cuisine.

However, Kong Plantina acknowledged the possibility in the Mei-Ramew concept. In 2013, she updated her entire menu to include the forgotten ingredients and foods she learned from her grandmother.

By sourcing ingredients from local farmers and feeders, he ensured that his villagers also earned a regular income. In addition to traditional dishes, Kong Plantina is constantly innovating and has even created dishes that appeal to younger flavors, such as popcorn with the traditional taste of rosel and tamarind and tapioca flour cake.

Wild edible plants, which have evolved over hundreds of years, are more resilient than cultivated crops and tend to be more resilient to climate change. They are also rich in micronutrients and increase dietary diversity, thus helping to reduce malnutrition and improve food security. By using raw materials sourced or grown locally without chemicals, cafes also maintain a very low carbon footprint.

Over the years, Kong Plantina has raised and trained its 10 children with the income earned from its Mei-Ramew café. His cooking is so highly valued that he is regularly invited to cook for large events that feed thousands of people. He recalls the 2015 International Food Festival in Meghalaya, which was attended by more than 50,000 people. “People came to look for our traditional food,” he says. “Soon we had nothing more to earn.”

Kong Plantina has also trained several other chefs, including Dial Muktieh. “I’m happy to share my knowledge,” says Kong Plantina.

Since 2019, Kong Dial, as Muktieh is known, has operated its Mei-Ramew Café across the road from Kong Plantina Café. He recalls generously how one aunt said to her, “When you look out the window, what you see out there should be on your plate. According to her aunt’s words, Kong Dial is a kitchen garden full of various vegetables and fragrant herbs that she uses in your cafe.

Both cafes try to grow a number of wild edible plants in their home gardens to domesticate them, including the chamomile plant Houttuynia cordata, also known as fish mint, the red flowering ragweed Crassocephalum crepidioides, also known as fire grass, and the eastern ones. Himalayan begonia Begonia roxburghii. The two cafes in Khweng have become the heart of a village with 100 households, where residents spend late hours exchanging stories and information about indigenous plants and food.

Hendri Momin, owner of the Mei-Ramew café in the village of Darechikgre, about eight hours from Khweng, supported his community throughout the closure of COVID-19. From April to June 2020, catering establishments in India were asked to shut down and the supply of essential food, such as bread, was disrupted. Momin quickly developed recipes for bread using tapioca flour and cereals such as millet; he baked the loaves at home and then delivered them to his customers.

For some young people in the city, Mei-Ramew cafes have become a place to see and post on social media. For others, like Gerald Duia, a Khasi travel company based in Shillong, the capital of the state, cafes are of deeper importance. As a child, he remembers with his aunts and uncles looking for food in the fields and woods of his ancestral village, Mawkyrdep. “So much traditional knowledge has been lost in my generation about finding food and identifying plants for consumption and medical purposes,” says Duia. He himself no longer recognizes edible plants he knows as a child. “That’s why Mei-Ramew cafes are so important to keeping that knowledge alive.”

Anne Pinto-Rodrigues

is a journalist focusing on social and environmental issues. His geographical specialty is India, where he was born and raised. Anne has been published in The Guardian, The Telegraph, Ensia, CS Monitor and several other international publications. He currently lives in the Netherlands and speaks English, as well as several Indian and European languages. He can be contacted at

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