Archive for the North East and Me Category

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)



‘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


Posted in North East and Me with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 1, 2009 by ashthefoodie

My father was an Anthropologist. Hence, I accredit my interest in tribes and culture to those genes I inherited by virtue of my birth. And I still do not remember where did my interest in cuisine start. My remotest memory traces back to days, when as a ten year old along with another mad foodie childhood friend Mighty Bhullar aka Rattan Amol Singh Bhullar who later became a popular and passionate chef amongst the the tea planters of Assam, I would sell household junk to buy sausages from Harrison’s, Chandigarh and have them with fried onions.

A combination of these fundamental interests was to prove quite lethal gastronomically in years to come. After all, it was to sober down the fire of hunger for which civilizations came about.

Fisherman fishing in the Luit/Lohit or the mighty Brahmaputra

Fisherman fishing in the Luit/Lohit or the mighty Brahmaputra

It is not easy to be born in India and to be writing about food, let alone tribal food. This country can proudly boast of thousands of varieties of food keeping in view its rich cultural diversity and traditions. My trail of tribal food started almost three decades ago when as a child I would accompany my late father on many of his field trips to remote corners of Himachal, Kashmir and subsequently to the North eastern states. It became part of my gastronomical adventure. My interest graduated to a passion and now has now post graduated to an obsession.

Known as the ‘Children of God’ the tribals or adivasis are the indigenous people of India who have carefully preserved their age-old customs & traditions till this day.  Observing the vast differences in lifestyle and culture, one can only wonder whose children we are. Although a large part of the tribal populace has integrated with the mainstream and has undergone a sea change in lifestyle, what has remained closest to its purist form is their cuisine. As I was exploring all of these I could also see a gradual unfolding of patterns, common threads and designs. It gives me the same feeling of enigma, which surrounds the possible trade between various civilizations.

In an age of growing animosity and apathy amongst men, tribal hospitality and strong love for one and all is a shining example for all. Their festivals, dance & song are pulsating with power, joy & enthusiasm for life.

Enough to make you want to ditch the trappings of modern mayhem for a loincloth and a fancy headdress? For the un-decided here is the final factor that will tilt the balance: tribal cuisine! While Indian cuisine has taken the world by storm with the ubiquitous curry, tribal cuisine avoids those very items that define Indian food: oil and spices. Depending on raw and roasted food, vegetarians lean toward dishes of sweet potatoes, salt and wild leaves. Dried seeds of fruits like mango and jack-fruit are often consumed. Ragi is the cereal of choice. Non-vegetarians are spoilt for choice with dishes ranging from pickled red ants to animals like rats, boar, snails and the like roasted or boiled.

Though tribes are differentiated on the basis of six primary ethnic groups: Negritos, Pro-Australoids or Austrics, Mongoloids, Dravidian, Nordics and Western Brachycephals. For the sake of convenience we will rather segregate them on basis of the region they inhabit. I’m certain you will be far happier singing North, South, East & West than spewing a mouth-full of syllables! And for this particular issue, we will stick to what we call India’s northeast.

 North East India my Favourite land

Northeast India, the only region that currently forms a land bridge between the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, has been proposed as an important corridor for the initial peopling of East Asia. As for me, northeast is home- the brilliance of colourful hand woven textiles, the captivating folk heritage, its uncut umbilical chord with nature and most importantly the wonderful variety of food. Dancing your way through the hills seems like just the way to travel through this picturesque, breathtaking land. I can already picture myself jumping hills in a single leap. No wait…that’s Superman! For mere mortals however, modern conveniences will suffice. Though the tribes have their own dialects, Hindi, English and Assamese are also widely spoken as link languages in this land comprising eight beautiful states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim. And it is a promise that it will be no less than a spiritual journey to walk through the lanes of these hills and discover what these people are made of. But for today, let it be just food.

