Food and Friction – the Manipur Saga

Posted in North East and Me with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2012 by ashthefoodie

Today Manipur was in news. I saw a big article on Mary Kom in a national news paper; a few days back she was walking the ramp, a few weeks prior to that she was a proud recipient of the Olympic bronze backing her world championship title that she has won five times. It is indeed a proud moment for me – an obsessive North East India enthusiast.

Today Manipur was in news again. The news piece said: At least seven Assam Rifles personnel were injured in a bomb blast in Bishenpur district of Manipur on Sunday when the para-military personnel were jogging on a road, official sources said.

Bittersweet morning it turned out to be.

There was one thing about the article in the morning that took me back to my own experiences in Manipur. Mary said, “In Manipur men and women are treated equally.” I would make a slight change in the sentence and say, women have ensured that they are treated equally. What I see in Manipur are strong willed women; resilient yet fierce.

Women taking matters into their own hands – Ima Market (Photo: Ashish Chopra)

Ima Keithel: Especially for those who have never heard of or visited this amazing market in Imphal, the capital of Manipur, this is a rock solid example of women taking matters into their own hands. This is perhaps, the only market in the world, where all stalls are run by women. The name is self explanatory – Ima (meaning mother) Keithel (meaning market). The exuberance of the products sold, from vegetables, meats and flowers to handicrafts to utensils go hand in hand with the spirit of these 3000 women, of all age groups, who put up their stalls every morning. For these enterprising women, this is hard core business, mate!

It is said that the Ima market is over a hundred years old. It definitely has survived the test of time and its male rivals, who occasionally try and play spoilsport to attract customers.

There is something about this beautiful north eastern state that makes it unique, vulnerable and volatile – all at the same time.  But I don’t want to discuss all of that on this platform. I simply want to touch upon some dots so that after you finish reading this article you go back and rediscover Manipur for yourself.


The Iron Lady whose boxing ring looks different (Photo:

The Woman who is not Mary Kom: It pains to mention a hunger strike on a food blog. But Irom Chanu Sharmila is a name that can under no circumstances be ignored upon the mention of Manipur. She has been on hunger strike for over a decade; has survived because of hundreds of forced feeding sessions and needless to say, her inner strength. Her struggle was ignited when ten civilian Manipuris were shot dead by Assam Rifles in the year 2000, the incident that later came to be known as ‘Malom Massacre’. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act or AFSPA provides special powers to the Army and paramilitary forces to detain any civilian on grounds of suspicion of having links with undergrounds/rebels/terrorists/insurgents –  terminologies are many. In the name of suspicion I have seen young boys and girls being detained, only to have never made it to their homes back.

Irom Sharmila fights her battle with this Act, silently. She refuses to meet her mother lest she should get emotional and her determination broken. What disturbs me though is the way many organizations in the name of fighting for Manipur try to lay a claim on Irom Sharmila and argue over who should ‘use’ her for their campaigns. Over the years I have also seen Sharmila handle is crisis much better; in her initial years she used to be flustered about this conflict  she perhaps had not quite anticipated.

While I cannot pass a judgment on their personal lives, but I can certainly compare the strengths of Irom Sharmila and Mary Kom – unbelievable physical strength that has evolved out of an exceptional mental stamina. My salutes to these women, all those women in Ima market and others whose stories we do not know.

About Manipur: Geographically, Manipur is partially plains and partially hills; the state became a part of the Indian Union in 1949. The capital of this beautiful state is Imphal. The famous Loktak lake with its magnificent floating islands, adorns the capital of the state that is home to a vibrant culture, highly intellectual population and beautiful landscape. It covers an area of 22,347 square kilometers (8,628 sq mi) with a strategic international border with Myanmar.

I must at this point mention about my ventures into Morey in Manipur and from there crossing the border to Tamu in Myanmar, just to have my Mohinga and Khau Swe(slurp)! This venture has put me through some unusual experiences with the underground, which I will at some point in time write down in my memoirs. Till such time I leave you with the thought that there was a lot of pigging away to glory.


The spectacular Loktak Lake (Photo: Ashish Chopra)

Manipur History, Hinduism and Meiteis: The history of the state is not very well documented. The earliest documentation of its history states that king Pakhangba ascended to the throne of one of the seven principalities in 33 A.D. and was responsible for laying the foundation of a long dynasty which ruled over the scene till Manipur came under British rule in 18911. According to historian AFM Abdul Ali, this period of Manipuri history has been documented in such a legendary and mythical way that one cannot rely entirely on these documents to carve out the exact historical timeline of Manipur.

Manipuri classical dance depicts the ‘Raas Leela’ – the mythological tale depicting Lord Krishna’s Divine Dance with his lover Radha and her friends

Manipur consists of three major ethnic groups – Meitei, the Nagas and Kuki-Chins. Unlike its neighbours Nagaland and Mizoram which are hundred percent Christian states, Manipur has a predominantly Hindu population. Thecre are roughly 29 tribal communities in the state, though Meitei – a non-tribal community dominates the demography. Approximately sixty percent of the state’s population is Meitei, largely followers of Vaishanvite Hinduism. An 18th century king called ‘Gharib Nawaz’ actually declared Hinduism as the state religion. How this Naga king originally called Panheiba2 got the name ‘Gharib Nawaz’, I have no idea. It is said that one day Gharib Nawaz was told by a wandering monk that the King was a descendent of Arjuna3 – a pure blooded Khastriya. Upon hearing this, the King embraced Hinduism and did all he could to popularize it. Later Brahmsabha, an apex body to determine the do’s and don’ts of Hindu practice was set up and is in existence till date.

Sanamahism: Interestingly, Sanamahism is one of the earliest religions of South Asia and was practiced in Manipur by the Meiteis before the advent of Hinduism. Today I see many young boys and girls wanting to explore their ancient religion and reading up about it, looking for spaces where they can practice it, some of them even at the cost of being being considered outcasts as per the Brahmasabha diktat. Rather interesting.


MC Mary Kom – Olympic Bronze medalist boxer was born in Churachandpur and runs her Boxing Academy in Imphal (Internet Image)

And the place where Mary Kom comes from, home to the significant other of Manipur:Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom or MC Mary Kom was born in Churachandpur – the largest district of Manipur. My special affection to this part of the state also comes from the fact that it represents the existence of the other people in Manipur; those who are not Meiteis.  Churachandpur is home to communities like Hmars, Paites, Simtes, Zous, Gangtes, Suktes, Luseis etc.  As I mentioned earlier, there are roughly 29 tribes that belong to the Naga and Kuki-Chin ethnicity forming a significant part of Manipur’s demography.

Visit to Liyai Village

In 2001-02 I visited Liyai village in Senapati district at the invitation of K. Lano Andrew – a social activist and a friend. This area is home to a majority of the Poumai Naga tribe. The warmth and the love that I got in that village has been firmly entrenched in my mind, heart and for sure my soul; be it their food or their hospitality, it was far less complicated than their conflicts and and welcoming to the core.

In my experience, Meiteis have politically as well as socially been very powerful within Manipur while the rest of the tribes have fought a long drawn battle for identity and existence. While some of the underground groups of Nagaland have been proposing the Greater Nagalim idea with all these Manipuri Naga tribes included in their scheme of affairs, I have seldom met a Manipuri Naga who identifies with that idea wholeheartedly. They have a two-fold crisis. These tribes feel alienated in their own home state, especially being confined to the hilly districts of Manipur where development is as slow as the movement of a snail, perhaps even slower. At the same time in Nagaland there is a disagreement over whether to consider the Manipuri Nagas, Nagas at all. I know for a fact, nobody is ever going to come to an agreement.

We can only be positive about this conflict pushing some people to creatively focus their energies into making a mark in various fields. Needless to say, Manipur has seen emergence of world class athletes like Dingko Singh and Mary Kom, musicians and theatre personalities like Ratan Thiyam and Kanhaiyalal. Manipur in the eighties saw emergence of fabulous rock bands like The Cannibals, Phynix and one that broke many conventions post year 2000, Tapta – the list is endless.

A State Ravaged in Conflict: Gharib Nawaz was as per records, the most successful Manipuri king, who outshone during Manipur’s battle with the Burmese invaders. Ever since, the kingdom and state has witness countless wars. World War II battles have been fought here.  During the British invasion the famous Rebellion of 1891 shook the British Indian Government. Though the rebellion which saw both outright protests and bloodshed was crushed later, it gave inspiration to many other neighbouring states to stand up against the British dominion and ask for sovereignty. However, this sovereignty was primarily for the Manipuri kingdom and not of the nation. This has remained a long drawn battle and too complicated in its nodules.  I can go on and on, but this article is not about unemployment, insurgency or graduates pulling rickshaws while their faces are covered.

