Characterised by a diverse population with different ethnic backgrounds, the food in the north-east of the country, with its bounty of local ingredients, is simple, flavourful, yet relatively unknown.
By Mini Ribeiro
Till some years ago, momos were all that belonged to the Seven Sisters in north eastern India, or so foodies thought. Much has changed since then, as gourmands have begun to discover the culinary gems of this region, owing to pop-ups, travelling to this region and savouring dishes at the few restaurants across India serving this cuisine.
Chicken Neiiong with black sesame from Meghalaya, Khasi pulao; Nga taoba thongba, a Manipuri-style fried fish curry with green peas; Kalhang pork or the Naga pork curry with raja bhut jolokia chillies, paired with Axonhe vegetables; mosedeng, a fermented soybean vegetable stew and dry fish chutney; Lengphar leh tumthang chum, a Mizo fish stew with fresh herbs; Sungat diya misa maas, Assamese style prawns steamed in a green bamboo tube, and Perok ekung an Arunachali, steamed chicken with fermented bamboo shoot, are not dishes you are likely to sample just anywhere in India, unless you visit some locals’ homes or attend a pop-up, as this cuisine is unknown and unavailable.
Contrary to popular belief, this cuisine is not insipid and not meat-centric. In fact, each dish boasts of a complexity of flavours, yet, is well-balanced and one of the healthiest. What sets it apart, are the cooking techniques used. As chef Kezang PS Rai, senior sous chef, The Oberoi Grand, Kolkata, says, “Smoking, slow cooking, boiling and steaming, are the common techniques, celebrating the fact that north east cuisine is one of healthiest and full of homely flavours.”
Joyee Mahanta of O’Tenga, an Assamese delivery restaurant in Mumbai, adds, “Slow cooking meats and rice in a hollow bamboo is common. For meats particularly, Khorika (barbeque) and smoking are popular methods of cooking. Apart from that, boiling meat with ginger, green chilli and local herbs, without oil, is also preferred. We also cook fish and meat wrapped in banana leaf placed over fire.”
In Nagaland, among the Garo tribe, Kappa is the common method of cooking, where pork, meat or vegetables, are cooked using a liquid usually made by mixing the ashes of a burnt banana tree bark mixed in water, similar to the Khar in Assam.
A typical meal in any home is rice and meat — fresh or smoked, locally grown boiled vegetables, a vegetable salad with local herbs and chutneys like fermented soybean or fermented fish.
Chef Sumalya Sarkar, executive chef, Vivanta, Guwahati explains, “The cuisine of any place always get influenced by the landscape, source of water, weather and heritage. This is applicable to the cuisine of the Seven Sisters. The locals rely on resources from the forest, like wild animals, spices, fruits, fish from the rivers meat especially pork, duck and pigeon.”
Simplicity is what characterises the cuisine of this region. Instead of spices, they flavour their food with fermented fish, soybean, chillies, aromatic leaves, herbs and edible flowers. Mahanta adds, “There is minimal use of oil and masalas. Typically, the meat is cooked in its own fat and instead of masalas, we use natural spices like ginger, garlic, green chilli, bhut jolokia and local herbs to add flavour.”
For instance, Ziang-sang or Ziang-dui, is a fermented leafy vegetable in Manipur and Nagaland, which is used as a condiment in cooking. Anishi, another fermented ingredient, made from the leaves of edible yam, is usually cooked with dry meat, especially pork. Indigenous and fermented foods, considered healthy, are an intrinsic part of the diet here. Fermentation — the oldest and most economical method of creating a diversity of aromas, flavours and textures, as well as for food preservation, is a way of life here.
Soybeans, bamboo shoots, and locally available vegetables are typically fermented in most of the states here, yet, each region has its specific methods and ingredients, which they ferment. Soibum, the fermented bamboo shoot, is an indispensable part of the Manipuri diet. Miya mikhri from the Dimasa tribe of Assam is made from bamboo shoots cut into small pieces, wrapped in banana leaf and placed in an earthen pot and consumed as a pickle or even mixed with curry.
Soybean, too, is fermented and widely eaten. In Mizoram, small soybeans are soaked for several hours, boiled and wrapped in leaves and then kept inside a bamboo basket near the earthen oven and fermented for three-four days. Sticky beans with ammoniacal flavour are produced to get bekang, which is then consumed as curry with rice. Similarly, Peruyyan, an ethnic fermented soybean food, prepared by Apatani women in Arunachal Pradesh, is eaten as a side dish with rice. The Garo tribe of Nagaland eats Baring Nakham, a mash of aubergine, dried fish and chillies in order to add flavour to a meal of rice and potatoes.
In Arunachal Pradesh, with abundant yak milk, soft chhurpi, a sour, fermented cheese, is commonly added to chutneys, or even curries and eaten with rice. Chef Sarkar adds, “Some typical ingredients used in Assam are bamboo shoot, bhim kol khar (banana skin), bhut jolokia, dry fish, ou tenga, tamarillo (tree tomatoes), dry taro leaves, fermented black bean, varieties of rice like joha, kola, bora.”
Wild fruits in Nagaland generally help in adding variety in the otherwise bland diet of the tribal people. Given the weather, meat is naturally an obvious choice. Locals prefer to eat their meat salted, dried and kept for long time at very low temperature. Fish is usually eaten fermented. Ngari, prepared from dried Puntius sophore fish, forms an intrinsic part of the Manipuri diet. The same dish takes the name of shidal in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura. In Meghalaya, this is called Tungtap. The process of fermentation enhances the palatability of the small fish by softening the bones and improving its flavour and texture. In Assam, on the other hand, Karati, bordia, and lashim are popular sun-dried and salted fish products.
Sustainability is key to the food habits of the locals. “The food is sustainable with optimum utilisation of each ingredient. There is almost no wastage and every part of the ingredient is utilised. For example, in the dish Jadoh, every part of the chicken is cooked, including the liver, skin, neck and wings,” says chef Kezang.
Keen to popularise their cuisine, many locals are doing their bit. From teaching people how to cook these dishes on YouTube channels like Eat Your Kappa, to small-time entrepreneurs starting restaurants in different parts of India, often first testing waters with pop-ups, the efforts are on.
While Smokey Naga in Bengaluru serves thalis, in a bid to let people get acquainted with the unfamiliar Naga flavours, Seven Sisters in Pune and Naga Kitchen and Bambooshoot Kitchen in Delhi are places to sample Naga delicacies, whereas Mizo Diner in Delhi gives people a glimpse of Mizo food. Shillong Point in Kolkata, on the other hand, enables patrons to taste the flavours of Meghalaya.
Comparatively more popular is Assamese cuisine owing to pop-ups across India. In Mumbai, Joyee Mahanta and Priyangi Borthakur of O’Tenga deliver authentic Assamese home-food to patrons.
Not too common perhaps on menus, yet, chhum han, masor tenga, pork anishi, galho, are names of dishes foodies across India are slowly getting familiar with. The mystique remains, but the myths about North-Eastern cuisine are slowly getting debunked.
Mini Ribeiro is a freelancer