It has been shown in historical studies that the people of North East India migrated into the country via Burma (Myanmar) throughout the centuries. This region today forms a bridge between the subcontinent and South East Asia. North East India, the land of the Eight Sisters, is the abode of some of the prominent tribal groups of the country such as the Khasis, Mizos, Boros, Jaintiyas, Kacharis, Garos and many others.
Staple Foods of the North East Region
Rice: Rice is the staple food. Here, you will find both the japonica and the indica varieties. Joha is scented rice and is very popular in Assam. Either the rice is eaten as steam boiled (ukhua) or it can be sun-dried (aaroi). There is also the prevalence of the wild sticky rice among the tribals, much like the sticky brown rice found in Japan and China. For a pungent taste, rice is also prepared in hollow bamboo tubes. There is also “pitha”, a special rice preparation made during Bihu festival. Some tribes prefer to have rice as a stew mixed with vegetables. In the northeast region, rice is known by various names such as khautek, porok amin, ekayi, tongtep, dung poo etc.
Meat: The Northeast region is popular for all types of meat consumption starting from mutton, chicken, pigeon, duck, pork, beef to venison and squab. Some Naga tribes also eat dogs, cats, spiders, crabs, insects, crows etc.
Fish: Due to close proximity to the Bay of Bengal, Assam and Tripura have fish as their staple food along with rice. The mighty Brahmaputra in Assam is popular for big and small fish like hilsa, chital, rohu, khoria, borolia, mua, puthi, cheniputhi, lachun bhagun, pabho etc. There are different ways of preparing fish curries like the popular fish tenga, sorson fish curry, and steam fish. Another distinctive way of cooking fish is by wrapping it in banana leaves and then barbequed. Fish intestines are equally relished here. Some tribes opt for dried fish chutney, fermented fish chutney, fish cooked in hollow bamboo and so on.
Greens and vegetables: The north east region is geographically very suitable for the cultivation of various green leafy vegetables such as greens called “xaak” and other seasonal vegetables. Some varieties of ferns known as “dhekia” are very popular in Assam. It is also a custom in Assam to eat 100 varieties of “Xaaks” or greens during Rongali Bihu. Strange but true, Mizoram and Nagaland are organic by legislation! In Sikkim, rayo saag, leaves of radish, mustard and cauliflower are sun-dried, which are used later to make various preparations.
How are the Cuisines of North East India Similar to South East Asia?
The close proximity of this region to China and Burma has played an important role in influencing the different cuisines of the tribes of these eight states. You will come across some very rustic delicacies here which are unusual in the country but more common in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and other South Asian countries. Travel enthusiasts refer to Shillong as the gateway to authentic Chinese food. Each tribe, from the foothills of Tripura to the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh, offers a range of unique flavours, ingredients and cuisines.
Some Unique Characteristics
Bland and hot: When we talk about Indian food, we connect it with oil and masala. But that is not the case with North Eastern food. Strange but true, we find strong resemblance of the food here with the food of South East Asia, which is bland but hot, without the use of much oil and spice.
Minimal use of spice: It is healthy as there is the minimal use of spice, which is also a characteristic feature of the South Asian food. Preparations are not very elaborate.
Pungent and aromatic taste with the use of fermented stuff: Food of North East India has a typical pungent taste but is an aromatic one, especially the tribal food. The pungent taste is due to the frequent use of dried and fermented vegetables as well as deliciously fermented and dried fish and fermented meat. Fermented soya beans are very popular in giving the pungent aroma in some of the traditional dishes like kinema in Sikkim, akhuni in Nagaland, and turumbai in Meghalaya.
Use of bamboo shoot for the sour taste: The pungent taste is also due to the use of bamboo shoots, curries and chutneys. Bamboo shoot is one common item used to give that sour taste in most dishes of the tribals. The other locals or the non-tribals will opt for the big sized lemons.
Distinctive flavour using hot chillies: To add to the distinctive flavour, there is the use of ginger, garlic, a chilli or two. Just sufficient enough to ignite the hotness of the platter. The northeast region is popular for the world’s hottest chilli known as the “Bhoot Jolokia”, which is found in Assam. There are different varieties of hot chillies grown in different parts of the regions. In fact, none of the dishes seem to be complete without the flavour of these fiery chillies.
Healthy and fatty: Steaming rice with lots of green vegetables, along with fresh water fish, pork, beef, and poultry (geese, duck, chicken) makes for a healthy yet fatty North East platter.
Mustard Oil is the main cooking medium: While the rest of India uses refined oil or olive oil for cooking, the local Assamese families and others from North East region still use mustard oil for the majority of their cooking.
Some Unique Dishes
Onla wangkhrai: Chicken and rice powder made by the Bodos in Assam.
Jadoh: The Meghalayan tribes have a rice preparation made out of rice and pig liver.
Dohklieh: This is a pork salad made with boiled pork and onions made in Meghalaya.
Pudoh: Plain powdered rice stuffed with pieces of steamed pork popular among the Khasi tribes of Meghalaya.
Chakhui Butwi: The Reang tribe of Tripura brings to you fermented fish with ginger.
Tangal Meh: This is another dish prepared with vegetables and fermented by the tribals of Manipur.
Mizo Bai: This is a vegetable stew made from Mizo cheese in Mizoram.
Tribal Beer: In North East region, go for Desi beer, made from local rice. Known as Laopani or Kshaaz in Assam or Opo in Arunachal, it is made of fermented rice and herbs. In fact, this beer is also served to Gods and Goddesses during certain festivals and celebrations. “Chang”, a beer made of millet, is served in bamboo mugs in Sikkim. Kyat is the local rice beer popular in Meghalaya. Apart from these, there are many more.
Yes, it is a fact that the Northeast region, which is famous for its natural scenic backdrop and culture and traditions, has also a lot to offer in terms of its traditional tribal delicacies and cuisines. Plan a trip to this unexplored part of India and explore the region’s unique.