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Tasting India: Northeast's cultural identity served on a platter

The flavour profile of Northeast India is as diverse as it is delicious. But if you were given only three words to describe it, you'd call it authentic, simple and unmistakable

Published: Oct 29, 2016 04:36:19 AM IST
Updated: Nov 4, 2016 03:48:06 PM IST

A man sells dried fish at Lewduh Bazar in Shillong, Meghalaya
Image: Getty Images

The flavour profile of Northeast India is as diverse as it is delicious. But if you were given only three words to describe it, you’d call it authentic, simple and unmistakable

Ask Indians from the Northeast about the simplest way of defining their cultural identity and, like most other communities in the country, they will tell you it is best understood through their food—by what cooks in the kitchens in their homes.

Geography-wise, the Seven Sister states—Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura—hang on to the rest of the country by a thin chicken neck, literally. Surrounded by China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan, the Siliguri Corridor, a narrow stretch of land in West Bengal, more popularly known as Chicken’s Neck, is what keeps the Northeast connected to the rest of the country. But what lies beyond the Neck is often shrouded in misconception and even, at times, misinformation.

Smoked pork—the status of the porcine meat is unchallenged in Northeastern cuisine  
Images: Getty Images

Of course, the complex tapestry of Northeast India is quite difficult to slot in one box because of geographical, historical, sociological, topographical and cultural diversities. From physicalities and languages to religions and rituals, any attempt to make one cohesive sketch of the seven states would be a Herculean task. In fact, the multiplicity can be quite baffling even to long-time residents of the region. There is, at the same time, a shared exasperation over the ignorance that the rest of the country, barring a small informed group, seems to have regarding Northeastern cuisine: Suggestions have been made of dogs and creepy crawlies on menus!

Ou tenga adds a zesty punch to fish curry in Assamese food
Image: Getty Images

Hopefully, some of that is dissipating with increasingly curious minds delving into the food of the region. Pop-up kitchens apart, more restaurants are featuring it in other parts of the country. For instance, Jakoi and Gharua Exaj (for Assamese), apart from Nagaland’s Kitchen and Dzukou Tribal Kitchen (for Naga) in Delhi; Gitika Saikia’s pop-up Assamese kitchens in Mumbai; and Zingron, for Naga cuisine, in Bengaluru.

But to experience the food at its soul, you should get to the Northeast. If you do that through Guwahati in Assam, the plane will swoop in low for the landing, and the blue hills below, a darkish blue, stand up as if in welcome.

Naga style pork has bhut jolokia, or ghost chilli
Images: Getty Images

Guwahati can be mistaken for any overcrowded city in the country, hot and humid, overrun by traffic and intersected by too many lanes and bylanes. But then, Guwahati is not all of Assam. And Assam is not all of the Northeast. And the food isn’t akin to any other part of the country.

Chef Atul Lakhar from Guwahati, who was featured by chef Gordon Ramsay in his TV series Great Escape India, has been working to popularise Northeastern cuisine for over a decade and a half—for one, by elevating home-cooked meals to swanky restaurant fare, at his restaurant Heritage Khorika. The food of the Northeast, he says, “is at heart rustic, seasonal food involving a very simple process of cooking which is normally boiled, stewed or sautéed”. He adds: “Only in the plains of Assam and Manipur is there some frying and use of spices other than local herbs. Also, the oil is always mustard and never refined. The base is also more or less the same; just local ginger, garlic, chilli and seasonal herbs from mustard to majinga (Naga pepper). We also always eat what is in season and we try and preserve everything from meat to herbs.” In other words, long before the world discovered organic, healthy, oil-free cooking, it was, and is, just a way of life in the Northeast. It is not surprising then, that the Northeast is taking the lead in the International Terra Madre (ITM) or Slow Food Movement in India; in fact, in December last year, Meghalaya played host to the first such festival in the country.

Sometimes, it is a tad too healthy—not just sans oil but sans salt too. Thankfully, among the Seven Sister states, it is only the traditional Mizo kitchen that doesn’t store salt.