I want to talk about the cuisine, but Manipur as a state has so much of character that it is impossible to start a discussion without discussing certain basics.


Women selling fruits and vegetables in the Ima Market (Photo: Ashish Chopra)

Memories of Manipur, Food and Divine Interventions: Having visited this remarkable state over two dozen times, my mind is full of memories. And this article has to land up in the discussion of the lovely cuisine that this state has. The cuisine can be divided into two major parts – the Meitei cuisine with predominantly rice and fish as their core ingredients. And the other is the tribal cuisine, which is what I have that ‘special’ weakness for. And look at my fate, of all places in Greater Noida far away from civilization, who walks-in to my house one day? A Manipuri cook!

U-Morok – the hottest chilly in the world grow and is consumed in abundance in Manipur (Photo: Ashish Chopra)

For the first two weeks, out of sheer elation, both of us went berserk preparing dish after dish. From Singju to Eromba to different styles of fish and meats, pork with u-morok, as the Manipuris call the Raja Mircha; the dishes that were being churned out were full of authentic flavours of Manipur. Chandan, my new found friend in the kitchen was surprised to see my stock of bamboo shoot, ngari, u-morok and even a few pieces of yongchaak(a flat bean) lying in my refrigerator. Yours truly likes to keep his kitchen well stocked with northeastern goodies.

And it happens invariably that each time any friend who comes to Delhi from North East, packs up a box-full of raw material for me. I am blessed that way to have such thoughtful friends.

Let me now discuss some basics of Manipuri  Meitei cuisine; Naga and other tribal cuisine has already been discussed earlier on my blog.

Fermentation of Fish in Manipuri Cuisine: Ngari, (Nga meaning fish) or fermented fish is one of the key ingredients in Manipuri food. They do not use any salt during the drying and the fresh water fish is primarily sun dried. The fish used is small fish preferably not bigger that 10 cms. The vessel or locally produced earthen pots specially designed for ngari preparation is called ngari chaphu. For people who cannot bear the pungency should stay away, but for others like us the party has just begun! I came across a very interesting document that gives a detailed account of the fermentation process4. Please feel free to read.

All set to serve dinner in Thangkhul pottery at home (Photo: Ashish Chopra)

Thangkhul Pottery: While we are at it, pottery in Manipur is beautiful, especially those from Ukhrul. The Thangkhul tribe lives in this area and they have a tradition of prepare earthen pottery.  Whenever I cook any northeastern food, I like to slow cook some of it in the spectacular handmade Thangkhul pottery. Just imagine what a humungous task it was to transport the fragile handmade clay pottery from Ukhrul to my house in Delhi? But all that pain was worth it, especially when I am able to serve north eastern food to my guests in them.

Manipuri Rice and More Fish: Manipur is an agrarian state. The rice from Maniur that I actually love is the black rice, very healthy and one can prepare a fabulous black rice kheer(a milk based rice pudding) out of it. During a north east festival that I had organized in The Park Hotel, Delhi, the Manipuri black rice kheer was all sold out! A super proud moment for me, I say.

Manipuri Black Rice (Internet Image)

People usually eat their rice with fish and greens. One of the popular fish dishes is ‘nga atoiba thongba’.  It is a fish stew mixed with potatoes and some very basic ingredients like green peas, bay leaves, onions, cumin, chillies and chives. The fish is not fried before-hand. The idea behind the dish is softening of the fish in the stew gradually. Once the fish is added to the rest of the ingredients, all one needs is to let the flavours of the fish mingle with the rest of the dish. In a way it is a mashed fish dish, but one should not make too much of a deliberate attempt to mash the fish and instead let the slow cooking do the needful.

Nga atoiba thongb – a mashed fish curry (Photo:

Shingju (Photo: Ashish Chopra)

Singju: One of the very simple and popular Manipuri dishes is a salad. A lovely combination of vegetables like lotus stem, cabbage and green leaves, another core ingredient is chick peas and finally no singju is complete without adding ngari. Manipuri relish their Sinju to the core.  Sometimes during yongchaak season, people also chop yongchak into the sinju.

Iromba, Chamfoot and Bora – the life line of Manipuris: While Iromba – a simple dish with mashed potatoes, green leaves and ngari is a must have side dish, Manipuris relish their bora or fritters a lot as a snack. Chamfoot on the other hand is a boiled vegetable dish that is very popular.

Closing: I can go on and on about Manipur – a state whose current state-of-affairs often leave me frustrated. However, there is no denying that the rich cultural heritage, friendships from people both from the hills and the valley, the upsurge of artistic expressions and the resilience of a majority of the people, have been a source of immense inspiration.

Sometimes, the end note is not filled with the love thy motherland syndrome. Instead it proclaims a new line of thought – a young individualistic one at that. I meet hundreds of northeastern people every week, especially youngsters from various walks of life. But in my opinion, those with the most complicated identity crisis are the Manipuri lot; much less materialistic than the rest of the northeastern youngesters, sensitive, highly intelligent and exceptionally hard working. I read this line in an article written by Arindita my companion where one Manipuri boy states, “Between my state and my life, I choose life. I think as a human being I have the right to decide whether I want to be alive. I cannot think like a Manipuri any more. The onus of my life is on me, and I want to preserve it because I know I have potential to live.”

And to think that only recently food had become almost a luxury for a Manipuri with average income; for some one who cold not afford to buy it off from the black market after the state ‘suffered’ one of the longest highway blockades one has seen in recent times.

And the problem is, I can never crack a joke about Manipur.


1: Discovery of North-East India Vol.6 S.K. by Sharma Usha Sharma (A Mittal Publication)

2: AFM Abdul Ali, Discovery of North-East India Vol.6 S.K. by Sharma Usha Sharma (A Mittal Publication)

3: In Mahabharata – the holy book of the Hindus, one of the Pandavas Arjuna, had visited Manipur and had married a local princess Chitrangada with whom he had a son Babruvahana. (Mythology)



Unforbidden Food of the Forbidden Land

Posted in Cuisine and Spirituality with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2012 by ashthefoodie

Today is the third day of year 2012. The Mayans may have predicted the end of the world this year, but for me, it is definitely a new beginning, a new journey and another quest to share my thoughts with friends and foes alike.

As I sit in the balcony of my house chilling (literally) in the winter winds admiring the lush green mustards fields in front I suddenly feel hungry which is nothing unusual for me, with the wintery feel , the mist and the  cold – the cuisine that engulfs my senses is Tibetan! A piping hot Thukpa laced with some super hot dried chilli flakes would be the perfect catalyst to tingle my senses as well as filling up my pot belly that gargles in hunger. And in my house of course, any desire for food is never left unanswered.

Thukpa - Tibetan Soup Noodles (Internet Image)

My home aside, one place where I love venturing into to satiate my craving for authentic Tibetan food is of course Majnu ka Tilla – Tibetan refugee colony. Though Majnu ka Tilla also has a fantastic Sikh history and promises a lovely Langar at the gurudwara, my senses simply dictate me to step into that small Tibetan galli(ally) and enter the portals of a world that only a select few in Delhi would relate to.

Majnu Ka Tilla - Tibetan Refugee Colony (Ashish Chopra Image)

Majnu Ka Tilla – the story in short

It is said that few hundred years back, there was a person who would be engrossed in meditation for days together in this area. He had become weak, but would not stop meditating. People around the region started believing that he had lost his mind and started associating him with the legendary majnu. One of the gurus of the Sikh faith visited this place and was touched by this person’s devotion and blessed him and said that he would be remembered by posterity. Later when the gurudwara was built in this location, it became popular as Gurudwara Majnu ka Tilla.

But today, Majnu Ka Tilla also has become synonymous to the Tibetan refugee colony and its culture around it. With the University of Delhi in its vicinity, MKT as the students like to refer to it as, has become a gastronomy hub for students from various parts of the country, especially India’s North East and of course the Tibetan community.

I go really far back with Tibet. How do I even start penning down my thoughts here?


