Friday, April 3, 2015
MY TRYST WITH NORTH EASTERN CUISINE
I keep travelling to North East, almost all the states, excepting Arunachal Pradesh, for official work. In the last few years, as my work demanded, I have been travelling quite extensively to the North Eastern states. During these trips I have been privileged to have the opportunity to see the varied natural beauty of the states, experience the rich culture and savour some of their finest cuisine.
Being a typical gastronomically adventurous Bengali, I make it a point to taste the local delicacies wherever I travelling to. Thus my love affair with North Eastern cuisine started. Over the years it’s only deepened and it’s so diverse, so different and so delectable, it makes me go back again and again to try newer varieties.
Now ‘North Eastern Cuisine’ is a rather generic term. Each of the seven states has their own variety of foods which is quite different from other, just as unique as their respective cultures. This has given a unique diversity of the culinary culture of North East and this is what I like and I am still exploring. You will note that while cuisine of Assam mainly revolves around rice and fish, In Meghalaya, Mizoram & Nagaland it’s more of Pork and Beef. Dog meat is also popular among locals in Mizoram and Nagaland. Duck and Pigeon meat is very popular in Assam and almost all restaurants specializing in Assamese cuisine serve them. There are different varieties of rice as well. Apart from traditional aromatic ‘Joha rice‘, one can taste ‘red rice’ as well as ‘black rice’ which retains respective colours after preparation. These are majorly produced in neighbouring Meghalaya. Also in Assam, sesame seeds, pepper and mustard are used as major ingredients for cooking. However the beauty is none of the preparations are rich, so digesting them is easy and I never experienced the usual heartburn a man on the wrong side of forty would normally feel after a heavy meal. In Mizoram, Manipur & Nagaland most of the preparations are just boiled. The flip side is most of the preparations would be bland for the taste of average Bengali. Also for pork preparations and preparations with Bamboo Shoots, or Akhuni (fermented soyabeans) the pungent odour is present which may not suite everybody. Lots of pickles made of dried fish, smoked meat, fermented seeds etc are used in the cooking. So largely I would say that you need to have an acquired taste to appreciate most of the preparations and if you are avert to boiled, soupy food you might not find them to your liking. However this changes when we look at lower Assam & Tripura. Tripura, a state dominated largely by Bengali population migrated from Sylhet district of Bangladesh, has a very strong influence of Bengali cuisine that is so unique to Sylhet. Same trend can be found in lower Assam in Kachar district which is again dominated by the migrated Bengalis from Sylhet. Even if you look at the culinary history at Bangladesh, Sylheti cuisine holds it’s own distinct identity among all Bangladeshi cuisines and this also holds true when it comes to extremely rich cultural heritage of Sylhet. A typical Sylheti cuisine will have abundance of fish and ‘Snutki’ or the sun dried fish takes centre stage. The variety is just amazing. And the preparations are rich and most often very hot, leaving you panting and gasping from breath and you could feel smoke coming out of your ears after tasting them. So a Sylheti preparation need to be approached with due respect or else it could have the unsuspecting go red like tomato on the face. Also every fish imaginable is turned into ‘Snutki’ and various preparations are made from them. Another unique item would be the ‘Nona Iilish’ where the revered Hilsa will be dried in quite different manner. To make ‘snutki’ normally the fish is laid out open under the sun till they are bone dry. However Hilsa fish is treated in a completely different manner to create the ‘Nona Ilish”. After the fish is caught, specifically the small sized Hilsa, fishermen put them in in large earthen pot in layers. One layer of fish is put at the bottom then it’s covered with layer of salt and then further layers are created with fish and salt alternatively till it reaches the mouth of the earthen pot. Then the mouth is sealed and it’s buried under ground. A typical place would be the sand beds of the river which gets ample sunlight. The salt acts as preservative while the fish gets dried up inside. Once its ready the pot is dug out.
However my experience is rather limited to restaurants in Guwahati and other places which offer good local cuisine. I have shared my experiences at some of these restaurants which I really liked. But if you experience the real taste and the famed Sylheti hospitality you need to look elsewhere. If you are lucky enough and have the chance of getting invited by locals on their festivals or you know somebody local who can invite you home and treat you with traditional home cooked food those would the best food journeys of your life. I got one such opportunity when my colleague in Aizwal had cooked dog meat at home and that’s one unique experience for me. The quest is still on and I will keep sharing my experience in this blog.