Pork is the favourite meat of the tribals of North east the picture shows women selling smoked pork

Pork is the favourite meat of the tribals of North east the picture shows women selling smoked pork

Peculiar, bland, hot, aromatic, healthy, fleshy, fatty-yes these adjectives can be used all at the same time for a northeastern tribal meal. While a meal is incomplete without a steaming platter of steamed rice, various green vegetables and predominance of meat and fresh water fish is obvious. Though each state has their peculiar culinary style, each of them definitely has a nose for the pungent aka bamboo shoot, fermented soya beans, fermented fish, and fermented flesh amongst others. Bamboo shoot is used widely as a souring agent in almost all the tribes. Fermented soya bean popularly known as akhuni in Nagaland, kinema in Sikkim and turumbai in Meghalaya, is a significant ingredient, used to create a pungent aroma in various dishes, also used as a pickle. When I say pickle, an array of hot chilies is indispensable for me to mention. The world’s hottest chilli popularly known as Raja Mircha or the king chilli has various names like U-morok in Manipur and bhoot jolokia in Assam and is widely relished. None of the pork dishes for e.g. in a state like Nagaland is complete without the flavour of this fiery chilli. I’d say, if you have a brave heart and a desire for fire, just ask for it.

The land of the freedom-loving, martial race of the Nagas, Nagaland itself has almost sixteen tribes and an umpteen number of sub tribes with their distinct food habits. Tribes like the Semas and Angamis prepare their pork with akhuni while Ao Nagas love their pork with anishi –a preparation made of dried yam leaves. The Angamis prepare galho a stew, adding lots of green leafy vegetables a little portion of rice and akhuni and of course now all of them prepare all of it.My Charming Godmother or Aunty Tutu the daughter of the legendary Phizo makes the best Galho that I have ever tasted. There are other styles like pork with dried bamboo shoot, with lettuce and spinach leaves and others. The Lothas love their bamboo shoot and cannot live without the Raja Mircha-infact dry bamboo shoot  from Wokha the land of the Lothas is awesome. These tribes smoke their meat at home, over their large kitchen fire, ferment them underground, literally. Well, the same goes with beef, chicken, fish, snails, shrimps, silk worms, red ants and others. And of course it is not just peculiar to the Nagas but various other tribes of northeast India. For the tribes in Arunachal, killing mithun or the bison is the symbol of utmost valour and wealth. And of course eating it!
Arunachali Kitchen

Arunachali Kitchen

Rice is fundamental. You have various kinds at that; the favourite of them all is the wild sticky rice. Many a times rice is prepared in hollow bamboo tubes. Apart from steaming the rice, they prepare them like a stew. The Bodos of Assam prepare a stew out of chicken and a rice powder called onla wangkhrai. The tribes in Meghalaya have a rice preparation called jadoh out of rice and pig liver. In Arunachal Pradesh too, like all other states, rice is consumed at every meal and has different names; ekayi, tongtep, khautek, porok amin, dung poo are a few. Dals and lentils are also staple, however, the methods of preparation varies. Most of the times in the north eastern states, rice will be prepared with yam stem, bamboo shoot and other locally grown herbs.

Despite the predominance of flesh in their cuisine, the people of northeast are heavy vegetable consumers as well, given the fact that they are grown naturally in abundance. Nagaland and Mizoram are organic by legislation! In Sikkim they ferment leafy vegetables like rayo saag, leaves of mustard, radish and cauliflower and sun dry it for later consumption. They call these preparations gundruk and sinki. Sinki is prepared from radish taproot only. Momos and thukpa of course make a wholesome meal! And of course, Sikkim is known all over for its cottage cheese.

Like pork, chicken, duck and all all other edible flesh, fish is also very popular and has variety of ways of preparation. Fresh water fish is barbecued in banana leaves in Meghalaya, Assam and other states. Fish intestines are relished. Many people make mixture of rice powder or a handful of steamed rice and fish intestines and prepare a delicious preparation out of it. Fermented fish chutney, dried fish chutney with oodles of green chillies let your nose running for hours after you eat them. People in Tripura love their fermented fish preparation called shidal. The Riyangs of Tripura love to cook their vegetables in hollow bamboo over chacoal fire. Just imagine the flavour it would exude!

