It was early monsoons, and I was in my native town of Dornakal located in the state of Telangana in India—a place my parents and I would often visit over the holidays to spend time with my grandparents. I was six, and like the overarching emotion that these trips came with, I was extremely happy. One evening, as the sun was setting, groups of tiny insects started buzzing around sources of light in our Madiga Gudem (a ghetto which comprises of people belonging to the Madiga community—a leather tanning, cobbler, animal scavenging Dalit community).
My thaatha (grandfather), Mallaiah, quickly laid a mat on which he placed a kerosene lantern. In just a few minutes, I could see insects swarming around the light. I remember my thaatha telling me these insects taste delicious. As they gradually fell on the mat, he carefully picked them up, washed them in a bowl of water, drained the excess water and let them air dry for some time.
After an hour or so, he lit our katella poyyi (an earthen or stone-lined fireplace, used for cooking), placed a small earthen pot on it, and roasted these termites. Though we had hardly a fistful of termites, it was fascinating as a kid to look at him prepare them with such interest. That was the first time I had ever tasted “Usillu” or winged termites. I was expecting them to be crunchy, but surprisingly, the exterior part had just a slight crunch to it whereas the interior was fatty. The texture was similar to taking a bite into a piece of goat/beef fat added with a crunch, but the taste was different from anything I’d ever had.
As I grew older, our visits to the home town reduced. But back in the city, during monsoons, as soon as Usillu would start swarming into our house, my father would recall times from his childhood. He’d remember how his parents would cover the ground where the termite colonies lived with a cloth and wait for them to be trapped in it, to be able to feed his family of six. My father would remember how he and his siblings had to wash the termites in a massive vessel, spread them carefully on winnowing bamboo trays and keep the dishes out in the sun to dry for a few hours to increase their shelf life and taste better. The dried termites were then winnowed till all the wings were dusted off. Meanwhile, my grandmom would assemble firewood for the earthen stove, and prepare puffed jowar (a type of millet) by the time he and his siblings were done winnowing the Usillu. According to my dad, sitting around the kattela poyyi together with his family, waiting for his mother to roast the termites in the earthen pot and serve them, was the hardest part as they could all hardly contain their excitement of eating this seasonal delicacy. The smell of Usillu being roasted from all the houses in the ghetto is one of the most significant memories of monsoon for him.
Winged termites being collected to roast and eat. Photo courtesy of Bhaskar Rao Eesam
Regardless of having an abundance of cuisines from several communities, the narrative of the monsoon cuisine in India is limited to chai (milk tea) and pakoras or bhajjis (fritters). India comprises various communities, and each community has a culture of its own.
Unfortunately, the popular perceptions that symbolise India as a nation are always derived from upper caste communities and colonial influenced culture.
Dalit (communities/castes which were categorised as untouchables, lowest in the order of the caste system), Bahujan (backward castes) and Tribal cultures are very diverse and vibrant. Amongst several amazing seasonal delicacies, Usillu is one which is exceptionally delicious and also highly rich in protein. Winged termites are a popular delicacy in various sub-Saharan countries in Africa as well.
But as we’ve seen from the ban of dog meat in the Indian state of Nagaland, people belonging to several Western countries and those from upper caste communities in India are known to reduce the culture of eating food unimaginable to them as filthy, something to look down upon, and something that needs legal and societal intervention.
Communities have consumed these insects for centuries now because they are unharmful, extremely nutritious, high in protein, traditionally used to cure diseases like asthma, bronchitis and sinusitis, and most importantly, they are absolutely delicious! In fact, insects as traditional food is widespread amongst several cultures in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Moreover, the consumption of insects is considered to be supremely healthy and environmentally sustainable. Their fatty acids are unsaturated, with a higher percentage of protein thus making them a healthier form of diet.
Traditionally many communities, especially the Dalit, Tribal and Bahujan in India have a diverse palette according to the season. Be it insects, flowers, fruits or vegetables, their diet is structured to the seasonal availability of these ingredients. Several elders from the community still regard this as the best way to keep ourselves healthy. My grand-aunt, Kajamma, who is 80, is a strong believer of this idea. "You children have no idea what strength our cultural food can give,” she says. “Our mothers made it a point to feed us with food that was seasonal and delicious.”
However, due the taboo and the shame attached to eating insects, several people from younger generations, especially those growing up in semi-urban or urban cities, are detaching themselves from consuming these insects that have been traditionally relished by their predecessors. The fear of being labeled uncivilised and the suspicion of being dehumanised is very high amongst these young people, many of who interact with those from different backgrounds in their colleges or workplaces. "But people who dehumanise us for our food should taste it first,” says Kajamma. “No spices go into the making of Usillu. The fat in the insect enriches a special taste without any need of extra seasoning. We, as kids and teenagers, hardly ate chai and pakoras. Foods like Usillu are to be savoured, and there is no need to be ashamed of our culture.”
Puffed jowar and Vippa poolu or Mahua flowers (Madhuca Longifolia) are popular accompaniments with Usillu. Dalit communities like mine, especially in Telangana, consume Usillu with puffed jowar whereas several Tribal communities in the state like the Dora Koyas consume them with boiled Mahua flowers. Mahua or Madhuca Longifolia, is an Indian plant, which is found in tropical mixed deciduous forests in India. Several Tribal cultures see the presence of Mahua in their daily life and have high regard for this tree and its produce.
PapaRao Eesam, a scientist belonging to the Dora Koya community in Telangana, says, "Roasting Usillu is an art, and it can only be done right when done in a broken curved piece of an earthen pot. Roasting these termites on an aluminium or steel utensil results in an uneven roast or over roasting. In the Koya community, we prefer to eat them with boiled Mahua flowers.” As I had a long conversation with him about Usillu, Eesam came back to how these foods are looked down upon by other communities. "People instead find it weird that we have insects like red ants or winged termites in our cuisine,” he says. “They fail to understand the importance of them as our food and continuously try to project it as a result of uncivilised living."
The dynamics of casteism change from rural to urban. A village often has a setup that is caste-based, bifurcated accordingly and easy for identifying people with their castes due to smaller population. On the other hand, when it comes to semi-urban or urban regions, casteism often exists under the pretence of progressiveness. This is where most people hailing from Dalit, Bahujan and Tribal communities try to mask their habits and cultures to avoid conflict and embarrassment from the upper-caste communities. In the process, their foods and traditions are either kept hidden, scaled down, or given up completely. The fear and taboo element mean that even I have eaten this delicacy only in my home town.
Advocacy of moral policing over food that is mostly consumed by marginalised or minority communities has been increasing. We've seen regular reports of cow vigilantism, and of people mocking cultures with no hesitation in movies and different forms of media. But this is also why we need to make efforts to bring our culinary culture out with pride, regardless of how several dominant communities perceive it. To police what is on one's plate and to attempt to “civilise” them is an insult to one's culture and lifestyle. Food has always been political, especially for marginalised communities, who have to assert their culture in every way possible and fight the prejudices that have stuck along for centuries.
I will never forget my Thaatha's excitement while preparing Usillu for me. The memory of how my taste buds reacted to it it is still vivid. As the rains come down in the metropolis I live in, they take me right back to the ghetto in which the smell of termites being roasted filled all our hearts with excitement and anticipation.
Follow Jahnavi on Twitter.