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Chhadakhai: The Hunter-Forager Feast

Known for its lavish meat and seafood spread today, the ‘meat-feast’ festival is a fascinating reminiscence of the early Palaeolithic days - and the dietary richness

By Madhulika Dash; Pictures courtesy https://culinaryxpress.com/

One of the fascinating aspects of Chhadakhai, muses culinary documentator Alka Jena, “is the time it befalls. It is usually winters - last year it was in early November, just when it starts getting nippy in Odisha, and this one is in December – a time when for most of the world, it meant finding warmth in cured meat and preserved food. But not in Odisha, where it is the richest month for not only produce but meat and fish as well. And in Chhadakhai all of these gems come together.”

Jena, who is planning to revive one of the older dishes made with the bony parts of mutton, shells and loads of gourd, has been reading up on a festival that dates to the time “when hunting and foraging was the way of life, and the day of Chhadakhai meant the first catch of seafood of the season.”

After all, says the recipe curator, “it is a day after the festival of Boita Bandana, which marked the restart of fishing as the sea calmed down and the wind changed direction towards the South, signs that any traditional fisherman would say were ‘idle for a good catch.”

What really is Chhadakhai? Traditionally, the day marks the point when most Odias return to their meat-twice-a-week atleast format after a month-long abstinence. And the meat-loaded feast is just the way to do it. However, if nutritional anthropologist study into the Stone Age diets is any indication, then the relevance of the day and our habits may not be as easy an explanation as the “readjusting to an old eating habit.”

In fact, according to paleoanthropologist across the world, it could be the key to understanding the role of meat in our ancient diet – and its relevance today. A discussion that was sparked in 1924 when Raymond Dart discovered the first fossil of a human ancestor in Africa and popularised the image of our early ancestors hunting meat to survive on the African savanna. Fascinatingly it was Dart’s eventual description of humans as “carnivorous creatures” that has fuelled our imagination of what barbarians, nomads and tribes ate.

Curiously, the recent study in the Stone Age diets in the West has dented this very theory. While most anthropologist agree that as foragers and hunters, our ancestors did have a meat-dense diet, it wasn’t always a successful model to live by. In fact, most of the time the food hunters – the big men in the community – were often helped by the foragers in the tribe, especially women who took to looking for plants, fruits and fishes on the river.

The exception was when the meat was hunted – that’s when the meal was not only more flavoursome and lavish but eaten more as they were great source of brain food. Nutritional history shows how the human brain developed on the protein heavy diet of the meat – and even today, it gets 30 % of its brain activity – which consumed 20% of energy when idle – from animal meat (and produce). The rest, of course, says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin. “went into balancing the body and keeping it agile. One of the many reasons that those who follow the Palaeolithic Diet or for that matter Keto too find it so energising.”

But it wasn’t just meat that our forefathers ate, the great chances of failing often meant that the caveman (and later tribesmen) had a diet that was as versatile as that of a global traveller. And while agriculture did change the equation by making meat and other food items within easy reach, meat remained an integral part of the working men and women, though now the frequency reduced from whenever possible to once a week or more when there is a celebration.”

Interestingly, the hunting for meat (and seafood) practice is still followed in certain tribes across Odisha. And the reason for this is nature. With December, while the rest of the world reaches a temperature where cosiness and nourishment comes from preserved meat and produce, the sunny mornings here guarantee not only a pleasant hunting experience with most of the wild animals out in the open and thus an easy prey; but also rewarding fishing as the water on the surface here are still warm to get the fishes on the top rather than in the bottom of the sea elsewhere in the country.

As per old maritime tales, Chhadakhai was also the time when the Kaibartas, who would return to the shore after the first day of fishing would showcase the finest of seafoods to be bought – and then butchers the best of the meat after a month given to the lambs to feed, rest and grow.

How did Chhadakhai become a feast? Part of the reason could be of the community. Traditionally, most tribal settlements in Odisha worked on a simple concept of community table, where the members of a tribe would eat together bringing whatever was made in the house with the big dish made at the chieftain place. This was usually followed for big occasion like Chhadakhai when men went out hunting and came with the booty. Later on, it was a ruse adopted by the royals and others to celebrate their fruits of their land (and sea). Kalinga, under King Kharavela and others, celebrated Chhadakhai that came after the maritime trade and fishing resumed, with great pomp and show.

Later under the Mauryas, the tradition became a fascinating way to showcase the wealth of a prosperous kingdom, and so on.

The reason of observing such a day when meat is preferred over rice and root vegetable, also has a nutritional explanation. Says Bhassin, “There is a change of not only season – when winter reaches its peak – but also the moon phase, which affects the mind. The brain which is in its calm state is now under duress to manage a body that needs more energy to keep warm, and alert. Result, we move towards meat, especially dishes that allows us to chew, pull and tug at a piece of meat.”

Digesting it not only takes much energy but revvs up the thermal activity in our body, which the brain perceives as happiness, satiation and extra energy. Thus, keeping one active and alert. However, the pigging out done aimlessly can have a disaster result, points out Bhassin, “as we do not possess the same gut health as our Stone Age forefathers who not only had lots of meat but raw too. Result, once our gut bacteria is done digesting a sizeable portion of L-carnitine, a nutrient present in the body but also harvested from red meat, the rest can lead to nutrient overload that can affect the heart.” The prima facie that got red meat (mutton) its bad name.

Should you indulge in the meat feast this year? Yes, by all means, says Bhassin, but try putting in liver friendly produces like the gourd and sweet potatoes along with it to balance it, much like Jena’s plan.