By Shevlin Sebastian
Photos by Albin Mathew
Baiju takes a knife, gets down on his haunches, and swiftly takes the scales off. Thereafter, he rubs the masala – a mix of coriander, turmeric and chilli powder – all over the fish. He chops up the fish, as well as the tapioca, onions and tomato into small pieces.
Then Baiju runs towards a bamboo grove nearby. Quickly, he pulls down a bamboo, and cuts it into three smaller ones. All the food material is stuffed into the hollow stem of the bamboo. A couple of leaves are used to cover the open ends. Since the rain has not ceased, Baiju hangs up a tarpaulin sheet by tying the ends to the branches of a nearby tree. Then he puts pieces of wood and coal in a circle, pours a bit of coconut oil, and lights it. Once the fire starts burning, he places the bamboo tubes in it.
“It is at this moment that the Adivasi tribals sing a song,” says Baiju. “When the song ends five to seven minutes later, the food is cooked.”
Tribal food hit the media spotlight during the shooting of Mani Ratnam’s 'Raavan' in August, 2009, at the Athirapally Waterfalls. The stars of the film, Aishwarya and Abhishek Bachchan, were staying at the nearby Rainforest resort, where Baiju was providing the tribal food.
“I removed all the bones and made a fish preparation,” says Baiju. “Aishwarya liked it. Then Abhishek also tasted the food, which included chicken, and he also enjoyed it. For the next few nights, they continued to eat my food, at dinner-time. After a while, they began to call me ‘Bamboo Baiju’.”
Later, when the celebrity couple left, Aishwarya wrote in the visitors' book: ‘Thank you Baiju. Wonderful dinners. Will never forget.’
It has been an astonishing and improbable journey for Baiju, who looks like a cross between a rock star and a prophet: shoulder-length hair, a long beard, bare-bodied, with a rudraksha necklace, and a black scarf, as well as sandal paste on his forehead. He grew up in the hills near the Athirapally waterfalls. From a young age, he would wander about in the forests. He learnt cooking by watching his father, who would cook for weddings and family celebrations.
But he got the best tips about tribal cooking from an elder called Kunchu Isho of the Kadar community. “He told me that you can make a hole in the ground, place the food inside leaves, cover the hole and then put a fire on it,” says Baiju. “After a few minutes, the food is ready.” It usually consists of tapioca, honey and fish.
Baiju’s life changed, when, one day, in 2005, he saw a car parked near a forest. So he walked up to the driver and asked whether he needed any help. “Yes,” said OC Thomas, the owner of Rainforest. “I want to see the jungle.” So Baiju took him on a tour, and impressed Thomas with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the trees, birds and animals. Later, Thomas hired him as a guide for the hotel guests.
And it was on another trip with Thomas and his wife that Baiju cooked a meal for them, using ingredients which he collected from a nearby tribal colony. “There was a unique taste,” says Thomas. “I believe that some of the bamboo flavour seeps into the food.” Later, Thomas asked Baiju to provide tribal food for the resorts' guests. And that led to the fateful meeting with the Bachchans.
Today, Baiju is part of a resort called Chedi Spring Valley. He is also a competent snake-catcher, and an actor. He has finished the shoot for a Malayalam film, called '168 Hours'. “But cooking is my first love,” he says, with a smile.
(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)