Way back in college (Government College, Chandigarh), we seniors decided to question these two young freshers – Tsering Tashi and Gyari Kalsang as a part of the very traditional ritual called ragging. Apart from the usual questioning and mischief, the foodie that I always was, I asked them about Tibetan food. They gave me the first insight about traditional Tibetan food. Needless to say, they were (perhaps) compelled (morally?) to invite me to their house for an authentic Tibetan meal. Let me remind everyone, that momos had not become omnipresent in India as yet. Though I had eaten enough of momos during my journeys to the north Indian hill states, I had never tasted a shabalay before. That snack at Gyari and Tsering’s place blew my mind! Today Gyari is a member of the Tibetan Parliament in India and Tsering is closely associated with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

With His Holiness (Ashish Chopra Image)

The Journey Ahead

Needless to say, the spark had managed to ignite the fire within me to know more about the Tibetan community and culture. Over the next couple of years I spent a lot of time researching about the Tibetan situation – culturally as well as politically.  In 1989, I found my Golden moment. I had the opportunity to meet His Holiness himself at an International Conference for Human Rights. I was mesmerized by his presence and almost a child like aura. Blessed were my stars because that was not the only time I got the audience of the spiritual and political head of the Tibetan community in exile. We were to have many rendezvous later – some by chance, a few others, planned, sometimes formal, at times personal. I was naïve enough to propose to him that I would renounce everything and become a monk. He only laughed and told me one thing, “Ashish, you do not have to wear the robe of a monk, but discover the monk within you.”

What is Tibet?

I say what because Tibet is not just a region or its people; it has become a philosophy and a cause for many. But for the uninitiated, in Dalai Lama’s own words: “It was a beautiful country. Our village, which lay on a little plateau, was almost encircled by fertile fields of wheat and barley; and the plateau, in turn, was surrounded by ranges of hills which were covered by grass – thick and vividly green.” (My Land and My People – Memoirs of the Dalai Lama of Tibet)

In Conversation with His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (Ashish Chopra Image)

The Human Trail: When humans started inhabiting Tibet, it was already a highly isolated land surrounded by forests and snow-mountains. Gradually some people became chiefs and started leading their tribes. About 2000 years ago, these tribes came together and formed their kingdom with Nya-Tri-Tsenpo as the first king to be succeeded by forty generations of kings.  During the reigns of the first twenty-seven, the religion called Bon flourished in the country. However, it was during the reign of the twenty-eighth king Lha-Tho-Ri-Nyen-Tsen, that a volume of Lord Buddha’s teachings fell into his hands and Buddhism was initiated to this land. During the thirty-seventh king, Thi-Song-Deu-Tsen, Indian pundits and Tibetan scholars who knew Sanskrit were invited to translate the teachings of Lord Buddha. That was around 790 CE and the Samye Monastery was established and the first seven monks were ordained in Tibet.

Gallery of the Three Great Kings of Tibet displayed in Doll's Museum (Norbulingka Institute, Dharamsala) (Ashish Chopra Image)

Changing Times:

Till the fortieth king, Buddhism flourished in Tibet; but their ties with neighbouring nation China soured. They had frequent wars followed by multiple pacts of mutual peace. However, their mutual distrust remained intact. The forty-first king of Tibet spelt havoc. He tried to abolish Buddhism from Tibet. After his demise there were in fights and the entire country was split into various smaller territories. In 1253 CE, the High Lama of the Sakya clan became the political head of Tibet followed by twenty generations of Sakya monks and monks of Phamo Drupa lineage. Tibet in between had secular monarchy in the 15th, 16th and 17th century. It was after that, that the Dalai Lama received temporal power over the whole of the country and the present form of Tibetan Government Gaden-Phodrang was established. Between Chinese attacks and British infiltrations, from 1912-1950, Tibet enjoyed de facto independence. But it continued to remain isolated from the rest of the world.  His Holiness says: “If only we had applied to join League of Nations  or United Nations or even appointed ambassadors to a few of the leading powers, before our crisis came, I am sure these signs of sovereignty would have been accepted without any question.”

Tibetan Migration to India 1959 (Internet Image)

The Exit:

In 1949-50 in the Battle of Chamdo, China finally occupied Tibet. Between1950-59, several sporadic rebellions had taken place against the Chinese invasion. However the Lhasa Uprising of 1959 infuriated the Chinese and they started massive military crackdown of rebellions. In 1959, the fourteenth Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso along with a few thousand Tibetans had to abandon the Potala Palace – the official residence of the Dalai Lama and flee Tibet. They entered India after a tumultuous journey and were given refuge by the then Prime Minsiter Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru Welcomes His Holiness to India (Internet Image)

In a telegram delivered to His Holiness as he entered Tezpur (in Assam) said: “My colleagues and I welcome you and send you greetings on your safe arrival in India. We shall be happy to afford the necessary facilities for you, your family and the entourage to reside in India. The people of India who hold you in great veneration will no doubt accord their traditional respect to your personage.”

Back on Track – Food and Culture:

However, I have to tell you about another facet of Tibet – its lovely food.  Traditionally, Tibet was divided into three regions – Amdo, U-Tsang and Kham. Amdo is the region from where His Holiness comes from.

Amdo is known for its traditional cuisine. One of the dishes from Amdo which has become a favourtie dish of many Tibetans is thenthuk. This soupy pasta dish is uncomplicated – chunks of meat and diced vegetables chucked in to the stock along with wanton shaped noodles.

Shabalay (Internet Image)

However, my first love – shabalay is simply sinful. They are like meat samosas or patties. But the juice of the beef or meat that makes the filling also reminds me of a shepherd’s pie – only thinner in consistency, and the meat inside drier than a pie. In Delhi I have tried my shabalays everywhere possible – restaurants in Ladakh Boudh Vihar (Tibetan Monastery Market), Lajpat Nagar, Humayunpur, but eventually my heart and taste buds clicked on to this not so old restaurant in Majnu Ka Tilla called the Big Apple. Their shabalays are succulent and just of the right consistency.

Tingmo (Ashish Chopra image)

There are two versions of this dish – one is deep fried and another one is pan fried. Both renditions are of my liking and I shall refrain from picking favourites here. Another dish that I simply love is called tingmo – fermented Tibetan bread. I combine it with shapta– a traditional beef dish sauted with spices. A perfect meal.

Key Ingredients:

Gyuma - Tibetan pork sausages (Ashish Chopra Image)

I gave a brief history about Tibet before getting down to food in order to understand the requirement of that region, availability of ingredients and above all the spiritual philosophy of its people. Tibet being a cold mountainous region, it is natural that its cuisine would have lot of ingredients from yak – be it yak milk, yak cheese or yak meat.  To preserve beef and mutton, the protein is sliced into thin strips and air dried. The cold climate kills all the bacteria in the process and hence the meat can be consumed straightaway.  Green vegetables are scarce in the hilly regions; hence you will see very less variety of greens used in a traditional Tibetan dish. Though, some of neat and simple Tibetan dishes can have tinge of greens like bok choi (pak choi) here and there.

Tsampa - Tibet's staple diet (Internet Image)

This however, brings me to the carbohydrate requirement of the people. Tsampa – a dish prepared from roasted barley flour (Pretty much like the Assamese pithagudi or xandohgudi except for the key ingredient – rice) fulfills this gap. It is simple to prepare tsampa and is consumed usually with salty butter tea or milk. However, as simple as it may be to prepare, the consumption has a peculiar style; some of the roasted flour is put in a bowl with butter tea. The concoction is then mixed by rotating the bowl with the left hand and mixing the contents with right. Finally roll the mixture into small lumps and squeeze them into your mouth with your finger. There you are consuming Tibet’s staple diet.

Butter Tea - tea, milk and salt (Internet Image)

Butter Tea and the Great Butter Festival: Tibetan people are very fond of their butter tea or po cha. This salty tea is consumed several times a day because it not only heats them up but also energizes people to move about in the hilly terrain.

The Great Butter Festival is actually a Butter Lamp Festival where the entire city of Lhasa would be full of butter lamps and butter sculptures like flowers, figurines, birds and animals. It is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month according to the Tibetan calendar. It is believed that the Great Butter Festival of Tibet started in 1409 when the founder of the Gellugpa Sect instituted the Great Prayer festival in Lhasa. This great Prayer Festival is known as Monlam.

Inside the Treasure House - a Time in Tibet

Catriona Bass in her book ‘Inside the Treasure House’ recounts her memories of the festival in Lhasa: Full moon brought Monlam to a close with the Butter Festival – “The Offerings of the Fifteenth Day”. The making of sculptured butter offerings originally comes from Bon, Tibet’s pre-Buddhist animist religion, but the festival probably dates from the time of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama.

During the cultural revolution China abolished Monlam. However, in India and Nepal the followers of Tibetan Buddhism celebrate this festival with utmost devotion. In India, under the mentorship of the Karmapa, Monlam is celebrated every year.

Tibetan Butter Sculpture Prepared Specially for the Great Butter Festival (Internet Image)

Shoton – the Yogurt Festival: Also known as the Yogurt Banquet Festival, it is one of the most important festivals of the Tibetans celebrated to mark the end of the annual summer meditation retreat of the Buddhist monks. It Tibet, it was celebrated right at the end of summer when the grass was lush and the animals would produce milk.  Since yogurt was produced in abandon during that season in Tibet, the participants would offer yogurt to the retreating monks. This festival too originated in the 15th century at Drepung Monastery near Lhasa. Later it would be celebrated in Potala Palace (residence of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa), Norbulingka (Dalai Lama’s summer palace in Lhasa) where Lhamo troupes would come from all over Tibet to perform.

