Kai chutney

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In brief

Ashok Pradhan, Dec 24, 2022: The Times of India

The red weaver ant’s bite is unforgettable. So is its taste – ask the tribes of Similipal biosphere reserve spread across Odisha’s Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar and Sundargarh districts. The ants – known as ‘kai’ locally – have been part of their cuisine for hundreds of years. The most famous thing they are made into is the eye-wateringly hot kai chutney that celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay describes as ‘bloody delicious’.

With the chutney’s fame growing, Odisha has sought a geographical indication (GI) tag for its ‘Mayurbhanj kai chutney’. Once granted, the tag will signify that kai chutney from Mayurbhanj has special qualities not found in other ant chutneys.

Moving Ingredient

The red weaver ant is commonly found in the trees of Similipal bio reserve, especially fruit-bearing trees like mango, jackfruit and papaya. It’s called ‘weaver’ because ant colonies build nests that can range from a single leaf folded and bound onto itself to leaf homes over half a metre in length.

To make kai chutney, forest dwellers collect ants and their eggs early in the morning when the antsare sluggish. “It is difficult to collect red ants and their eggs from the nests on trees. If you stir a nest or try to break it, the males attack in groups,” says 53-year-old Gobinda Naik, a native of Mayurbhanj, adding they have mastered ant gathering over generations. Early in the morning, the gatherers detach ant nests from trees and drop them in sacks or buckets filled with water. The ants rush out of the nests and die in a few hours. After washing and drying they are ready for the kitchen, says Nayadhar Padhial, a member of Mayurbhanj Kai Society that’s involved in promoting kai chutney outside the Similipal region. He’s from the Bathudi tribe, believed to be the first to have eaten kai ants.

Tingling The Palate

Kai chutney is a common sight at village markets in the region. A small helping served on green kendu and sal leaves costs Rs 10-20. “There is a huge demand nowadaysin both rural and urban markets,” says Sukrura Munda, a tribal red ant collector of Banspal area in Keonjhar district.

“I have eaten kai chutney since childhood. Its taste is unique,” says 60-year-old Dasa Parihal, a Bhuyantribe farmer from Baitarani village in Keonjhar. There are different recipes, but the essential chutney follows a simple recipe: you take the cleaned ants and crush them with ginger, garlic, chillies, and salt to taste. The chutney lasts for upto six months at room temperature, and can be eaten with meals and snacks. While it is a round-the-year condiment, the tribes mostly consume it in the rainy and winter seasons when the ants lay eggs.

The basic chutney is a paste of ants and their eggs, but many people fry them before grinding. Kanduni Sannagi, 50, a Bhuyan tribal from Keonjhar’s Kanjipani village, says, “We fry it lightly in oil and salt although some people prefer to eat it rough. ” The kai paste can also be made into a soup by adding warm water, salt and chillies.

Potential Superfood?

It may be a tribal delicacy but is kai chutney safe to eat? Odisha University of Agriculture Research and Technology (OUAT), which has helped the Mayurbhanj kai collectors apply for a GI tag, got the ants tested in a laboratory. “There is no toxicity in the ants. Their bites may be painful but cause no harm otherwise,” says Deepak Mohanty, asenior scientist at an OUAT field laboratory in Mayurbhanj district. In fact, their findings show the ants are a rich source of protein, amino acids, minerals such as calcium, zinc, iron, magnesium and potassium, besides vitamin B12.

Not surprisingly, the tribes consider kai an immunity booster. They swear by its efficacy against coughs and colds, as an aphrodisiac, and as a cure for joint pain, hyperacidity, skin infections and jaundice. Payo Murmu, a 60-year-old woman in Danapur village of Keonjhar Sadar block, says, “It is the most triedand-tested medicine for respiratory problems and stomach pain. ”

Traditional healers prepare a therapeutic oil by dipping the ants in mustard oil for 30 days and then filtering it. It is used as baby oil and as a cure for rheumatism, gout, ringworm and other skin diseases. These are unverified traditional beliefs, not a recommendation for TOI readers.

“It is a natural healer for many ailments,” says Harekrushna Mohanta, a traditional healer and ayurvedic practitioner of Keonjhar. But he too advises caution “while collecting and eating kai”.

(With inputs from Naresh Chandra Pattanayak in Keonjhar)

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