SANGEI MANIPURI RICE HOTEL:
Paltan Bazar, Near Ulubari Flyover,
During February 2015 when I was in Guwahati, I had a great lunch at ‘Sangei Manipuri Rice Hotel’. This is at Paltan Bazar, on the main road near Ulubari Flyover. It’s a rather inconspicuous place and you really need to look hard to locate the modest entrance amongst the jumble of shops hanging their merchandise all over. The restaurant is on the first floor and offers traditional Manipuri Thali. More than a restaurant, I felt that this is akin to the famous pise hotels of Kolkata. A Manipuri version you can say and it also claims to be a ‘rice hotel’. The interior is modest with plain décor but it’s painted in bright colours and clean. They also have beautiful photographs of natural beauty of Manipur including many pictures of the famed 'Loktak Lake'.The waiters silently moved about in bright yellow shirt and red dhoti, further brightening up the place.
There is no menu card. You have look up the signboard as a point of reference, though the names of the items will sound alien. But don’t let that bother you. The waiters here are very polite and helpful.
The First thing you get is the basic thali, a steel plate with banana leaves neatly laid out on it. This contains a neat heap of rice and other assortments like pickles and salads made with bamboo shoot. You will also get bowls of dal and other vegetable preparations.
They have rather strange names like ‘pokora, kangsoi, singju and champhut for them and I could not also identify the preparations and ingredients. Some of them I liked, some not so much, but overall it’s quite different from the vegetable preparations that we are used to and it’s a different experience. But the interesting part is when it comes to selection of the non-veg items. The waiters will silently bring a large tray where multiple bowls containing various preparation of fish of different species. You can pick and choose from Rohu, Hilsa, Pabda, Chital, Aar & Borail. The preparations range from plain jhol, Sorshe bata, Bhaja to bhapa. Also I found small fishes, like kajri or Mourola, deep fried and another preparation closely resembling our own ‘Muri Ghanto’.
Next comes the assortment of meat. This had everything, chicken, mutton & Pork. I could see boiled pork, fried pork, pork sausages, pork curry. Pork liver and also fried chicken wings, boiled chicken, mutton curry etc.
This was quite exiting, I almost felt a childlike glee. We had to pick and choose. The bowls on the tray were only for display. We had to point out the items we wanted and then it would be served hot. I admit we went overboard with ordering. It’s the same temptation you feel while in a supermarket when your good sense is clouded by the alluring displays and you end up spending much more than planned.
Nevertheless all the items tasted great and I will surely come back here on my next visit.
The pocket pinch for two should not exceed Rs. 500/- .The basic thali will cost you Rs. 60/- and there is a more elaborate one costing Rs. 80/-. Fish preparations range between Rs.100 & Rs.200/-. Chicken between Rs.100/- & Rs.150/- and pork items will set you back for anything between Rs.80/- & Rs.200/-. Check the photo of the menu board.
If any one of you is visiting Guwahati you can definitely try this place for a taste of authentic Manipuri cuisine and you won’t be disappointed.
Above Baskin Robbins, Zoo Road,
Near VIP Namghar, Zoo Tiniali.
I had a rather sumptuous dinner of Traditional Assamese cuisine at “Bhut Jolokia” at Zoo Tiniali in Guwahati. And I made it a point to consume everything that swims, walks and flies at one go.
At around 8:30PM in the evening, when we walked in we found the restaurant quite empty. The décor was basic but neat. They had the tables and chairs made out of Bamboo, Jute with glass tops in typical Assamese style.
We started with “Brail Maas bhaja” (deep fried Borail fish). This was followed by “Para mangkhar alu torkari (Pigeon meat with potato), “Hahar Mangkhar matimah torkari (Duck Meat with black grams), Gahori tilor torkari (Pork with sesame seeds and all the gravy to go down with “Aijong joha steamed rice”.
All the preparations were nice. Though none which I ordered came with the fiery Bhut Jolokia’ (Ghost Chilli) which is ranked as one of the hottest chilli in the world. There were preparations on the menu which are prepared with Bhut Jolokia, but I really did not have the nerve for ordering the same.
This restaurant was started by Chef Atul Lakhar. The food was generally good. One word of caution though. You need to have acquired taste to appreciate North Eastern cuisine. If you have it, do try whenever you are at Guwahati.