Lhamo (Tibetan folk Opera) performers during Shoton or the Yogurt Festival in Dharamsala (Internet Image)

The Tibetan community in exile in India celebrates this festival in spring. In Dharamsala six troupes from various places in India perform traditional Tibetan opera during this festival; though yogurt no longer plays a key role. I guess the Tibetans had to submit to the topography and environment of India.

Perfect Ingredients for Tibetan Cuisine sold in MKT (Ashish Chopra Image)

Coming Back to Majnu Ka Tilla: One of course sees the changing face of the Tibetan community in India which has blended traditional customs with modern day living. My visit to Majnu Ka Tilla is replete with vignettes of graceful Tibetan women in their traditional attire selling thukpa and momos in the monastery courtyard, cacophony of little Tibetan children playing around the giant prayer wheel, the wizened old lady with her motherly smile selling dried meat, a few others selling fresh green pok choi leaves – all I do at times is sit on a bench in front of that monastery and spend hours marveling at the beauty of this rich culture.

First ever Tibetan Metal Singer - Rejoice! (Ashish Chopra Image)

As I go towards my favourite eateries through the narrow lanes, I see a poster promoting the first ever Tibetan Metal singer.  I also see octogenarians who probably have now given up hope of ever visiting the motherland they had to leave as a young boy or girl, again. I also bump onto a young Tibetan lad who works for a popular News Channel, filling in for his brother in a cool cafeteria that he runs.  I see monks wearing their snickers and craftsmen busy carving out prayer lamps.

Sometime one wonders where this Tibetan issue will converge. Then I am reminded of one thing. We are a blessed land – a land despite its own woes and strife has had the honour to support over 1.5 lakh Tibetans for more than 50 years. Blessed is this nation which has His Holiness making India his temporary abode and blessing the land with his spiritual aura. Tibetans have added a beautiful element into the culture of India. Most importantly, it has given young India its new found favourite snack – THE MOMO.

Momo (Ashish Chopra Image)

Another Land Across the Border…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 20, 2011 by ashthefoodie


Sometimes I feel I am truly blessed.  I have had an opportunity to visit places probably very few people get to venture into. Those were days when I’d travel extensively in North East India. I have always been highly fascinated by the culture of Manipur – both Maitei and the tribal heritage. However, some of my favourite moments in Manipur would be my visits to Moreh and crossing over to Tamu in Myanmar.

Moreh town in Manipur Photo courtesy:

Tamu town in Burma bordering Manipur Photo Courtesy:

It was in November of 2010 that Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest after 15 years, by Myanmar authorities. That was a day I rejoiced and decided the theme of my next article. A plethora of memories gushed through my mind. Manipur happens to be one hell of a fascinating state. However, my visits to this state would be incomplete had it not been for the opportunity to cross over to border town Tamu in Myanmar – to meet some of the most amazing people on earth, and, of course, having my Khauk Swe and Mohinga. I have had a zillion memorable experiences while travelling through the green valley embracing the peace that the air there gives you.

Myanmar and India's Border

A montage of images appear in my mind as I think of Burma or Myanmar – a country that shares its borders with four states of India viz. Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland. I remember Bose’s journey, I am reminded the fact that the oldest school of Buddhism – Theravada is followed by a majority of the people there, the ironic of Buddhist principles – the military junta and a determined woman who stands strong for democracy – Suu Kyi. I got a chance to meet her husband Michael Aris – a renowned Tibetologist of his time during his visit to India several years back. Our encounter naturally revolved around the struggle for a democratic Myanmar. He was well versed, highly knowledgeable about Buddhist philosophy and Himalayan culture.

Aung San Suu Kyi

In the introduction to the collection of essays of Aung San Suu Kyi ‘Freedom from Fear’ , Michael Aris tells the readers, “ She never for a minute forgot that she was the daughter of Burma’s national hero, Aung San…Suu, who was born on 19 June 1945, has only the dimmest recollections of her father. However, everything she has learned about him inclined her to believe in his selfless courage and his vision of a free and democratic Burma…

…Suu wrote to me these words: Sometimes I am beset by fears that circumstances and national considerations might tear us apart just when we are so happy in each other that separation would be a torment. And yet such fears are so futile and inconsequential: if we love and cherish each other as much as we can while we can, I am sure love and compassion will triumph in the end.”

Michael Aris and Aung San Suu Kyi

Between Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest and Michael Aris’s death, the couple met just five times. Their children’s Burmese visas were deemed invalid and later cancelled. The little family unit could see the military junta’s effort to break Suu Kyi’s spirit by separating her from her children and her husband. But they stood by each other in spirit even though separated by continents. I find it hard to fathom – such relationships. How important nationalist struggles become and personal sacrifices leaders make. I truly hope these sacrifices see the positive light at the end of the day. Though I get crippled in my mind sometimes to see how insignificant humanly concepts are when it comes to the larger context of the universe. Earth is too small in the framework of the universe.

Getting Back to Food:

Burmese bean Curd Salad

Red meat is not bad for you.  Now blue-green meat, that’s bad for you! -Tommy Smothers

Food brings laughter and humour to my life; I sincerely believe it should bring to other people’s lives as well.  People do not just deserve to eat, but to eat well. And there is no denying the fact that there are millions who do not get sufficient food to eat – but at the same time, the most interesting food stories sometimes emerge out of a small hut in a Koliwara village in Mumbai or a make shift arrangement of a ‘home’ of the ghadiya lohars on the streets of Delhi.

There are many people I observe, for whom food is a formality or an unavoidable day-to-day necessity. For me, it is an experience. It is a way of knowing the pulse of a people. It is a way of life. For me, it has non negligible anthropological significance.

Why do I connect with Burmese Food?

Burmese food is one of my favourites. Even in Delhi I ensure that my quota of Burmese food is well catered to through a small shop in Vikaspuri. And who would believe me if I said, it is run by a Sardar ji? Well, I am attesting my evidence with this article.

Kiran Kollections with a K

Kiran Kollections is a quaint shop in Vikaspuri. This shop caters to a small Burmese migrant population in Delhi and of course eternal food mongers like me. It has Moe Sabei sunflower seeds, Jun Hua readymade soup, Yum Yum instant noodle, Ah Yee Taung-pickled tea, fried garlic and beans and raw materials like rice noodles, and many more things, all manufactured in Burma.  Whenever I am in that part of town, I can’t resist myself to buy my Burmese tuck for the month!  In northeast, especially in Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur, these products are flooding the market, of course.

Burmese Festival in Vikaspuri

Every year, the migrant Burmese population in Delhi gets together to celebrate a food festival and relive their culture in this region. This year I met a very special person during this festival. I shall come to that later. But before that, let’s delve a little deeper into Burmese cuisine – its influences and practices.

Food, People, their Customs and Memories:

Mango among fruits, pork among meats, tea among leaves (are the best) – Old Burmese proverb

Burma is an agrarian country and most of the ingredients of their cuisine are fresh. The country gets a massive fragment of its culinary tradition from India and China. However, they have managed to create their own identity of cuisine in a cultural context.  With the gradual advent of Islam and Buddhism, beef and pork has a mixed reception in present Burma. While the Muslim population does not eat pork, the Buddhist population abstains from beef.

Traditionally, the Burmese would have low sitting arrangements for dining. Their food would be served to the senior most on the table and then served to others. If you leave a little food on your plate, it will be assumed that you need a second helping.

Burmese snacks

Some of the popular Burmese snacks Ah Kyaw or assorted fries, Bein Mont or Rice pancake, Mont Sein Paung or steamed rice cake. Though these are sweet snacks, the sugar level in each of them is quite mild. Hence, those friends of mine who do not have a sweet tooth enjoy these snacks a lot. The Burmese also prepare a special rice dumpling called Mont Lone Gyi.

The Burmese people do not have a tradition of having any drink along with food. Most people do not even take any water during meals. Hence, I am forced to believe that soups are indispensible components of food, for the same reason. Snacks are mostly prepared from glutinous rice, milk and shredded coconut. Many of their dishes will be accompanied by a black bean paste which is the fermented soya bean popular in India’s north east as well. Also, ngapi – a shrimp paste is highly popular.

Khauk Swe

The main dish usually consists of a meat or a fish preparation, vegetables or salads and some kind of soup. They prepare a lot of sea food like fish and prawn, while in eats chicken, duck, pork and mutton is popular. Beef is not that common except for the Muslim population which relishes it.

