While travel and food are intrinsically linked, sometimes the latter becomes a singular aspect of a culture and a reflection of its way of life.
Visiting local joints, sharing home-cooked meals with strangers and eating your way around a place is almost the cryptic route to the heart of a land and its people. This week, we visit the beautiful Northeast through its food. The land of the seven sisters has perhaps the most eclectic and diverse cuisine, combining local produce and flavours with an entirely home-grown eating culture that is as exciting as it is unexplored.
And no, momos are not a part of their daily diet! If there was a food spectrum with much flogged tandoori chicken at one end, the Meghalayan Jadoh would be on the other with a far richer flavour palette.
This cuisine (which varies across each states with some commonalities arising due to a similar climactic pattern and local produce) is only now beginning to pop up in the urban Indian centres reappropriated as nouvelle cuisine for those who like to experiment.
However, the best meals would be eaten at eateries by the side of hill roads or bustling markets in the Northeast, or if you can manage it, someone’s house with some a rather potent local alcoholic brew to wash it all down.
It is also extremely hard to choose one dish from each state as different tribes and communities within the same state have dramatically different eating habits.
The cuisine is wonderful for many reasons with spices, herbs and methods of cooking that predate modern appliances and are healthy, less oily and masala based and protein heavy.
Masor Tenga (Assam)
With an abundance of rivers, lakes and ponds, this gateway state of the northeast is rich in freshwater fish and this along with rice, forms the chief source of sustenance.
The Masor Tenga with fleshy and tender pieces of rohu fish cooked in a light and sour gravy is a delight. Unlike the neighbouring rich Bengali fish curries, the tenga is a light and fragrant staple eaten in nearly every household
Jadoh stalls are an extension of the community eating in Meghalaya. Jadoh is essentially a rice and meat stall. However, before you start thinking that this just your ordinary pulav, the unique Jadoh combines the joha rice of the region, fatty pork pieces (other meats can also be also used) and the condiments of fermented soya paste as well as companion dish of Doh Neiong (Pork cooked in a sesame paste).
Smoked pork with akhuni (Nagaland)
While pork is indeed quite a staple around these parts, the Naga preparations of this meat burst with intense flavours derived from local herbs, dried and fermented leaves, shoots and beans and the famous Naga Morich, a close cousin to the bhut jalokia. This particular dish combines pieces of fire-smoked pork with Akhuni or fermented soy beans, lending it a lovely dark smoky flavour.
Tripura’s tribal communities greatly influence the food in these parts. The dish was originally cooked inside bamboo stems, lending it a wonderful flavour. Essentially a black-eyed bean and fish preparation, this dish gets its unique tart fishy aroma from Berma, a fermented fish, which works a bit like the Thai fish sauce.
Pasa (Arunachal Pradesh)
While this dish is somewhat of an acquired flavour as it is a raw fresh fish soup, it is a tribal delicacy. In my mind it is a combination of the flavours of sushi and the French tartare. With a host of aromatics and raw fish paste, this dish was believed to have been a wartime inception when cooked food would have been a giveaway for the tribal soldiers.
Combining Ngari or fermented fish with mashed boiled vegetables and a pungent chilli paste, this dish has numerous variations depending on the herbs, leaves and veggies used. The Manipuris eat this as a side dish, an entree with boiled rice and even as chutney!
This traditional dish from the state of the rolling hills is a rice dish cooked with chicken, duck or pork and veggies. This wholesome all-in-one meal in a bowl is a hearty meal perfect after a hard day’s work