But if I have to rate, I will choose another restaurant specializing in Assamese cuisine called “Maihang” at Bhangagarh above Bhut Jolokia. This was the one I tried out in my previous visit to Assam. “Kharika” restaurant at Ulubari also serves good Assamese food and probably owned by the same chef.
Policce Bazar, Opposite Choudhury Pharmaceutical,
Trattoria is a place to go if you have the taste for some authentic Khasi cuisine. During my trip to Shillong I was asking around for some nice joint to taste the local food and this restaurant was highly recommended by my colleagues who are locals there. This is situated right at the heart of Shillong, at Police Bazar, on the ground floor of the same building housing Centre Point hotel and opposite to Chaudhury Pharmaceuticals which is a kind of landmark there.
This is not exactly a fine dining place but if I wish to compare, this will be a close replica of the famous ‘Pise hotels” of Kolkata who serve authentic Bengali cuisine. This place had the same flavour, serves authentic Khasi cuisine, the interiors done up in wood as is the norm in the hills and has wooden tables and benches (not chairs, mind you). I reached here at around 1 PM and the place was already abuzz with locals thronging in.
But surely it was devoid of any Bengali tourists who normally flood the city of Shillong and one would bump into them almost everywhere. After good fifteen minutes of waiting I could park myself on a bench. The menu was written on the wall (in literal sense) so I didn't get a menu card.
Looking around the people and the photos of the food on the wall I could make out that rice and pork takes the centre stage here. The photos of the walls you see are the menu card and the Khasi names for them did not make any sense in my head. To make matters worse, all the waiters were ladies dressed in the typical chequered Khasi traditional wear, and a moment’s interaction proved that they did not understand a single word either in English or Hindi. All they could do is to point at the photos on the wall and hoping I would place the order. I looked quite dumb and confused sitting on the bench with not a plate in front of me where true to a pice hotel tradition, dishes were appearing and disappearing before people in lightning speed. Then I noticed the man at the small wooden counter near the entrance. He was in his late thirties, dressed in jeans and a Bluetooth device firmly struck in his ears. He was running around, chatting up people at the counter, collecting payments, taking orders and probably talking on the blue tooth device as well. That’s fine example of multi-tasking. Finally this man took notice of me as obviously I was sticking out like a sore thumb in the local crowd, looking silly in a tie. The ladies could have also reported to him that there is moron who just walked in and occupied a seat with nothing to order. Thankfully this man, Rinchen, who is also the owner of the joint, spoke fluent English and I gladly communicated that I am quite ready to take on a gastronomical journey basis his suggestion. Immediately he took the worries out of me, and he was quite delighted to hear that I have special interest in trying out his pork creations. What he suggested is basically a mixed platter of his pork delights with accompaniment of rice.
The plate that came in looked quite interesting as you can make out in the photo below. There was yellow rice and various assortment of pork , salads and pickles. Some looked familiar like the green chutney made of garlic and mint. I could see three types of pork preparations, couple of pieces of cooked meat with a delightful layer of fat. There was pork liver and a meatball. The salads were the interesting part. You see the whitish one on the plate, it was a mixture of boiled pork and fat mixed with shredded vegetables of varieties unknown to me. The blackish stuff that you also see on the plate is made of pork intestine and both tasted like heaven with the yellow rice which was laced in what I believe oil from the pork fat. The whole combination is out of the world and I was relishing every moment. The best part is, nothing is fried (excepting the meatball) so you can eat your heart’s content. Whew what an experience.
An word of caution though to the readers. Please remember, to savour this kind of food you really need to have acquired taste. If you are someone who would hunt out a ‘Bengali Maach Bhat’ joint wherever you travel then definitely stay away from this place. But then if you are by nature adventurous in your gastronomical exploration and love pork and the North Eastern way of cooking, do try this place. You will not be disappointed. The owner Lasaraba Suiting is a very enthusiastic, friendly and jovial person and would happily assist you to select your food. The names in Khasi language might look Greek and Latin so better go with Rinchen’s suggestion and you won’t be disappointed.
Do feel free to share the BLOG so food enthusiast visiting Shillong might take note of it.
Of ZAWLEIDI and HOT DOG:
My experience in Aizwal, Mizoram.