S-a-r-a-h: Something interesting happened this year. I meet a very beautiful soul called Sarah. Her father with whom she shared a very special bonding passed away two years back. Interestingly, he was Burmese and was a very

The girl with the beautiful smile - according to rumours, she can prepare masala peanuts only

spirited soul himself, not to mention a dynamic life. He escaped Burma in the early eighties right through the revolution and was en route to Canada when he met her mother in India and, of course fell madly in love. The journey to Canada never happened.  Instead, he stayed over all his life in the metro city I love the most – then Calcutta.

Though a citizen of the universe herself, Sarah’s Burmese connect made me prepare Ohn No Khao Suey for her in the memory of her father, on his birthday this year. I was glad she not only relished it, but thought it did justice to her beloved father’s memories.

Ohn Noh Khauk Swe: It is a soupy noodle dish staple of Burma. One rendition called Khao Soi is also served in Thailand and Laos. Ohn Noh Khauk Swe is what is the authentic Burmese Khauk Swe and is an easy preparation. First you prepare a broth with coconut milk base and gram flour to thicken it in meat stock. You boil Burmese Khauk Swe rice noodles and keep it aside. Remember not to over boil it. Then serve the soup and the noodles with an array of condiments. The list is given below:

Chopped Hard Boiled eggs

Chopped Deep Fried onions

Chopped Roasted Fried garlic

Chopped Spring onions

Chopped Green Chillies

Chopped fried meat pieces

Fish sauce

Roasted Chillie flakes

Lemon Juice

People keep experimenting with these condiments, but more or less, these are the basic condiments used. One has to put all these things together and to savour the flavour of the Burmese Ohn Noh Khauk Swe

Mr. Saw having his Mohinga

Mr. S-a-w: Eighty year ‘young’ Saw is the epitome of spirit. He is a Burmese living in India since the sixties. I met him during the Burmese Festival this year held in Vikaspuri while relishing one of his favourite Burmese dishes – Mohinga. It is a dish prepared from rice noodles mixed in fish soup.

Mr. Saw had been to Burma only twice since he stepped on the Indian soil. He was rather surprised when he learned that I have been to Myanmar at least twelve times.

When I asked him if he wanted to go back, he was rather sure that he would not. Forty five years is a long time. India had become his home and was in his heart.

Sabina - she was family

S-a-b-i-n-a: I have beautiful memories of people enjoying the Khauk Swe that I prepare at home; one of them being Sabina (Sehgal Saikia). Every time I prepare the dish, the memories of her calling me up an ‘ordering’ me to treat her with a Khao Swe lunch come back with utmost clarity. She would eat the dish and relish it so much that it would be a sheer pleasure to simply watch her.  She had written the foreword for my cookbook  NE Belly. We also had this non-northeastern-northeastern bonding —well, that’s a different story altogether. I truly miss this foodie buddy I could so much relate to – I can only pray for the peace of her soul.

End word in Folklore:

Roger Bischoffe, a scholar of Buddhist studies has written a paper called Buddhism in Myanmar – a short history. There he writes about four dominant ethnic groups in Burma primarily – the Mon, the Pyu, the Myanmar and the Shan. A lot of migration took place from India towards Burma and vice versa. G.E. Harvey, in his History of Burma, relates a Mon legend which refers to the Mon fighting Hindu strangers who had come back to re-conquer the country that had formerly belonged to them.This Mon tale confirms the theory that Indian people had formed the first communities in the region but that these were eventually replaced by the Mon with the development of their own civilization. As well as the Indian trading settlements, there were also some Pyu settlements, particularly in the area of Prome where a flourishing civilization later developed. It is also believed that the original name of Burma was ‘pyi htaung zu bama naingan daw’ which also stands for ‘one thousand countries united into a royal Burma.

Burmese culture is full of legends, mystical stories and folklores.  I am putting here a Burmese folklore that sums up purpose of our lives in some way. It is a version retold by Margaret read McDonald and I have taken the version from the internet. It is called A Kingdom Lost for a Drop of Honey.

The King and his Advisor sit at the palace window eating breakfast and looking down on the street below. A drop of honey falls on the windowsill. He tells Advisor not to clean it up, servants will do it later. “It’s not our problem.” The drop of honey slides down the windowsill plopping onto the street below. A fly lands on the honey, a gecko springs out to swallow the fly, a cat sees the gecko and pounces and finally a dog attacks the cat. The alarm goes out about the fight, King says, “It’s not our problem.” Cat’s owner beats the dog, dog’s owner beats the cat, soon are beating each other. Friends of each man gather to cheer the combatants on; soon everyone is fighting in the street. King: “It’s not our problem.” Soldiers arrive, try to break up the fight, but begin taking sides and soon join the fight. It erupts into a civil war. Houses burned, people killed, palace set on fire and burned to the ground. King: “Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps that drop of honey WAS our problem.”

The Spirit of Iftar

Posted in Cuisine and Spirituality with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 10, 2010 by ashthefoodie

I know this is way past Ramadan and this is an unpardonably late article. But unfortunately yours truly was bed ridden with a slip disc limiting my travel and documentation process. But, as I witnessed another Eid-ul-Fitr passing by, a gamut of memories engulfed my mind. I tried recalling many of them; especially those from my childhood. I remember Prof. Nurul Hassan – a friend of my Late father and a renowned educationist of his time, would invite us to his residence in Delhi for iftar meals.

Prof. S. Nurul Hassan

Prof. S. Nurul Hassan in 1995

It was not just the food and the warmth of the family that are embedded in my mind. It was the sheer persona of this 6’4” tall I am guessing, 120 kg heavy man that made these occasions unforgettable. Nurul uncle was a kebab man. He would relish his kebabs irrespective of which part of the world they are from. The iftari at his place would be large spreads of sweets, dry fruits, meats and breads. For a long time as a kid I thought it was an average dinner in a Muslim family and wished I was born in one!

As I grew older, my passion for food grew even more. I started inviting friends for iftar at my own house. During my days in Assam, my Eid would be spent at a dear friend Abzar Hazarika (Abzar da, as I would fondly call him)’s house. The iftari at their place would also have a strong Assamese influence. The mutton they would make would be unlike any korma you usually get – one with potatoes. And the biryani would remind me of the typical biryani that one finds in Kolkata. The most distinguishing feature of Calcutta Biryani (sorry can’t call it Kolkata Biryani, just doesn’t seem, right!) is the usage of potatoes. This type of Biryani is an evolution of the Lucknow Biryani and has a unique flavor. When the Nawab of Awadh was exiled to Bengal, his entourage of cooks travelled along with him. The impact of all of that is pretty evident in the cuisine of Bengal that was till then predominantly fish based.

My post today however, is not about biryani. I have already written the charm of Aas Mohammad’s biryani and the spiritual experience in that small shack in Sikandarabad in an earlier post. This time it is about another form of spirituality – the spirit of rituals and festivals and why we still as a species believe in customs – it is definitely not instantaneous human behavior? I would like to believe that the reason is an unputdownable bribe; festival cuisine. My post today is dedicated to the spirit of iftar cuisine. What is afterall iftar or iftari? Let’s brood.

The Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar – a month in which the Holy Quran was revealed. Hence this is a month when Muslims are expected to cleanse their body and soul, reiterate their practice of self discipline, restraint, empathy and sacrifice. Throughout the month adult Muslims practice a fast, abstain from sex, alcohol and smoking from dawn to dusk. Ramadan is a month of reliving the name of Allah.

The fasting practiced during the month of Ramadan is known as roza. The evening meal that commemorates the breaking of the fast is called iftaari and is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating arrays of dishes world over.

For devout Muslims Ramadan is a month of sacrifices but along with that sacrifice comes a tremendous sense of fulfillment. The prayer or dua for iftari says: O Allah! I fasted for You and I believe in You (and I put my trust in You) and I break my fast with Your sustenance

Now, let me come straight to the real deal, that is, my deal. Iftar is a gastronomical marvel. I have had the opportunity to enjoy iftari at different corners of the world during this lifetime, thank God for that. It is so interesting to observe the connotation of a feast – communion, fellowship, warmth, compassion and above all sharing.

World Population of Muslims

World Population of Muslims

While we are talking about iftari, let me begin with the country which has the world’s largest Muslim population – Indonesia. I still fail to believe that I have never been to this country – there it goes into my bucket list! But the Iftar cuisine of Indonesia is something to talk about. It is called buka puasa meaning “to open the fast”.  Needless to say, the buka puasa platter is an awesome assortment of seafood, salads and meat. Like many other countries, Indonesia too has its buka puasa markets that bustle with people throughout the month of Ramadan. The Bendungan Hilir market in Jakarta is one such market that happens once a year, but Muslims all over the city throng to this market to break their fast. While dates are popular, kolak – a special dessert prepared with coconut milk is an important dish of buka puasa. There are many variants of kolak; however the jackfruit kolak seems to be the most popular of all apart from the ones with banana and cassava.

