If oil and masala are the two defining factors of Indian cooking, this is not an Indian meal. Ashish Chopra, food consultant and author of NE Belly (a self-published book, now forthcoming from HarperCollins), has the ingredients of the Naga pork dish he’s making neatly laid out in black earthen pots, or hampais. He puts the pork to boil with a handful of chopped fresh ginger and puréed tomato. An hour later, the pork has cooked in its own fat. A plateful of fresh leafy greens and a couple of Raja Mirchas—believed to be one of the most fiery chillies in the world—marry the pot. What emerges is delectable: A bland yet fiery stew served on steamed rice that addresses almost all your dietary concerns.
Women in Imphal, Manipur, selling fresh vegetables.
The gastronomic nuances of the “Seven Sisters”, as the states of the North-East are called (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura), have remained as little known as the several hundred languages spoken by the tribes of this region. Either that, or they’ve been fetishized, with the focus on smoked woodworms and monkey meat from Nagaland, fried grasshoppers from Arunachal Pradesh and dog meat delicacies of Mizoram.
Things are changing, in small doses, with restaurants such as Nagaland’s Kitchen opening up in New Delhi. Reservations are now “strongly suggested” by the management staff of the 10-month-old eatery. On any given weekday, up to 30 plates of its most popular dish—Naga-style pork ribs served with Raja Mircha chutney—are dished out. What is promising is that only about half of the restaurant’s clientele is from the North-East.
The food from this part of the country is light, healthy and easy to prepare. While consumption patterns differ across the region, the basic components of a meal remain the same: steamed or boiled rice accompanied by a gravy-based meat or fish dish and a chutney, washed down with a soup of boiled vegetables.
Most North-Eastern kitchens will stock dry meat. Hoihnu Hauzel, journalist and author of The Essential North-East Cookbook (Penguin, 2003), describes a traditional kitchen as having “a dozen or more skewers with salted meat hanging over the kitchen fire”. But despite the predominance of meat and fish, the people of the North-East are heavy vegetable consumers as well, given the fact that these grow naturally and in abundance. The cuisine is high in nutritional value and fibre, and low on calories.
The taste markers for the region are fermented fish, bamboo and soyabeans, which are used variously, and impart a unique flavour. So predominant is the fermented soyabean, in fact, that Hauzel likens its place in the North-East kitchen to the coconut in a south Indian one.
A couple of chillies, ginger or garlic are all that’s used for spice. When turmeric is used, fresh turmeric is dug out from kitchen gardens. When improvising, it’s useful to remember that in North-East Indian food, a single spice note guides a dish. It is, as Chopra says, a fiercely “no masala” culture.
Nagaland has almost 16 tribes and a number of sub-tribes with distinct food habits. Tribes like the Semas and Angamis prepare their pork with akhuni (fermented soyabeans) while Ao Nagas love their pork with anishi—a preparation made of dried yam leaves. Raja Mircha, or Naga chilli, is a fiery red chilli that features in several dishes along with ginger or garlic.
Pork with leafy greens and Raja Mircha
1kg pork with the skin and fat
250g lal saag and 250g pui saag or available leafy greens
50g ginger, finely chopped
2 Raja Mirchas (for the adventurous)
300g puréed tomato
Salt to taste
Pressure-cook pork, tomato, ginger, salt with a little water for 20 minutes (or slow-cook in a hampai for 50 minutes). Add Raja Mircha, lal saag and other leafy greens. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve with steamed rice.
Manipuris pride themselves on having the largest repertoire of dishes in the region. It is typical to flavour dishes with ngari (fermented fish) or sun-dried fish. A popular dish is tangal meh (green leafy vegetables seasoned with fermented fish). The Meiteis, the state’s majority ethnic group, are Hindu Vaishnavites. Their religious eating restrictions (only vegetables and fish) make their culinary spreads the most accessible for those from outside the region.
Singzu (Manipuri salad)
1/2 kg unripe papaya
2 tbsp gram flour (besan)
3 dry red chillies
2 small fermented fish
1 tsp salt
Peel the papaya and cut it into thin slices. Dry-roast the gram flour till golden brown. Dry-roast the chillies with fish and grind to a paste with 1 tbsp water. Combine the paste with gram flour and salt. Add the papaya. Serve as an snack.
Food from this state is marked by its simplicity—most often, fresh ginger is the only spice, and it is added after the dish is removed from heat so that the flavour lingers. The Adi tribe, one of the major tribes of the state, relish their smoked meat.
Asin Puinam (fish in bamboo hollow)
500g small, fresh river fish
21/2 cups of rice
1 tsp ginger paste and salt, each
3 green chillies, chopped
2 bamboo hollows, 3x5 inches
Clean and wash the fish. Drain thoroughly. Wash the rice and drain. Combine all the ingredients in dry bamboo hollows. Seal the mouth of the bamboo with a foil and place over a charcoal fire. Cook for about 30 minutes, rotating to cook evenly. Serve in the bamboo hollows.
The simple fare involves boiling shredded vegetables or large chunks of meat with salt. Fresh ginger sprinkled with salt is usually served as an accompaniment. Most Mizo kitchens will have a sawm bel (small container) with fermented meat. This is called Mizo cheese.
Mizo Bai (vegetable stew with Mizo cheese
75g red pumpkin leaves
12 French bean leaves
2 medium-sized brinjals or 1 cup bamboo shoots
2 okras and green chillies (chopped), each
5g lengmaser (a local herb), optional
1/2 tbsp rice
1 tsp salt
A drop of indigenous soda or pinch of sodium bicarbonate
1 tbsp Mizo cheese (fermented pork) or fermented fish
Wash the pumpkin and bean leaves and tear by hand. Cut the brinjals or bamboo shoots into 2-inch pieces. Place 2-1/2 cups of water in a pan over high heat, bring to a boil and add all the ingredients except the soda and Mizo cheese. Bring to a boil again, add soda and Mizo cheese. Lower heat and simmer for 30 minutes till the vegetables are cooked.
With the influence of Bangladeshi immigrants, people from Tripura like a little colour in their food—they use turmeric. Meals revolve around shidal, a fermented fish preparation made by adding salt and mustard oil to fish, stored in an airtight container for two weeks, till pungent.
Chakhui Butwi (fermented fish with ginger)
3 medium-sized fermented fish
1 tbsp ginger, shredded
A pinch of sodium bicarbonate
1 tsp salt
Place 2-1/2 cups of water in a pan and bring to a boil. Add the ingredients and boil till the gravy thickens. Garnish with lime leaves (optional) and serve with steamed rice.
Recipes courtesy Hoihnu Hauzel.