Of late the world has been screaming out for healthy alternatives and what not. Manipuri cuisine, in that respect, can easily fit the tab, as most items are made with very little oil and spices and incorporate lots of green veggies. We checked out the ‘rice hotels’ near Manipuri Basti, Paltan Bazar, Guwahati, that serve this traditional fare every day, to find out what goes into making the healthy food that it is.
Manipuri Thali Explained
The Manipuri thali, known as chakluk, could comprise of 13-14 dishes with some absolutely essential ones like the ooty, the iromba and the shinju and some other dishes that depend on the availability of ingredients. While a typical Meitei wedding feast is the best place to witness Manipuri food in its glory, the rice hotels that we landed up at, plated up the most common items.
There is the absolutely essential ooty (soda in Meitei), or the dal cooked with a little soda or khar. The ooty can be cooked either with maati maah (black gram) or with white matar dal. We got served the latter. You simply need to pressure cook the matar dal (soaked overnight) with a little bit of soda, salt, ginger and some cumin powder; maybe even add a small quantity of arhar dal (split red gram) to it. For the saute, enam leaf is a must.
Iromba, an essential ingredient in a chakluk is usually a dish made up of mashed vegetables with dry fish as the flavouring agent. It’s also the spiciest dish in the chakluk as it uses the king chilli or the bhut jolokia. While iromba can be made of almost any and every vegetable, the most popular variety is the one made with lafu.
The Kaangsoi or the broth, which takes up the next spot in the thali, screams healthy from every angle. Once again, it’s just veggies and xaak (herbs) boiled with some dry fish. Almost like a stew but just a little pungent. Then there is the fishy Meringkha – a spicy mix of fish-head cooked with potatoes, brinjal and other vegetables. Shinju again, is a rather plain and simple cabbage salad which is dry and spicy and distinctly unique in its flavour.
Sajan Singh of Chakluk Hotel explains that there are many other items that are only offered during winters. ‘There are dishes cooked with baah gaaz, dishes or chutneys with thaangjing (a kind of plant or fruit (seasonal) that grows in water), with jongchaak (a seasonal vegetable whose seeds are either used in iromba or used in mix vegetable sabji) then there are dishes made with hawaichaar (fermented or pickled soya bean, literally hawai means dal and acchar means pickle), even this is seasonal.’
Herbs and Spices
Manipuris do not add too much masala to their food. For flavouring, there is a Manipuri leaf that is used in all the dals, called the enam leaf. It comes straight from Manipur but most Manipuri households here will have enam growing in their vegetable garden.
Most Manipuris are vegetarians; they do not take egg or meat. In most families, with elders, meat or egg is still not prepared at home but the young ones do eat it outside their homes. Fish is accepted in all families.
Sajan Singh tells of a special fish item, ‘There is a typical Manipuri fish curry called atoiba where the fish is broken down and cooked with regular spices and enam. It is like normal fish curry, only in this particular item, the fish is totally smashed and merged into the gravy so there are no whole pieces. It is delicious as the goodness of the fish gets merged with the gravy.’
Words: Meeta Borah and Bidisha Singha