Muslims attend prayers on the eve of the first day of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan at Al Akbar mosque in Surabaya, East Java, Indoneisia on August 21, 2009. (REUTERS/Sigit Pamungkas)

Indonesian people enjoy their special drink cendol prepared from coconut milk, rice and shaved ice. It is more of a dessert and less of a drink and is quite filling. They also have a special multilayered cake called kue lapis. Interestingly, most Indonesian cakes are not baked and instead steamed. And their sea food, from fish steamed in banana leaves (reminds us of eastern/North Eastern Indian traditions) to satay – their rendition of grills is something I can probably go on and on about. Satay is an extremely popular dish in Indonesia and several other countries of South East Asia and of course resembles our very lovely seekh kebabs.

Kolak; courtesy Room Candy Blog

Okay, I need to move to my next region. Let’s talk about Africa. Egypt, Morocco, Zanzibar, Tunisia, Libya and many other North African countries are predominantly Islamic and thank God for that, blessed with their fantastic cuisine.

Ti begin with, Moroccan food is to die for! Mohammed Ifriquine, a dear friend of mine from the Moroccan Embassy in India was a buddy, fellow traveler and adventurer almost a decade ago. We shared some wonderful moments together especially trying and tasting foods from all over the world. His Moroccan iftar spread was something I can never forget. Many a times I would either eat at the embassy with him or go to his then residence in Vasant Vihar. While I’d teach him the art of preparing Indian cuisine, he’d give me tutorials on Moroccan food.

Harira ; BBC Good Food picture

A Moroccan iftar starts with dates, milk and juices. Harira – a traditional soup of Morocco is very popular. It is prepared from lentils and tomatoes. It is seasoned with various spices from cardamom, pepper, saffron to celery, parsley and lemon juice. It is regarded as a meal in itself. Well known author of culinary books and expert on the region, Nada Saleh writes in his book Fresh Morccan, in Ramadan, at the setting of the sun the fast is broken with harira. It is traditionally served with lemon wedges, dates and chebakia (honeyed cakes), but could be served as a one-pot meal, followed by some fresh fruit.

Chebakia-Moroccan sweet dish

The chebakia is actually a cookie where you put generous amount of high quality saffron, sesame and honey and is prepared throughout the month of Ramadan in Morocco. Another awesome dish served during Ramadan in Morocco is bisteeya. It is a meat pie, traditionally prepared with pigeon meat, but now also prepared with chicken and fish. It is simultaneously sweet and savoury and culinary historians believe that it was introduced to Morocco somewhere around the 15th century by the Andalucians. Here goes the Spanish influence! However, this pie was finally perfected by the Moroccans and now has become an uncompromising dish on a Moroccan iftar table.

Bisteeya; courtesy :

Morocco is the culinary heaven of North Africa. The indigenous people to inhabit this beautiful land were the Berbers whose culture dates back to several thousand years. Today, I won’t go into the prehistory and etymology of these beautiful people because honestly, there is a lot to write about. Let’s stick to Iftar. Moroccan food has a world wide appeal and is delectable and sinful. It is very diverse due to its interaction with several world cultures – Arabic, Mediterranean, Moorish and more. While there is a predominance of usage of rich spices from saffron, turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, cumin and chillies, you also see usage of Mediterranean ingredients. Morroccans call this blend of spices Ras el Hanout.

While Moroccan have a strong Mediterranean influence, countries like Zanzibar have Asian influences. You will see harees being served as an important iftar dish. Harees is a traditional Arabic dish that is prepared from wheat (whole wheat soaked overnight), meat (or chicken) and salt. It is very popular in the Middle East.  This dish certainly originated in this region and traveled all over the world with the Arabs. Hence, in countries like India and Pakistan you get haleem, its mouthwatering rendition. Slightly different in texture and spice levels, this dish is definitely very popular throughout the region; especially for iftar.


I must mention one of world’s favourite iftar desserts from Turkey i.e. baklava. The history of Baklava has been traced back to the Assyrians. The Assyrians ruled the region between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Mesopotamia (present day Iran) 2400 BCE. However, it was not until 8th century BCE that they started the concept of putting a few layers of bread together with nuts, pouring honey over it and baking them. Gradually it became popular but the ingredients like dry fruits and honey were expensive. Hence, many believe that it was mostly the royalty and other rich people who could afford to prepare this at a daily basis. Today, this sweet dish is the sweet heart of Turkey and no festive moment could be complete without its presence.


Habibi and Yours Truly

Okay, while I am on it, I have to tell you this uncanny story. About fifteen years back like Mohammed Ifriquine, I had a very dear friend Said in the Oman Embassy. In fact Said, Carlos (from  Brazil) and I were like a trio having a blast in the corridors of Delhi. Oh those days of pure fun and food! Not that we have changed much; but it so happened that Said and Carlos got transferred and I left for an assingnment abroad and subsequently for the North East for almost seven years. Then of course there was no media networking or mobile phones. In short, we lost touch.

Three years back Arin, a few other friends and I were having dinner at Fujia a chinese resturant at Malcha Marg in Chanakyapuri in Delhi. This place again reminds me of my childhood. Some of the waiters there have been working in this place for thirty years now and they till date blackmail me in front of my friends by mildly mentioning some ‘childhood’ adventures.

Anyway, we were the last people in the restaurant and it shut after we got out. It must have been past 12:30 at midnight and most of us were smokers in the group. Smokers, who had cigarettes, but had no lighter. It was Delhi winters and only a post dinner smoke could have well, saved us. Okay we were getting desperate. Since when did Chanakyapuri gate keepers stop carrying match boxes? No shops open, no shacks around. And there we see at a distance two sheikhs in their traditional attire doing what? Lighting up of course!!! We suddenly became strong believers in the forces of God.

We decided to send Arindita to be the communicator. So there she goes with her diplomatic (well, I guess natural) smile and says, “Excuse me, may I have a light please?”

Sheikh 1 in the process of turning towards Arindita and us (our group standing at a distance of say 10 meters) and replies, “Sure…”

Sheikh 1 and Ashish Chopra speak in unison, “HABIBI!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

That was my long lost friend Said who I was meeting after ten years.  The name Said roughly means ‘to bring happiness’. How true!

Do I have to still tell you that he is my supplier of Omani dates and coffee and food? And that his charming wife prepares this mouth watering dry fish pilav and oh man…let’s leave right here.

Home Sweet Home:

Kheer being arranged in Jammu and Kashmir (REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta)

I know the article is far from complete. But then I do not want to put you through the strain of reading an encyclopedia or an Ashish Chopra memoir.

As we meander from region to region in India, cuisine and culture – two indispensible compatriots change their colour, but the fervor remains undiluted. People who know Indian food are very much aware of the difference between Muslim cuisine of Hyderabad, Lucknow, Delhi, West Bengal, Kerala, Kashmir, Gujarat or for that matter North East. But, let’s just try and elaborate or rather journey through the iftar experience in this unbelievably diverse country.

As you walk through the bustling streets of Old Delhi in the evenings of the holy Ramadan month, you can feel the zeal, the festivity and the spirit of fellowship. The shops glitter with Id specials.  People have just thanked their Gods for blessing them with the spirit to live life. I keep remembering the restaurant Gareeb Nawaz that, whether the holy month or not, serves food to 300 poor people at an average every day. He talks about ‘barkat’…déjà vu.

The month of Ramadan transcends into the celebration of Id-Ul-Fitre and one forgets all boundaries and simply delights on the festivity. The moment the proclamation for breaking the fast is announced, the process of iftari begins. People from all walks of life gather with the spirit of exuberance, warmth and colours to savour the divine flavours of iftar. The fast is normally broken with dates and fruits. And then comes the main course. The mind boggling kebabs, delightful nihari, biryani, korma, khamiri rotis – the list is endless. This trend continues throughout the month till Id. And this gets me to wonder that despite violence, aggression and negative energy all around, iftar brings a ray of hope, feeling of brotherhood and the expression of kindness and warmth.  So all I can say is if kebabs be the food of love, eat on, eat on, eat on…

‘Salt’ of the Soil-The Zeliangrong Story

Posted in North East and Me with tags , , , , , , , on March 29, 2010 by ashthefoodie

Friends from that part of the world call me Punjaabi Naga. The people there have bestowed me with immense love and affection. How can one not reciprocate when one encounters people who welcome guests with the warmth of winter sunshine? Over years of traveling in and living in and out of Nagaland, I feel at home completely.