This time I have reached the pinnacle of my food adventure. Before my trip to Aizwal, a few friends of mine had jokingly warned me as not to have meat at restaurants due to high possibility of being served with DOG Meat in the guise of mutton. I had read and heard that Mizos, like their Nagamese counterparts love Dog meat and this is served as delicacy in their custom. Serving dog meat is also considered as a mark of respect and good hospitality shown to guests of honour at Mizo households. So I had made up my mind to have a taste of this meat.
Unfortunately and contrary to popular belief, dog meat not served at restaurants and definitely not in guise of mutton. At least I had visited a few prominent restaurants in Aizwal city and none of them serve dog meat. I asked around and learnt that dog meat is generally prepared at home by the locals. Then my dear friend and colleague Konkham Kheleshwer Singh came to my rescue. Kheleshwer is not a Mizo but hails from Manipur. He is a very competent cook and I had the chance to taste the results of his culinary skill, mostly mutton, at Dharmanagar in Tripura where he was earlier posted.
Raw Dog meat is sold freely at the market places albeit at limited no of shops. Dog meat is not sold the way goat meat is sold here by hanging the Carcass, but meat cut in chunks are kept in glass boxes. Pork, which is the most popular meat here, is also sold in same manner. Kheleshwer made all the arrangements and fresh dog meat was procured @Rs.300/- a KG. I had asked him to pick up only a small quantity just for taste as I was unsure whether I would be able to have this as a whole meal for dinner. So chicken was the main dish and about 300gm dog meet was bought for tasting.
At evening we gathered at Kheleshwer’s place who was leading a Bachelor’s life as his wife was away at Imphal. The culinary experiment had started. I had requested Kheleshwer to prepare it with liberal doses of onions, garlic and those extremely potent Mizo green chillies. It would not have been possible to have it typical Mizo way as in Mizo culinary science nothing is fried. They only have boiled food and all there dishes, be it pork or vegetables, everything look like thukpa basically floating in soupy gravy. The raw mutton (you see the photo here) looked more like goat meat and to be precise “rewazi meat” (laden with fat). This is red in colour and had lot of fat which surprised me a little. Had I not been told about it’s origin I would have mistaken it as goat meat.
And to bring the Mizo flavour in the whole affair we decided to wash it down with “Zawleidi” the local grape wine. This has an interesting history and I will share more details about it.
The cooking was done and finally it was time to taste and eat. Honestly I had my apprehension when I had my first bite but this quickly dispersed and I found the taste quite similar to well-cooked hot mutton preparation. This was made in pressure cooker and after 6 whistles the mutton was pretty soft and it wasn’t very fibrous also. The green chilly made it hot and even more delectable. These chillies are very small but once to take a bite it will make your brain go dizzy and your lips will be puckered if you are not careful. Anyway what I did not like was the ‘fat’ in the mutton. While the mutton was absolutely fine the fat tasted odd and sticky on the tongue and definitely not like goat meat or pork fat. It’s when you bite into the fat you realize something is amiss. This is the part I could not have. But overall this was a unique experience for me.
Now coming to “Zawleidi”.
Some of you must know that Mizoram is an alcohol free state. The majority of the population here are Christians and Church has a very deep influence in their lives. Due to the influence of church, the state govt has banned liquor in the state. The city doesn’t have a movie hall (apart from some &D theatres) as this is also not approved by the church. It will come as a surprise particularly if you see the lifestyle of the locals. It’s completely westernized. People, particularly youngsters go around in fancy clothing and highly modified expensive bikes. But they are basically Church Going people and Sunday for them is a time for prayer and the mass. There are many churches in the city and every village would also have a church. Christmas is the biggest celebration here and the city shuts down for about 10 days during the Christmas period.
Anyway lets go back to the original discussion. During the year 2010, the Govt. of Mizoram, after 13 years of prohibiting grape cultivators from producing wine, has brought out Zawlaidi, the locally manufactured grape wine, by making amendments to the MLTP Act 1997. Hence it is only “Zawleidi” which is allowed for sale and consumption in the state as an alcoholic beverage. Though this is a wine the locals take it as just another aerated ‘drink’ and this is available at all restaurants.
The Zawlaidi is produced at Hnahlan, which is a small village in Champhai district, famous for its production of grapes. In Mizo language Zawlaidi means “Love Potion”. Although I can not vouch if this has any aphrodisiac qualities. About 80% of the families at Hnahlan are grape growers. Owing to this, it has become one of the most well-to-do villages in Mizoram and is aspiring to be the largest grape producer in India throwing competition to Nashik. Grape growers of Hnahlan village in Mizoram earn average of about Rs 150 lakhs annually as per the Hnahlan Grape Growers Society.
