Wild And Wonderful - Food From The Forests Of India

What would our lives be if not for forests? It’s a no-brainer that forests are essential for the human race to survive. Being the world's lungs, forest forms most of the earth’s ecosphere. However, with growing deforestation across the globe, our apparent dependency on forest covers is becoming an unignorable virtue. What forests directly provide to humankind is not limited to the required oxygen but is also a source of livelihood and food for many of the population

With increased urbanisation, diets have evolved for us to depend mainly on agricultural produce; however, as we explore the countryside and the lives of the many tribes and rural populations, forests are revered as the sacred food source. Many culinary treasures are there in the forests of India, and for good reasons, we need to realise the importance of our dependence on forests for food, as it’s the most sustainable and probably the only way forward. 


One of the wonderful culinary ingredients from the Indian forests is the Mahua. The versatile mahua flowers and fruits prepare many food items, making them sacred ingredients for regional tribes. Mahua has the tenacity to grow even in arid environments making it resistant to famine and floods. Mahua flower is used to make jams and dried to make the mahua flour, which is made into bread. Mahua is a natural source of sugar and is alternatively used as a sweetener. Mahua syrups have medicinal properties; however, their cultural and social importance also grows because Mahua flowers are made into a country liquor, which has remained the preferred drink for tribals over centuries. The many usages of Mahua make it an ingredient of interest for Agro-food companies, who are now involved in processing Mahua flowers and fruits into various culinary ingredients. It’s interesting to note that Mahua has been the saviour for the tribal communities during the seasons of low agricultural growth, which also leads us to understand the importance of forest foods in times when growing population and dependence on agricultural produce are worrisome factors to the mission of reducing the countrywide need of food and nutrition for all. 

Foraging In The Himalayas

The Himalayas forms the northern range of India and is abundant with forests full of wild foods. The local tribes, for centuries, have foraged in the surrounding regions. They have supplemented their diet with nutritious fruits, plants, herbs and many other food items in the hills. The Himalayan tribes have used their foraging skills to supplement their income by selling the unique indigenous wild forest produce to the market for their culinary and medicinal uses. Regions of Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and even the eastern states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh have many explored and unexplored culinary ingredients lying in their embrace for humankind to make use of. 

Himalayan Gucchi, a prized possession of a forager, are the earthy, soft and rubbery morel mushrooms found primarily in Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. The uncultivated morel mushrooms are available for foraging for a short time during April and May and are extremely tough to forage even by a patient forager. Found under the base of trees, these camouflaged fungi are sold at a price upwards of 35000 rupees per kilogram and are worth their weight in gold in the hands of a skilled chef worth his salt. 

Fiddlehead ferns, wild apricots, wild pomegranates, berries, a variety of leaves (Saag), Nuts, Raisins, Gums, Herbs etc., are commonly found in the Himalayas. No amount of mention can quantify the wild treasures of the Himalayan region; however, the pickles, jams, a common spice called anardana, ber, jamun, raspberries, syrups and sherbets are commonplace when we travel across the Himalayan state and are available for us to buy and consume. Rhododendron, a wildflower found in Himachal Pradesh, makes an excellent chutney. Persimmon, also locally known as Japaani, is a fruit high in vitamin C and makes many delicious products like jams, chutneys, desserts etc. Bhaang chutney, made out of cannabis seeds, is a local delicacy of Uttarakhand. As I begin to think about the times I have spent in the Himalayan states, and the meals I have eaten in the homes of the Himalayan natives, my mind brings memories of many local products, be it the leaves like Bathua, used to make a raita, the unique chutneys made of different flowers and herbs like junglee pudina, various seeds, flowers and fruits can be seen commonly consumed by people which does not make it to the urban mandis or modern kitchens, and are never seen on the restaurant menus. 

North East Indian Tribes 

North East India, with 7 Sister states like Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Assam, Nagaland, and Tripura, has many tribal populations centring lives around the forest foods. A unique feature of foraging in the northeastern states is the usage of vegetables, leaves, and fruits and foraging for animals, birds, insects, and ants. Although the responsible elders of tribes have put restrictions on hunting in many tribes, it needs to be noted how specific social regulations have been placed to ensure the foraging happens in a manner not to disturb the ecology of the region. The tribals understand the importance of the forest and how it needs to be protected for the survival of the tribe itself. 

Talking of the interesting foraging skills of the tribal population, I remember trying the red ant eggs as a part of a festive Assamese meal. Red ants are found on the base of mango trees, imparting flavour to the foraged ants. Alongside red ants, edible insects like Silkworms, beetles, crickets, cicadas, grasshopper, Dragonfly, wasps, termites, hornets, bees, bugs, moths, flies, etc., are eaten for the high amount of protein it provides. 

The tribes of Northeast India have possessed ancient wisdom of milking the natural resources to their benefit as well as sustaining it for future use. Thereby we will find the region’s tribal population depends on the forest produce and maintaining a healthy ecosphere, one of the best in the world. 

Food Forests 

The development of food forests is the need of the hour. Thus, experiential efforts are being made in different regions of India like Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh etc. Food forests are layered and planned forest development growing different forest foods in different concentric layers of the forest. It’s a scientific method to sustain the growth of the forest and produce nutritious and organic food items for consumption. This self-sustainable permaculture model needs time to be developed; however, the results are positive and profitable in the long run. Most importantly, it paves the way for a sustainable future and food security. 

Forest food is the way forward, and whenever I come across an initiative or an ancient culinary practice promoting the usage of forest foods, it is heartening to experience. Wild food festivals are organised across India to create awareness of forest food items. Some of my chef friends are working incessantly on developing recipes around the wild foods found in the forests of India. I see many institutions and state governments supporting the tribal population in maintaining and promoting the tribal food customs. While efforts are being made towards the renaissance of wild forest food, there is a long way to go. And as we realise the growing importance of forest food and forests per se, for the sake of human survival, we must make all the efforts to create awareness around the same. While this article could barely cover some aspects of the world of wild food, we intend to bring forth more about the macro and micro developments happening around the same in more detail. Stay Tuned, and Stay Wild! 

Sidharth Bhan Gupta, Founder of 361 Degrees Hospitality, is a Hospitality / Food and Beverage / Restaurant Consultant, Travelling across India on a Cultural and Culinary Exploration.