The Naga Kitchen

Earlier I had attempted to present a macro view on North Eastern cuisine through my articles on this blog. However it seems certain unique aspects need special attention. Today’s post will unravel a marvelous process of mineral salt making at the Lekie Village of Nagaland; a small but resourceful village perched on a plateau joining three hill ranges in the district of Peren. Also, I will take the liberty of going a little astray and tell you the story of a Naga Queen…

Renowned anthropologist, Professor Alan Macfarlane (University of Cambridge) observes that researchers and anthropologists returning from Naga Hills comment on the magnificent and unique Naga, and administrative officers longing to be posted to Naga areas take a liking to them even before setting foot on their soil. While British anthropologist Verrier Elwin summarises, “They are strong and self reliant, good to look at, with an unerring instinct for colour and design, friendly and cheerful, with keen sense of humour, gifted with splendid dances and a love for song.” Some European observers called the Nagas an ethnographic chaos not as derogation, but because they failed to fully understand this vast panorama of people who had certain similarities, but in a majority of ways different from each other.

On my latest visit to Nagaland to attend the Peren Roadshow at the invitation of the very progressive DC of the Peren Mrs. Khrieno,  certain beliefs reinforced themselves. Nagas are musical people. While we were enjoying an evening of fun and frolic, the Chief Minister of the state along with some of his Cabinet Ministers picked up the guitar to strum “Wonderful tonight…” the musical journey meandered from Bob Marley to Eric Clapton. Where in India, but the North East will you find politicians rocking on stage with a guitar?Music is in their  blood.

My journey on this trip was primarily to Peren after a gap of seven long years.I had heard of the interesting salt making procedure then but  this time I decided to document the same. En route we all got caught in a forest fire. None of us were hurt, but a little ‘smoked out’…

District of Peren: The district was carved out of Kohima and was declared the 11th district of the state of Nagaland on 11th February 2003. Peren town- its headquarter, was established on 1st April 1945 by the British for administrative convenience.

The Village: The Lekie (now Peletkie) village I mentioned at the beginning of this article is located atop a few hills at the height of 1446 meters.  The Government is trying to rename the village as Lekie considering its unique mineral salt. Lekie has two satellite villages-Jalukie and Deukoram. Both of these villages have become separate entities only in the recent past, hence customarily it is implied that any defaulting member from one of these villages who has been ostracized cannot take shelter in either of these villages.

A magnificent natural phenomenon in this village is the presence of mineral salt springs known as ‘Kezai Dui’ and ‘Kezai Dui Tekwa’. These springs have never dried so far. The locals extract a mineral salt named ‘Lekie Cai’ from the waters through an indigenous procedure. The springs are in close proximity-almost one kilometer of each other.

A Sprinkle of Salt-Lekie Cai: Though mineral salt can be made throughout the year, the best time to make the salt is during the months of February, March and April. Mineral salt is made by the process of continuously boiling the mineral salt water. During October-November, trees are felled in the jungle for use during mineral salt making.

Mineral Salt Making

By January the felled trees are cut into sections of three feet approximately and it is transported in cane/bamboo baskets. It takes about 100 baskets of firewood and about 400 local jars of mineral salt water to make 40 cakes of mineral salts. A local jar of mineral salt water is equal to ten litres and it takes about seven days and five nights of continuous of mineral salt water to make 100 mineral salt cakes.

The Ritual: It is imperative that there is some ritual associated with the indigenous salt making procedure. Every new visitor is directed to perform the ‘kela ritual’. This ritual is about offering a few things to the Almighty by the banks of the salt springs. The offerings consist of a few grains of rice or ‘hebi’, two ginger buds ‘kebei ku’ and two chillies ‘heraci’ placed on two broom stick leaves ‘mpiak nei’.

Mineral Salt Making Procedure

Is it Medicine or Is It a Spice? : The mineral salt is known to have medicinal properties. After a day of hard labour, a warm bath with this salt is an instant rejuvenation. It is also used as a tastemaker for local cuisines and is also used as a cooking soda. In the earlier times mineral salt was given only to guests or personnel held in very high esteem. It is utilized as an ingredient for preparation of traditional porridge of the Zeliangrong called ‘takdui’.

Both the Lekie Cai a well as the concentrated liquid of the Mineral Salt Water are used by the villagers for consumption and trade. The present lot has become enterprising and is bottling the salt. However, it concerns many that the procedure takes up too much of firewood. They are trying to put in practice other ways to distill the water.

Bottled Mineral Salt

The Zeliangrong: Peren district is inhabited by several tribes; however the Zeliangrong predominate the region. When I am writing about the district, I cannot help but explain a little bit about this tribe. The Anthropological Survey of India after examining the social structure, kinship patterns, linguistic roots and political organizations have arrived that the Zeliangrong can be classified as an ethno-cultural entity. Racially they are Southern Mongoloid and Tibeto Burman.  They are spread across Assam, Manipur and Nagaland.

The break up of the term Zeliangrong can be traced to the terms ‘Zeme’ or ‘Mejahme’ meaning dwellers of the warmer or lower region, ‘Liangmei’ meaning men of the North-the original Northerner; the term ‘Rongmei’ on the other hand means people settled in the south or fallow land and finally ‘Puimei’ meaning of Puichei. After India’s independence, a new terminology Zeliangrong was coined in coherence with the solidarity movement. The Zemes, Liangmais and Rongmeis dominate the demography in the district of Peren.

The Caves of Peren: To the southernmost end of the Peren district there lie a series of caves at the Puilwa Village. These caves became famous as Rani Gaidinliu’s caves as this is where she went into hiding during her revolt against the British. Rani Gaidinliu was a revolutionary freedom fighter and it is her story that I am about to tell you today.Ther are also caves where the legendry Phizo carried out his selfless struggle for the Naga identity.

Gaidinliu: Alas! The historical documentation of India in the text books is so insufficient that people like Rani Gaidinliu never make it to their pages.

The Zeliangrong

The Zeliangrong have always struggled against the “big and small” imperialism both foreign and local. The Meitei expansionism, the British colonialism and local fights against the Angamis, Kacharis and Kukis have been well known.  They revolted with fierce force against the British under the leadership of young and mystic leader Jadonang and continued by his disciple, the fiery and charismatic girl Gaidinliu-later to be renowned as Rani Gaidinliu. The Zeliangrong Revolt took a new turn with Gaidinliu taking charge after the execution of Jadonang by the British. The new struggle was violent and forceful though her soldiers used robust weaponry like daos and spears against the then British run Assam Rifles.

Incidentally, she had known of Mahatma Gandhi and even mentioned his name several times to inspire her people. She told them that once the British are gone, a new King named Gandhi would rule their Kingdom. Ironically, they picked up arms to confront the colonial power.

The great lady who stood for the rights of her people

The Rani Gaidinliu : Pdt. Jawaharlal Nehru-the then President of the Indian National Congress came to know about the rebellion of Jadonang and Gaidinliu in the winter of 1937. He first learnt in Sylhet that a Naga girl was in prison for life after revolting against the British. In an article in the Hindustan Times, Pdt. Nehru wrote about the uprising and mentions Gaidinliu and calls her ‘Rani’. Though he was highly criticized by the British Manipur State Durbar, called her a political rebel and asked Nehru to stop calling her ‘Rani’.

Nehru tried taking help from various people and groups including the Assam Premiere Gopinath Bordoloi, Lady Astor-the first female member of the House of Commons, Manipuri Mahasabha of Manipur and others for the release of Gaidinliu but to no avail. Finally after the declaratuion of India’s independence and Pdt. Nehru taking over as India’s interim prime Minister, was Rani Gaidinliu released from imprisonment.

In 1972, during the silver jubilee celebrations of India’s independence Rani Gaidinliu was presented the ‘Tamra Patra’ as a Freedom Fighter of India.

What happened between 1947 (India’s independence) and 1993 (demise of Rani Gaidinliu)? That remains for another post…or may be another format all together…That’s what will describe a lot of conflicts and complexities that the region called north east suffers from. The line of conflict of kingdom, nationalism and ethnicity smudges and mingles into one another. It will take another couple of hundred stories.

Bibliography: * The Hidden World of the Naga; Aglaja Stirn & Peter van Ham

* The Nagas; Julian Jacobs

*A History of Zeliangrong Nagas-from makhel to Gaidinliu; Gangmumei Kamei

Omelette on my Pallete…

Posted in Food History with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2010 by ashthefoodie

“So, what will you have for breakfast today?” This is one question I keep asking myself and my house guests. Will it be bacon, baked beans and eggs, paranthas, poori subzi etc. etc. When such confusion arises, I tell myself “Ash, stop beating around the bush! Beat the eggs instead and churn out a nice fluffy omelette!”