However poor infrastructure to export and dwindling local demand is putting the wine produces under financial stress and they are looking for active Govt. support to promote this. May be the Govt. should think in the line of Geographical patents like Scotch or Darjeeling tea closer at home.
Though I am in no way a connoisseur of wine, this tasted good and had a sweet pungent taste. Thought the alcohol content is not very high (about 15% if I am not wrong) but I was advised not to have more than a glass and I obliged. Having two exotic items (wine and dog meat) may prove to a become a challenge for the stomach.
So the dinner ended with the excellent chicken curry and rice and that feeling of elation to have the guts to taste out two Mizo delicacies which normally remains out of gastronomical overtures of average Bengali.
Shanti Palace, 1st Floor,
Near Bora Service Station,
In Assamese this word depicts a special plate made of bell metal which was used by the nobles of Ahom dynasty. Tradition is to serve food on this kind of plate only to the head of the family or to a very special guest.
It was my third day in Guwahati when I actually found some time to venture out of my hotel to try out some North Eastern cuisine for dinner. It was usual boring business trip where I had to make do with working lunch during the day and I was returning so late it was always the typical, Indian or Chinese menu at the hotel which tasted same like every other hotels in small cities that I travelled. I was dying to try out some North Eastern cuisine, especially pork dishes, which was high on my priority list.
Maihang restaurant is now situated on GS Road at Ulubari. When I had food there the restaurant was at Bhangagarh on GS Road but it got shifted from there. This was recommended by my colleagues so I decided to try my luck there.
The restaurant is quite spacious, with typical Assamese décor complete with bamboo and mats. The staffs were courteous. True to the name they serve food on bell metal dishes and bowl which is a nice touch. The menu card was quite elaborate with a large array of pork, fish, pigeon, duck and chicken preparations with choice of different kind of rice including the “Red Rice” and “Black Rice”
After some serious discussion with the waiters over the choice I had decided to order for Pork, Duck and Fish. I chose to give the Pigeon meat a miss as I had tried this before but did not like it. Less of meat and too much bones. The choice of fish was quite interesting, most of them were known species to me but some were new. There was choice of Boreli, Ari, Chital, Goroi, Kawoi, magur, Moa, Tenga and Hilsa. Boreli is a favourite in North East and found in Bramhaputra. I choose a preparation with mustard, or ‘sorse bata’.
Pork preparations came with choice of Axoni, Mejinga, Bamboo Shoot, Black Dal or bitter gourd. There was an option of ‘Pork Patot Diya” which the waiter explained me is smoked pork that came wrapped in banana leaf. I had also ordered for Duck Meat with Gourd which bore a warning sign of ‘three red chillis’ on the menu card. I had also ordered for “Red Rice” which is actually dark red in colour and broken, something akin to the rice used in Chinese fried rice. I asked the manager if they mix something to produce this colour but I was told that it’s the natural colour of the rice. This kind of rice is produced in Meghalaya and they get it from there.
The preparations were great. The Duck meat was HOT and I mean real HOT, so much so I could feel smoke coming out of my ears. The pork meat was amazing. The pieces were soft and succulent, with a smoky taste with half meat and half laced with fat. The fish was rather uninspiring. I was served a large ‘ring piece’ but Boreli is something like ‘Aar’ and unlike Hilsa or Bhetki, doesn’t have taste of it’s own. But the mustard curry tasted real good. I read on the menu that in English “boreli’ is basically “Fresh Water Shark”, hardly had bones and fatty and bit sticky meat.
Good dinner and the restaurant carries my recommendation for anyone with a taste of North Eastern cuisine.
Paradise Hotel, 1st Floor,
Near Goswami Service,
This is another traditional place for typical Assamese cuisine. Also this is a place which gives pork preparations a miss. Situated at Silpukhri this is a part of the Paradise Hotel and situated on the 1st floor. As you enter paradise hotel, there is a restaurant at ground floor that my confuse you but you need to go straight upto 1st floor.
