Northeast India is an exciting melange of various tribes and cultures. Their flavours and dishes are as unique as their colourful way of life. Most of their dishes use simple and flavourful fresh ingredients like Bamboo Shoot, Bhut Jolokia and local greens. Though most dishes consist of meat, it is interesting to note how these are very light and lip-smackingly enjoyable. The dishes are prepared with Mustard oil to intensify the flavour.
The flavours of the NE are an amalgam of many contrasting tastes; it is hot but also bland, pungent but also aromatic, fatty but also healthy. Perhaps the most defining aspect of northeastern cuisine is the minimal use of spice. A chilli or two (enough to spark the fire), ginger, garlic, occasionally sesame and a few local herbs are all it takes to get that distinctive flavour.
Read on to delve deep into the genre of Northeast Indian food and get ready to drool away.
If you thought Assamese cuisine is largely vegetarian, then boy-oh-boy you are so wrong. Though herbs such as modhusaleng, pipoli and brahmi go into the making of the dishes either as flavouring agents or as main ingredients, duck, goose and pigeon are pretty much part of the state’s dietary vocabulary.
Duck and goose are cooked with ash gourd and stuffed into plantain stalk, while pigeon meat with banana flowers and lots of black pepper is a delicious concoction that will leave you sweating. And the holy grail of Assamese cuisine being Maasor Tenga. It is a deliciously flavored and sour fish curry from Assam. The dish is made from freshly caught river fishes. Veggies like bottle gourd & spinach are tossed into the preparation to raise its food value as well as taste. Optimum use of lemon rinds, slit green chilies, dried tomatoes add an appetizing zing to the dish. The cooking oil medium used is that of mustard oil.
Arunachal Pradesh, which shares its border with China has a distinguishing feature when it comes to their cuisine. They lay utmost importance in the use of local herbs with strong medicinal value. Pork, poultry and mithun( a strain of bison) are all consumed in sizeable quantities. Rice (of which some varieties are indigenous to this region) which is a staple is steamed, baked and shallow-fried to accompany curries and provide texture to dishes.
Perhaps the most famous and must try dish from the region is Pasa. It is a unique raw fish-based soup which makes use of the fish flesh discarding the tail and head. The dish is spiced up with spices like chilly, ginger, garlic and local flavoring herbs like phoi hom, makat, pee chim khim, Ooriam leaves extracts.
Make no mistake about it the Naga’s love their meat. They not only go big on poultry and fish, but also relish pork and beef. In fact, many Nagas rear animals to be slaughtered at feasts, and keep a stock of smoked and salted meat to be used through the year. The meat is first smoked over a large kitchen fire at home, and then it is fermented underground for longevity.
In Kohima’s Mao Market, the sight of dog meat and hornet larvae on sale is commonplace. The state is home to more than 15 tribes and each has its own style of cooking. Akhuni (fermented soy bean), for instance, is an important element for the Seema tribe, whereas the Lothas use bamboo shoot as an essential ingredient.
Also any discussion on Naga food will be incomplete without mentioning the very spicy raja mirchi. Widely acknowledged as one of the hottest chillies in the world, it’s used in generous quantities (and sometimes as the main ingredient) in the food here. The chillies provide heat without the heavy masalas used in the plains.
In the ‘Abode of the clouds’ pork rules. It is a staple in most meals of the three main tribes—the Khasis, Garos and Jaintias. But they also cook fish in some mouth-watering ways. They dry it, cook it in a hollow bamboo container or bake it in banana leaves over an open fire, processes that infuse the fish with delicate, smoky flavours. The Garos, who inhabit the western part of the state, use dried fish in a spicy soup called nakham bitchi, a hugely popular dish that is considered a classic example of the state’s food. Mushrooms, that grow during monsoon, also finds its way into the dishes.
The must try dish in Meghalaya is Jadoh. This exciting dish is a luscious pork and rice-based Khasi delicacy. Prepared in minimum oil, it has a unique and aromatic taste. No ceremony is complete without this sumptuous dish.
This is the only hill state whose cuisine bears a close resemblance with the one’s in the plains. With a spicier cuisine, and more elaborate and evolved cooking options, Manipur offers the greatest variety among all Northeastern States. Also they love their greens. The cuisine offers a huge number of vegetarian options.
A typical Manipuri thali can have as many as 30 items, served on a plate and in bowls fashioned out of banana leaves. Chamthong is a must try here. It is a spicy gravied dish made out of seasonal vegetables. This soupy veggie dish is spiced up with ingredients like cloves, garlic, ginger, onion and maroi. The soup is served fuming hot with rice after topping it with Ngari.
Due to remoteness of its location, cooking with jungle produce—leaves, roots, nuts and mushrooms—has given this state a unique culinary identity. In addition, many people grow edible plants in small kitchen gardens, giving the farm-to-table phenomenon a whole new meaning.
Mizo people also dry and smoke their meats (pork, chicken, mithun) and vegetable produce (bamboo shoot, yam leaves) to ensure their availability regardless of season. Sa-um (fermented pork fat) is a frequent addition to vegetable dishes.
Dawlrep Bai is a spicy meat-based dish made out of pork or beef. Seasonal vegetables and Chingal or Soda too go into the dish. Spices and flavoring agents like chili pepper, garlic, ginger, smelly, dried soya beans add a distinctive aroma and taste to the dish.
Denizens of this state typically don’t cook food with much of a zing to it. But they do like colour on their plate, and use a lot of turmeric. Pork, mithun (a strain of bison) and fish are common sources of meat, but if there’s a particular ingredient that forms the leitmotif of Tripuran cooking, it’s shidal. It is either used as a paste or in its dry form.
If you are in Tripura, then Muai Bai Wahan is a must try. It is a curry made out of bamboo shoots and pork and is flavored and spiced up with garlic flakes, Berma, green chili paste and the banta herb. The thickness of the gravy of Muya Bai Wahan is attained by adding rice flour to it. This curried meat soup can best be enjoyed with rice.
One of the misconceptions about Sikkim is that they are meat lovers. It is thought that the people here go heavy on meat. Sorry to break your bubble, the most delectable highlights of Sikkim are vegetable dishes made from fermented greens. The state’s cuisine is influenced by the dietary habits of its people—Lepchas, Bhutias and Nepalese are fond of vegetables.
Gundruk Ko Jhol is a very palatable delicacy from Sikkim. It is actually a soup prepared from Gundruk which is a combination of many fermented and sun dried leafy greens such as mustard leaves, cauliflower, radish, rayo saag. To be enjoyed with fluffy steamed rice.
So which among these Northeastern delicacies you are planning to try first?