Koldil: banana flower

Koldil: banana flower

Robab tenga: grapefruit

Robab tenga: grapefruit

Technically Manipur is not a tribe-dominated state, as their prime inhabitants the Maiteis are staunch Vaishnavaits. However, Manipur also has its fair population of tribes namely the Kukis, Paiteis, Zilliongs etc. manipur has some of the best chutneys that I have relished. Singzu is chutney prepared from green vegetables, chick peas and fermented fish called ngari and is relished all over the state. The most interesting part of northeastern tribal cuisine is the usage of minimalist spice. A chilli or two (enough for sparking the fire), ginger and garlic, occasionally sesame and some local herbs are the ingredients to tickle your taste buds.

Beverages in North East:

What does these intoxicatingly beautiful people do when it comes to intoxication? Why, they brew their own beer of course! All the tribes have their recipes of brewing rice beer. As it is self explanatory, it is brewed from rice. Rice is soaked in water for several days to let it ferment. Few intoxicating agents are added to give that zing. These agents are mostly local herbs. In Arunachal, the local rice beer is called opo or apong or yu, o or marwah. While in Assam it is called laopani or kshaaz. Each tribe has their own method of distillation, however the raw materials are more or less the same. Most of the times, the rice beer is offered to the deities before consumption, and needless to say, every celebration is pretty incomplete without serving rice beer.

Apong bieng prepared for a wedding in Kenri's home in Basar in Arunachal Pradesh

Apong bieng prepared for a wedding in Kenri's home in Basar in Arunachal Pradesh

But of course, we must not forget that Assam is the tea hub of the world. Though the people involved in the laborious cultivation are the adivasis who were brought by the British planters some two hundred years ago from the Chota Nagpur plateau primarily the region of Bihar, Bengal, Orissa, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Hence a huge number of Oraon, Mundas, Khariyas, Saoras have become completely engrained in the demography of Assam and follow not only some of their original food habits, but also certain assimilated habits. Black tea which the people in Assam call laal saah, is mostly consumed with jaggery and is extremely popular in the villages. Towards the Northern part of Arunachal Pradesh lies the great Himalayan range and it’s chill and the mountaneous topography definitely makes butter tea extremely popular, especially in the districts of Tawang, Siang and Kameng.

As I say, it is never enough when it comes to food-be it eating, cooking or writing. I still feel a little incapacitated because of the fact that there are several things, several dishes I had to give a miss because of the extensive subject matter. Considering the fact that the northeast India’s demography is tribe dominated, time and space is always insufficient to talk of the legends.Here is a link to a small video where I have made my own little version of the Naga Pork Curry

and here is my recipe for the Pork curry with Raja Mircha on this link


The Food (NE festival at The Park)

Posted in North East and Me with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2008 by ashthefoodie

Yours truly helping Chef Ankit Mangla (The Park) with the menu

Shinju: a manipuri salad

Pork Bamboo shoot and Raja Mircha

Dried fish: a delicacy in North East

North East India consisting of eight States namely Assam, Meghalaya, Sikkim, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Tripura and Mizoram is home to over 100 ethnic tribes , subtribes and communities– each having its distinct characteristics , traditions and cuisines.

The Park hotel ( New Delhi) took the initiative of organizing the north east food festival: Expose North East in 2007. An eight day extravaganza, this festival was organized at Aqua-the poolside outdoor space in the hotel. there was an effort to create the ambience of north east with north eastern girl band Blue Corn adding to the ferver. Also organized simultaneously was an art and photography exhibition which took people to a pictorial journey of the region and also introduced some fresh talents.

In order to popularize the region and promote the cuisine, The Park hotel even introduced a few dishes and ingredients in the menus of their restaurants.