When we visited the Mallapur hamlet of the Chenchu tribe on our first Rural Escape we embarked on in Telangana, we were hoping to investigate the traditions and foods of these forest-dweller communities. Having heard stories of their unique wild honey harvest and hunting practices, we assumed their diet must feature some unusual ingredients, their uses and cooking techniques. The area can only be accessed with a ranger after obtaining special permits. 

Visiting the Chenchu Penta

We only managed to reach the first penta (hamlet). The pentas are located far away from each other and the remaining hamlets can only be accessed by foot or vehicles fit for driving over a rather difficult terrain. The further into the forest you go, the more traditional hamlets you will find. As a fairly easily reachable hamlet, Mallapur has been much more exposed to the outside world, bringing change to their once remote, tribal livelihoods. 

Even though they are striving to live more modern lives, the Chenchus have let us in on their habits and meals back then and now, their hunting and gathering practices and their traditions - both old and new. We heard how they now gained access to many vegetables and spices at the shops and the market, which changed their diet completely. Previously they would rely only on foraging and hunting and eventually would exchange some of their crafts or honey for other goods in the form of a barter system. Governmental procurement also brought rice into their hamlets, making them less reliant on gourds and tubers they used to forage for and plant closer to their huts. They live a happier life now, they enjoy the progress and don’t want to look back. 
No wonder we were quite surprised when they offered us a taste of a snack from the past that still seems to be a prevalent item on their menu -- tamarind tossed in the ash of the Siruman tree.⁠

Peeling raw tamarind with the Chenchus in the Mallapur hamlet in Nallamala Forest Tiger Reserve. Photo: Matylda Grzelak

In the past

Their grandfathers used to depend on tamarind and ash for daily nutrition requirements. Mostly to fill the stomach. Whenever generations before never had grains to eat, they depended on the tamarind and ash from the siruman tree for the nutritional requirement. They also used the ash from the Siruman tree (anogeissus latifolia) for medicinal benefits for the gastrointestinal system. It helped combat bacteria and worms. Back in the day, the Chenchus would drink rain water only, so this food helped them to stay healthy. Now, they have water tanks delivered to their hamlets.

How do they make it? 

Once the Siruman tree dries out, the Chenchus burn it to ash. They harvest the tamarind either foraged or cultivated from seeds they've sown a few generations back within their hamlets, like the big tree we were sitting under. The raw tamarind is then peeled and rolled in the ash and eaten. It’s as simple as that. But the Siruman tree is vital. There is a specific flavour and taste that comes out from that tree. The other tree ash tasted burnt, but this tree has a different flavour. ⁠The snack is quite tasty, acidity from the tamarind is tamed by the ash, which also leaves a slightly fizzy sensation on the tongue. ⁠

Siruman tree ash and tamarind tossed in siruman tree ash; at the Chenchu tribe Mallapur hamlet. Photo: Matylda Grzelak

They also use tamarind seeds as another snack. When they collect about two kilograms of seeds they roast the Tamarind seeds on the fire, which are then soaked in water for two days, peeled and eaten. Such preparation of tamarind seeds, makes them resemble the taste of peas.

It has taken one generation to make this shift. Some of the Chenchus past traditions ⁠still remain part of their daily life, like foraging, hunting and the honey harvest. But with next generations all of this unique knowledge of the forest, the bees and the unique culinary heritage of this hunter-gatherer tribe is at risk of disappearing undocumented irreversibly.