The tale of the disappearing kitchen garden

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By Tinky Ningombam

Today because of Farmville(one of the most addictive farming games on Facebook by Zynga) I can proudly say that I have at least 50 farmer friends. Many of these are people who in real life have not seen guava blossoms or know that garlic actually grows underground. And probably by now believe that strawberries take just 4 hours to ripe.

The hard part of urban life is to be deprived of the small pleasures of nature’s bounty. And unless someone is rich enough to have a farm in some far off corner of the outer city areas, one never knows the joy of plucking a fresh ripe fruit for breakfast. And when I am asked what I miss the most when I have lived in a concrete jungle, it is our old garden.

With the help of gardening enthusiasts like my mom and dad, I fondly remember my house filled with flower pots and planted vegetables, from papayas to sugarcane plants to wild orchids and ivy vines to lilies and flower creepers to what not. We have a long list of family gardeners, my grand-dad especially, whose entire front yard used to have every inch of it covered by giant-sized roses of different colors. As a child, I have been fortunate to have seen flowers bloom, fruits ripen, trees grow.  But our garden had seen better days; I grew up to see our small 2 bedroom home change from having every possible fruit tree growing around us to a leveled concrete block with industrial flower pots everywhere. We had to make space for the new house, the garage, the front lawn, the gate. Modern house, modern landscape.

But when I was younger, in Imphal it was a common sight for every house to have a kitchen garden. I grew up with it as a tradition. We never bought “Maroi” from the market or tomatoes or mangoes or lemons for that matter. You grew everything. And the first thing that you show off to your guests was your “In-khol” – your kitchen garden. We used to admire the best produce in the neighborhood. People used to boast of their plants. Now every time I come back to visit, I just see a lot of renovations and constructions; the gardens becoming smaller till finally it disappears completely. Land has become scarcer especially in the city. No big trees can grow in our homes, no bamboo groves, forget about the house-ponds. In some homes, I cannot even find a patch of soil. Most people have moved on from the hobby or become too busy to tend.

I remember when we used to hunt for ingredients for Singju (type of Manipuri Salad), we used to scour for vegetables from our neighbors. Things are different now. The sense of communal conjugality is apparently decreased if not absent. And if in some subliminal way it used to mean sharing of food, or breaking bread per se, time has killed that tradition. The kitchen gardens of the neighborhood used to dictate a lot of our food habits. Whenever there were banana plants or new bamboo shoots being harvested, everyone used to receive their vegetable parcels for a meal. Indeed, the Manipuri cuisine and palette is one of the most varied and adventurous. The various herbs, new shoots, soft stems, roots, leaves and seeds that we use in our cuisine can easily surpass all in taste and variety. Most of these come from plants that are used to be home-grown and harvested locally by local households in their humble kitchen gardens. With the disappearing gardens, our seasonal vegetables and plants also diminishes. And although commercial farms will substitute these items some-time, we will not have it locally anymore.

Many cultures in the world have a long tradition of organic farming and kitchen gardens. And there are many ways in which they continue to nurture this fantastic hobby by hosting neighborhood vegetable markets, gardening competitions, best produce etal. I long to see a day when people start actively reviving this long tradition of kitchen gardens, of knowing that it is indeed a vital part of the Manipuri home. And if one delves deeper, we will find that, first and foremost, our farming genes are indeed strong in us, the obsessed lot on Farmville is testimony to that.

(The author also reflects that writing of good food and reminiscing it does no good to a hungry writer especially when she sulks with a cup of noodles and a box of high calorie cookies)

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