The restaurant is spacious with comfortable seating arrangements. This is a ‘Thali’ special restaurant and you will see everybody is ordering the ‘Thali’. The thali comes in various prices and varieties. They do have separate non veg and veg items which include some Chinese varieties but all are part of the one Thali or Other. It also works out to be cheaper to order a Thali so you get to taste all the varieties.
There was a ‘welcome drink’ part of the thali. This turned out to be gooseberry or ‘Amla Juice’. Though it didn’t taste all that bad but the green colour of the juice somehow puts me off as it reminds me of ‘Dabur Amla Hair Oil’ of similar colour. Nows that’s not exactly become an appetizer if your mind force you to think that you are drinking amla hair oil instead of the juice that it was.
Anyway the ordeal was soon over and massive thalis and a huge assortment of bowls landed in front of us. I felt like a ‘Jamai’ on his first ‘jamaisasthi’ at his in-laws place. The waiters silently and mechanically started landing bowl after bowl on our tables. A neat white heap of fine aromatic rice was placed in the middle and apart from the typical Dal (lentil) and Alu Pitika (Alu Chokha) most of the vegetarian dishes looked unfamiliar to me. So we caught hold of the rather unwilling waiter and proceed to do a thorough reconciliation of the visual with the printed data on menu card.
So one by one we went. There was something that looked like mixed vegetable sautéed together which turned out to be ‘Khar’. The designer fries that you see in the photo were probably ‘Kumro Phool Bhaja.
There were two more stuffs which looked like paste and pickle. One was made from mustard paste, mustard oil and tamarind and called “Kahudi”. Another pungent smelling & hot paste turned out to be “Khorisa” which is essentially a mix of fermented bamboo shoot seasoned in mustard oil and red chillies. There was “Mahob Guri’ which is powdered gram lentils with salt, lemon juice and chillies.
We had ordered for Duck meat. Pigeon meat was also a choice but I never liked pigeon meat because the previous experiences were never pleasant. It only lots of bones with very less meat and by no means value for money. Duck meat was prepared with pepper but somehow I am not too keen on preparations with pepper. I prefer chillies to make dishes hot. The steamed fish was good, wrapped in leaf as is our very own Paturi but tasted quite different.
But the killer punch was at the end and it was the sweet dish. Perhaps for this one dish only I will go back again and again. This is Assamese called “Jalpan Pitha”. This is basically fine translucent puffed rice spread over thick cream and topped with fine ‘nolen gur’ served in a separate container. The puffed rice was unique. I have never seen similar translucent and crisp puffed rice in Kolkata.
So the ending sweet note was simply great. This one is definitely recommended if you are in Guwahati.
51 Gandhi Road, Darjeeling
Though it is not North Eastern but I thought I will include it here for the awesome Nepali & Tibetan food.
Kunga Resturant is small, almost non-descript little eatery situated on Gandhi Road, Darjeeling. This is the road near Keventer’s which leads to the Planter’s club.
Small it might be, but this little restaurant offers one of the best Tibetan dishes on this part of the country. Set up in 1993 by a Tibetan couple, this 24 seater joint offers a wide array of Tibetan cuisine. If your mind is somehow restricted to Momos and Thukpas when it comes to Tibetan cuisine you should have a look at their menu card. If you are a connoisseur of meat, particularly Pork and Beef, this place will enchant you. Before I came to Darjeeling I was generally making enquiries about good eating places and I wanted to get beyond Glenerys and Keventers. This place was recommended by at least four of my friends but none of them could recall the name. However they were able to provide a pretty clear idea about the location of this restaurant and I did not have much difficulty in locating it. I saw the Trip Advisor certificate hung on the wood panelled wall which proclaimed that the place is rated with four and half (out of five). There was quite a crowd waiting for their turns during midday and I noticed a significant population of foreigners amongst the waiting customers. We got our place after half an hour since there were nine of us. We started with the standard Pork Momo and the taste was awesome. The secret of tasty steam momo lies in it’s juiciness and they sure have mastered the art. Other items on the menu were Beef Noodles, and Thukpa Gyanthuk. You will also get Thenthuk and Bhagthuk soups with a choice of Chicken, Pork or Beef. The noodles were succulent and long which you can keep meandering up on the fork. A rarity these days as all noodles taste dry and broken, even at some famed eateries in Kolkata. The dumplings in the wonton soup also tasted great. So much so we went back on the next day and had our fill with Beef & Pork Curry rice followed by some thick and creamy mango milk shake.