Yours Truly preparing a typical Indian masala omelette

Omelettes have been my all time favourite, as a breakfast meal or a snack. The first thing that I learnt how to cook at the age of twelve was actually an omelette. And now that I have gotten into food as a full time passion / profession and as a self proclaimed culinary historian,food anthropologist (without an anthropology degree of course-just an interest whch I inherited from my late father who was an anthropologist by profession and my guiding light to culture and tradition), I keep wondering what could be the origin of the omelette-who made the first omelette, when and how.

Today, while I was stuffing my omelette with smoked chicken and cheese, I thought why not do a little more research on its etymology and anthropology? Here I am scribbling yet another story of a dish that tells us one golden rule of cooking-INNOVATE.

I quickly glance through my Larousse to find out what does it have to say about it in definitive words? To my delight, Larousse Gastronomique has spared almost three pages describing this dish. To begin with it says, a sweet or savoury dish made from beaten whole eggs, cooked in a frying pan (skiller), and served plain or with various additions. The word comes from the French lamelle (small blade) because of its flat shape; in former times it was known as alumelle, then alumette, and amelette. (Some authorities claim that the word has a Latin origin, oca lellita, a classic Roman dish consisting of beaten eggs cooked on a flat tray dish with honey.)

The Romans are giving me ideas. The next omelette I cook shall be savoured with a tinge of honey in it, of course! But trying to do as Romans do even before reaching Rome? May be I’d start with what we find on Indian streets. A boy, you’re not sure has crossed fourteen years of age, tries to beat two eggs in a steel glass with a spoon. He adds chopped onions and green chillies into it. A pinch of salt and he beats it further. Now, he adds a lump…a huge lump of butter into the steamy frying pan. He keeps beating the eggs while the volatile butter evaporates and melts simultaneously. Then he splashes the beaten eggs into the frying pan. Within minutes we have what we call the desi omelette. Such is a common scene everywhere on the streets in India, be it a big city, a small town or even a village for that matter. In the remote Kargil in Jammu and Kashmir and so much so in Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh I remember one evening food I did not get, but omelettes I surely got-such is the vastness and expanse of the omellete.

Ramkishan Gawlani

I remember the legendary, the world famous… Omelette Man of Jodhpur. He may not be a household name in the west or the east, but he sure has found his way to be featured in every travel guide book right from the US to France, Japan to Germany. Piere-a frend of mine from France fell in love with Omelette Man’s omlettes.  His testimony speaks a lot because he is an ardent omelette lover.

Omelette Man, Jodhpur (internet image)

Ramkishan Gawlani, the Omelette Man is one tough old cookie. He has set up a huge signboard boasting his authenticity to the world, “The Omelette Shop – recommended by Lonely Planet,” I for sure loved his omlettes especially his masala and cheese omellete. It had pleasantly surprised me when he actually dirverted from desi flavour of the omellete to western tastes. His shop consumes over a thousand eggs a day. It is a pity that he has more global fame than national fame.

There are hundreds of stories woven around the omelettes in India. I remember in Munnar in Kerala many moons back, I came across Jose Mathews a post graduate in history who had opened a chai, coffee and omellete shop. Boy, he had a tale to tell as to how he was an ex-naxalite-came back to the main stream-he had no job despite his qualifications -decided to set up something to sustain himself and did what he loved best-he loved omelettes and was good at making them so he opened a chai shop serving omelettes which were a hit with many tea planters(Munnar being tea country), tourists and the locals. I learn today from a planter friend of mine from Munnar that he is running a successful Malabar resturant in Cochin. Inspirational-is it not?

I could go on and on with personal ancedotes revolving around omellete but I feel we should now concentrate on the basics both historical and gastronomical.

The Chicken and Egg Question: Human beings have been consuming eggs since the neolithic ages. Not only were they easy to procure, they were excellent protein sources. Okay, for the prehistoric man it relieved him of hunger and energised him fast enough. Ostrich and chicken eggs were most common. After the introduction of cooking, egg became easy to cook and moulded into several dishes. It was diverse and offered a different taste each time it was cooked even with a slight difference in recipe. With induction of religion in sociological map of the world, some religions found it symbolic vis-a-vis life and hence encouraged eating and decorating eggs. However, some others considered it un pious.

According to the Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, editor, Solomon H. Katz domestication of jungle fowl had started in India by 3200 B.C.E. Records from China and Egypt show that fowl were domesticated and laying eggs for human consumption around 1400 B.C.E. The Romans found egg laying hens in England, Gaul, and among Germans. The first domesticated fowl reached North America with the second voyage of Columbus in 1493

However, what about the term egg? The Old English term was oeg, which survived in Middle English as ey (plural eyren)….But in the fourteenth century the related egg was borrowed from Old Norse. For a time the two forms competed with each other (William Caxton, in the prologue to his Book of Eneydos (1490), asked ‘What should a man in these day now write, eggs or eyren, certainly it is hard to please every man’), and the Norse form did not finally emerge as the winner until the late sixteenth century.” —An A-Z of Food & Drink, John Ayto

Okay, I realise that this paragraph still doesn’t answer what came first : chicken or egg. It only says what was eaten first! Phew!

The recipe of omelette is as basic as it can get. Beat the eggs. Condments follow. The French however, are not so simplistic. They deal with their food wth technique. Though it may be long to read,  have to mention at this point in time an excerpt from an article ‘Physiology of Taste’ or Physiologie du Gout, written by French lawyer, thinker and gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1826.  I think it is simply brilliant.

…The conversation passed from subject to subject, but I, as a philosopher, thought the secret of the preparation of such a dish must be valuable. I ordered my cook to obtain the recipe in its most minute details. I publish it the more willingly now, because I never saw it in any book.


French omelette (internet image)

Take for six persons the roe of four cash * and steep them for a few minutes in salt water just below boiling point.[* the translator has followed this recipe with shad, pike, pickerel, etc., and can recommend it with a quiet conscience. Any fish is a substitute for tunny

Put in also a fresh tunny about as large as an egg, to which you must add a charlotte minced. Mix the tunny and the roes together, and put the whole in a kettle with a portion of good butter, and keep it on the fire until the butter has melted. This is the peculiarity of the omelette.

Take then another piece of butter and mix it with parsely and sage. Put it in the dish intended to receive the omelette, cover it with lemon juice and put it on hot coals. Then beat twelve eggs, (fresh as possible), pour in the fish and roe so that all may be perfectly mixed. Then cook the omelette as usual, making it thin and firm. Serve it up hot.

This dish should be reserved for breakfasts, where all the guests are connoisseurs. It is caviare to the vulgar.

1. The roes and fish should be warmed, not boiled. They will thus mingle more easily with the eggs.
2. The plate should be deep.
3. It should be warm, for a cold porcelain plate would extract the caloric of the omelette and make it insipid.

Another early reference of Omelette can be found from 1685, The Accomplisht Cook, Robert May, “To make omelettes divers ways. The first way. Break six, eight, or ten eggs more of less, beat them together in a dish, and put salt to them; then put some butter a melting in a frying pan, fry it more or less, according to your discretion, only on one side of bottom. You may sometimes make it green with juyce of spinage and sorrel beat with the eggs, or serve it with green sauce, a little vinegar and sugar boil’d together, and served up on a dish with the Omlet.” “The sixth way. Beat the eggs, and put to them a little cream, a little grated bread, a little preserved lemon-peel minced or grated very small…”  

One layer of omelette being stuffed into the next: the Japanese Tamagoyaki (internet image)

In the eastern part of the world, i.e. Japan, omelettes are called Tamagoyaki. They make several leafy omelettes, roll each of them inside the other and create a big omelette. Well, that was just for information!

Spinach Tamagoyaki

Anyways, whatever people did centuries ago is only in the pages of history. My reality is that, omelette is the daily affair. It is very unlikely that there comes a day when I do not prepare one. For me, the most satiating part is to observe the contentment and sheer delight on the faces of people who relish the food I prepare. More so, when they demand something to be prepared. When someone can shun their inhibition to ask for their favourite dish to be prepared, one can judge the intimacy of a relationship. It is like asking your mother to give something to eat. And likewise.

For me an omelette is like a canvas. The base is plain and it is upon the artiste to add colour. Some artists rely on their technique, rest on their instinct. Some of course on their ‘secret ingredient’. I am thankfully liberal in certain matters, especially matters like these. Some of my friends love the omelette I stuff with seekh kebabs. Others prefer the chicken, mushroom and cheese recipe. Like the father says in Kung Fu Panda…there IS no ‘secret ingredient’.

All I am driven by is love and love alone.