‘Hang’ (pronounced with an extra ‘a’) is what Mizos look for in a vegetable: This translates into the intrinsic taste of the ingredient through steaming or boiling without any addition from salt or spices.

“The number one thumb rule is simplicity and sometimes it’s just water and one single ingredient,” says Linda Chhakchhuak, anthropologist and researcher. Unfortunately, she is yet to convince this writer that antampar— where you boil water, throw in mustard stalks old, young and all, simmer, strain, and bottle and chill the liquid—is the best antidote to Delhi summers. The taste, at least to me, is quite medicinal despite it being chilled; the absence of seasoning doesn’t help either.

Akhuni, or fermented soya bean
Images: Courtesy Rootleisure 

Assamese cuisine, on the other hand, has quite a few unique elements: To name just a few, there is khar—a concoction obtained by burning skins of locally-seeded bananas and then used to create a wonderful dish of raw papaya or greens (also called Khar); and ou tenga, or elephant apple, that adds a zesty punch to fish curry. Till very recently, these remained confined to family kitchens, save for a few small-time eateries that had Assamese dishes on their menu.
Having grown up in Shillong, Meghalaya, I very early developed a taste for the forbidden—fatty pork, dried fish and fermented soya beans. It was not just the dishes of the main tribes of Meghalaya like Khasi, Jaintia and Garos but also those from Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Assam, even Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh.

Doh sein (pork in black sesame which is a staple of Meghalaya cuisine)
Image: Courtesy Yummraj

The much sought-after mithun meat, usually smoked and dried, from Arunachal was not on my wish list. What was: The Khasi-Jaintia doh khleh, a pork, onion, ginger and chilli salad with slim slivers of fat from the pig’s head as the main ingredient; the Khasi tungrymbai, a dark, almost black, paste which looks and smells unappealing—with a most strong smell of akhuni, or fermented soya bean—is a surprisingly effective side dish, especially with little pieces of pork meat; the Garo stew-like kapa spewing chillies; the nakham bitchi (a soup, the star of which is fermented fish, the closest relative can be anchovies minus the salt overload); Naga style pork with akhuni and generous lashings of bhut jolokia (ghost chilli) or Naga mirch.

These did not make it to our kitchen but were meant to be secretly relished outside the home, often bought wrapped up in leaves from the tiny restaurants run by Congs, or the local Khasi ladies, in nooks and corners of the sprawling Bara Bazaar.

As a teenager, my first meeting with the Garo kapa, made with pork and tonnes of chilli, in Tura, Garo Hills, was a tragi-comedy. Tragic because the gluttony had some serious ramifications on the digestive system; comic because one dared not name the cause of the illness as one was not supposed to be eating it in the first place!

I fared better with the Manipuri iromba in Manipuri Basti, Guwahati. At first glance, the dish looked like what it was supposed to be: A simple vegetable stew, but holding it all together was a surprise ingredient, hidol, a small fermented fish that is soft, mushy and reeking. It was love at first bite. Years later, opening a packet of hidol at the Manipur Bhawan at Delhi, I had two security personnel running away from what they called an “awful stench”. The two couldn’t believe anything that smelt that bad could really be edible.

The Manipuri iromba is fortified with fermented fish
Image: Courtesy Yummraj

The priceless dish from Manipur is the black/purple rice pudding, chak hao kheer, redolent with its innate smoked woody aroma. Manipur, incidentally, is the only state in the country where this rice is grown, and it is believed to contain 18 amino acids, iron, zinc, vitamin E and more.

You could say that the leading food habits of the Northeast are well represented by pork, fermentation and preservation. The sub-regional and sub-tribal threads are woven in seamlessly making it a collective representative for all the states.

Just how deeply ingrained the pork culture is, and how unchallenged the top status awarded to the porcine meat is, is evident from a true story of a senior police officer who will have to remain unnamed. Several moons ago, a strappy, young Naga was inducted into the Indian Police Service (IPS) but, unfortunately, against all his fervent prayers, he was accorded the Manipur-Tripura cadre and posted in Tripura. In her tribal wisdom, a senior aunt decided it was time to appeal to the governmental higher-ups to get her grand-nephew’s posting reworked. So bearing what she thought was the most honourable gift one could make, she sought an appointment with the chief secretary and, with a flourish, presented the Tamil-Brahmin gentleman a huge pig’s head on a salver! Naturally, the officer remained where he was posted.