This place had surely maintained the quality from day one and Aunt Diki still cooks and supervises the kitchen personally. She is a quite affable lady and you are likely get a warm welcome from her as you step in. I liked the modest décor and the overall ambiance. The good part is on a chilly night the proximity of the kitchen will keep you warm and cosy, accentuated by equally warm hospitality of Aunt Diki.
The NAGALAND Experience:
CHINGTSUONG at Kohima
It was time to set foot in Nagaland.
I have been looking forward to trip for a long time. Though I had been to most other states which are part of seven sisters, I never had a trip to Nagaland before. Nagaland is exotic in every sense, the scenic beauty, it’s people, it’s unique culture and of course the Naga cuisine. All of it sets it distinctly apart from the rest of the country. For a gastronomically adventurous person like me, Nagaland is like a wet dream. It’s a land where anything that walks, crawls, slithers, swims or flies are included as food, to the extent that cannibalism was not uncommon among few warrior tribes.
It’s an insane world as far as food is concerned. I did taste of Naga cuisine quite a few times at Guwahati. There are several restaurants which serve good Naga food. The restaurant chains like ‘Naga Kitchen’ & ‘Nagameez’ to name a few. However you can never beat the authentic, so I was looking forward to an exciting & gastronomically enriching journey in Nagaland.
My first stop was at Dimapur, at Assam, Nagaland border. However Dimapur is just like another dusty, dirty commercial town in Assam. It is too close to Assam border and you can’t hope to get a flavor of real Nagaland at this border town. So all I did was to have vegetarian food at a ‘Marwari Basa’ which I must say was awesome.
Next day it was time to climb the hills. Kohima was some seventy odd kilometers drive from Dimapur through beautiful winding ghat roads. As the car climbed up, the beauty of Naga Hills unfurled before my eyes. The weather turned crisp and I could feel the nip in the air, definitely a welcoming change after the sweltering heat of Dimapur.
Our branch manager at Kohima is Ruuvilie Angami, an ever smiling guy in his mid-thirties. He belongs to the Anagami tribe, the largest and most prominent of all Naga tribes. His ancestral home is at a village called ‘Khonoma’ situated some 30 kms away from Kohima. I couldn’t find a better person to accompany me on the food journey and he gladly took charge. Ruuvilie himself is a foodie and a good cook. His only regret was he could not cook for me and let me have a taste of authentic Naga cuisine as time was a huge constraint. I couldn’t help but feeling sad. I had very little time in hand as it was practically a day trip. So upon his suggestion, we decided to have lunch at a small joint near our office where he said that I could have a taste of authentic Naga cuisine.
It was a short walk from our office, almost inconspicuous among a maze of ill planned and shabby looking buildings at a street corner. The restaurant was on first floor. We climbed on the rickety wooden staircase, ducking our head so as not to get bumped on the low ceiling. It took couple of seconds for my eyes to adjust and focus in the semi-darkness once we were inside the room. It was a rather small room with plastic tables and chairs laid out to accommodate approximately 25 odd people. Apart from a couple sitting at a far corner, the restaurant was empty. The room was done up in wood and what first struck me was the décor. There was a small counter at one end, giving the appearance of a tiny thatched hut. A small skull of a monkey hung from a rope made of bamboo stripes in the middle. Around the skull head a strange mane like décor made of dry leaves hung, giving it a grotesque look. Just behind the skull, in a thin wooden frame the name of the restaurant was made out using thin pliant cane which read ‘CHINGTSUONG’. I couldn’t pronounce it and readers are free to draw their own conclusion.
Looking around I could see a galore of skulls, mostly of small animals which looked like deer, lined up across the walls near the thatched ceiling. On the lower part of the walls there were skins of animals and birds stretched out. One I could identify as armadillo at the cash counter. On one corner there was an array of large feathers which I would presume of some large bird of prey. At the far end, on the wall, crossed and decorated spears typical to Naga tribe were on display,. The décor gave me a sense that this one is going to be different.
A look at the menu card confirmed my hunch. It was a short two pager menu card, but the contents will either make you puke or salivate, depending on your attitude towards different food habits, even before sighting the actual food. And I presume the faint hearted or a vegan wouldn’t dare venturing out at a Naga eatery. For me the general feeling was ecstasy.