Saum or fermented pig fat is used to flavour the Mizoram dish, bai
Image: Getty Images

There are as many ways of preparing pork as there are communities, tribes and sub-tribes in the region. But the Naga way, with both fresh and smoked pork, seems to be popular outside the region, too. It could be that these were among the first dishes from the Northeast to travel out to the rest of the country. Chubamanen Longkumer, the person behind Nagaland’s Kitchen, maintains it’s because “of the way the Nagas prepare it”. “We use fresh herbs, sometimes bamboo shoots, fresh and dried, or napa, the Naga basil whose leaves and flowers are used, or Naga pepper (mejinga). Sometimes, it is just fresh local Naga ginger, garlic and chilli, and everything is organic. Above all, we don’t use oil at all; the fat of the pork thus generates its own unique taste.”

Saum, or fermented pig fat, is also accorded an important status in Mizo cuisine. It is used to flavour almost all the dishes, especially their famous vegetable stew bai, and even salads. To make it, pork fat is diced and stuffed tight into hollowed, dried gourd shells and hung over the kitchen fire over a period of time. You either like it or you don’t: There’s no ambivalence there.

A variant of a childhood favourite, the Khasi-Jaintia doh khleh, is the Tripura pork bharta. It could be the mixing together of the ingredients by hand for so long and the fatty oil released that gives the dish a glistening sheen and its unique flavour.

Almost everyone has a favourite pork memory. It can be the result of a place, of the company, or even where the meat was sourced. On a somewhat chilly, misty day when the hill showers played mischief, sitting on a forested crest in Dawki, Jaintia Hills, in Meghalaya, overlooking the Umngot River disappearing into a grey haze into Bangladesh beyond, a simple meal of local red rice and doh sein, pork with black sesame, packed in leaves by the lady in the dukan sha bad jah (tea and meal stall) with a couple of sliced raw onions and green chilies thrown in became a culinary spiritual experience unlikely to be forgotten. This is a true example of slow food using local ingredients—a paste of homegrown black sesame called neiiong, the region’s small but potent ginger called Ing Makhir, the local garlic called rynsun, some local turmeric (shynrai) powder, onion, bay leaves and salt to taste. The taste that stays is of the succulent pork fat, coloured dark green by the sesame paste. There’s a chicken version, too, called chicken neiiong.

If it smells and is edible, it can be traced to the Northeast. That’s because, as chef Lakhar says, “All our ingredients are dependent on the local forests and changing seasons. After eating them fresh, we also try and preserve as much as we can, from meat, fish and vegetables to herbs.” For instance, the soya bean (akhuni) in Nagaland and Mizoram; and fish—the odorous tungtap, in Meghalaya, and hidol in Manipur, parts of Assam and Tripura among others.

Again, in Nagaland, the Ao tribe has made a delicacy out of yam (colocasia) leaves called anishi. The leaves are fermented, pounded into a paste, wrapped in leaves and warmed till cooked, opened up, broken into tiny balls or patties and sun dried or over the kitchen fire until hard. The anishi goes into the making of pork or beef stews.

A common thread in preservation is the use of bamboo stem containers. If anything can be smoked to be preserved, it is. The containers are also used for for steaming and for direct roasting on wood or coal fires, with the bamboo lending its own aroma to the food.

No story of Northeast food can be complete without a final hat-tip to the chilli. All states accord pride of place to chillies and all kitchens inevitably have three varieties: Green, red (both fresh) and dried red, whole and powdered. Standing alongside, of course, is the bhut jolokia, of, by now, universal fame.

Simply put, a simple list to ascertain if a dish is from the Northeast would include: Uncluttered. Check. Organic. Check. Smoking Hot. Check. Just like its people.

(This story appears in the Sep-Oct 2016 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)