Yes it was everything imaginable, I am not even mentioning chicken, who would travel to Nagaland for chicken? The menu had the whole nine yards, pork and beef, both in fresh, smoked and dried variety. Frogs are available, so is dog meat. Fat, Juicy worms & insects will be served fried or boiled as you would prefer. A variety of Fish including dry fish is available with ‘eel’ as special mention. For the lover of organs, they serve beef innards, brain & tongue.
Another Naga delicacy is meat (pork, beef or chicken) marinated with herbs and put into the hollow of the bamboo nodes and slow cooked over fire. This is probably common in many tribal food habits across India. The tribal communities of Andhra & Southern Odisha also have the same preparation, though the process of marinating the meat and herbs used may vary.
In Naga cuisine there is hardly any concept of frying, mostly the meat is boiled or had in dried smoked form. During long and bitter winter in the mountain, chunks of meat anointed with salt are hung over the wooden stove at the kitchen of Naga households, and get smoked over days. The meat gets preserved that way and the family continues to survive on it, when they couldn’t go out hunting. Meat is often combined with Axioni, or the fermented soyabean, Anishi, dried paste of Yam leaves and also with bamboo shoots which are quite popular in the hills. The smell of fermented soyabean combined with smoked meat can be overpowering for people not accustomed to such cuisine. Not to forget the liberal use of famous King Chilli and this makes some of preparation exceedingly hot to have. Probably that’s why Naga cuisine is never so widely popular and only people with acquired taste can appreciate the finer side of Naga cooking.
The menu also included ‘wild meat’ which is said to be served only basis availability and price can only be decided at time of placing the order. On inquiring what could be ‘wild meat’ the owner simply replied anything that comes from the forest. Later Ruuvilie told me that this could range from jungle fowl, wild boar, dear and even bears (yes you read it right, not a typo).
But then isn’t hunting prohibited? I asked in astonishment.
This is Nagaland sir, and hunting is in the blood of the tribes and part of the tribal culture. So they cannot do away with hunting.
That settled it for me I guess and I turned back my concentration on the menu.
The sad part was most of the exotic items were available against prior order and depended on availability. And I was on a short notice, my neck on leash as I was on a business trip.
So I had to settle with the pork preparations which were readily available. I choose pork with bamboo shoot and smoked pork with ‘Anishi’, along with rice.
The main menu was simple. Rice was served on a salver made of interwoven bamboo stripes with a large leaf laid out on it. There was a heap of sticky rice, made out of locally produced rice accompanied with boiled brinjal and boiled cabbage leaves. A small plate contained pickle made from the fiery Naga Chilly. With over one million Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) count, if taken carelessly this can make you end up with teary eyes, running nose, burning tongue and lips and hiccups which will refuse to stop.
Three other bowls were served. One bowl contained a clear soupy liquid, with bits of vegetable floating which is called ‘thangma’ in the dialect of the ‘AO’ tribe. The other two bowls contained pork with bamboo shoot (the whitish preparation as in the photo) and smoked pork with ‘Anishi’ (the dark coloured preparation). Both contained mild gravy and delightful chunks of pork with right balance of fat & meat. ‘Anishi’ is prepared from the leaves of ‘Yam’ plant. The leaves are first pounded to make into a cake and then dried over fire till it becomes hard and dark in colour. ‘Anishi’ is used as a delightful accompaniment with smoked meats, pork, beef and even ‘eel’.
We mixed the ‘thangma’ and pork gravy with the sticky rice. As goes the name, this is prepared from small, broken and slightly aromatic rice produced locally and water is not fully extracted after cooking so the grains become sticky. Both the pork preparations tasted great and as I expected they were different from ‘pork with Bamboo shoot’ which I had at Guwahati restaurant. I wouldn’t rate it good or bad but it was just ‘different’.
While I enjoyed both the preparations, I repeat that it’s not upto everybody’s taste and most people may find the smell of smoked meat, offensive.
The small course was followed by black tea with lemon, served in wooden glasses. This was locally grown and brewed, which Ruuvilie said, is taken as a digestive drink after a heavy meal.
The meal ended with special Naga ‘churan’ served in a wooden platter which one needs to take with a pinch of salt. You can see the black powdered stuff in the photo. Again this is a Naga version of Hajmola.
It was an amazing experience no doubt and I promised to myself that I will come back here with more time to taste the really exotic ones on offer. I just hope I will have the guts to go through the meal.