The Tastes That Bind

The cuisines of Northeast India and Southeast Asia underscore the historical, ethnic and cultural bonds between the two regions

4/13/2018 9:14:17 PM
written By : By Shobha Tsering Bhalla Print

“Tell me what kind of food you eat, and I will tell you what kind of man you are.” - Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, history’s most famous epicure and gastronome.

Brillat-Savarin’s prescient pronouncement in 17th century France is a universal truth that still rings true today. Food operates as one of the key cultural signs that structure people’s identities and their concepts of others. It is a primal part of human social interaction and a strong definer of cultural affinity, despite the occasional cultural blurring as migration and travel allows us to graze into other each other’s culinary territories. 

Look at the history of any nation’s diet and you’re looking at the history of the nation itself, with food fashion, fads and fancies mapping episodes of colonialism and migration, trade and exploration, cultural exchange and boundary making.

In that sense, then, the Northeast region of India and Southeast Asia and South China could easily be one country because they represent, arguably, the most enduring and visible example of cultural affinity through food. Many of the traditional foods eaten in Assam, Arunachal, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura find a dietary echo in Burma, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Tibet.

I can vouch for this on a personal level. Thirty years ago, when I first arrived in Singapore as a young new mother with a peripatetic husband but no family or friends to help me put down roots, it was the local food that was the comforter and connecting glue. It bonded me at a visceral level to this land and its people. Within a week I had discovered markets, grocery shops and hawker centres, overflowing with ingredients and fragrances right out of my childhood in Northeast India. It had an immediate ameliorating effect on my homesickness.

All the pungent aromas, sights and textures that had been locked away in my mind after years of culinary exile in the big cities of the Indian plains, came unleashed in a wave of nostalgia and familiarity. While Calcutta, Delhi or Bombay and the other metropolises come with their own heady, if not overwhelming, culinary delights, for many Northeast Indians like me, the total absence of the traditional foods of the Northeast is also a stark reminder of how insular mainstream India is in its dietary habits, never mind its tentative forays into burger and bibimbap territory.

Despite a plethora of vegetables, legumes, grains, spices, fresh fish and mutton, one is hard put to find in Indian cities the traditional foods so common in the eight states that comprise Northeast India. The irony is that I found them readily in my new country Singapore and nearby Malaysia and later in my travels in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia and China. 

Foods such as bamboo shoots, fermented soya beans, fiddle-head ferns, fragrant limes and lime leaves, herbs, sticky rice, pork, pickled or salted fish, fermented greens and radish, smoked meats and buckwheat.

While a common culinary thread of Satvik, Rajasik and Tamasik foods, runs through the warp and weft of mainstream India’s highly evolved and rich food tapestry, the Northeast of India is like another country altogether, having much more in common with East and Southeast Asia in foods and, significantly, in festivals.

Geography and migration of course, have a great role to play in this. Tribal myths, corroborated by scholars, reveal that there have been extensive migrations in the region covering the trans Himalayan and other East Asian areas. Many communities in NE India trace their origins south of the Yarlung Zangbo, source of the Brahmaputra River, including the Tai-Ahoms or Ahoms, an offspring of the Tai people who are called Shan in Myanmar, Thai in Thailand, Lao in Laos, Dai and Zhuang in Yunnan, China and Tay-Thai in Vietnam.

Just like the native foods of those countries, many Northeastern tribal dishes have a pungent and aromatic taste, which comes from the frequent use of dried and fermented vegetables like bamboo shoots and soya beans and plenty of fresh herbs, and limes. Fermented soya beans are popular in Sikkim and Darjeeling where it is called Kinema, in Nagaland where it is called Akhuni and Tungrymbai in Meghalaya. 

I recall how pleasantly surprised I was to discover that even the Japanese have a dish exactly like Kinema called Natto, a condiment redolent of homespun goodness that my mother used in many deliciously innovative ways, but outstandingly with tree tomatoes, chillies, garlic and shallots. Natto is available in any Japanese grocery store and even in the NTUC supermarkets. In Chinese cuisine where it’s a popular condiment, it is called Douchi and Burmese cuisine cannot do without its equivalent - Ngapi. A variation of it in Indonesian cuisine is Tempeh while in Thailand it’s called Thuo Nao and used liberally.  

One of the most ubiquitious dishes of the Northeast is Sikkim’s famous Momo, derived from Tibetan steamed dumplings which go by the same name but, unlike the Tibetan variety which is mostly made of beef or Yak meat, the Sikkimese often use pork and chicken and add more herbs accompanied by a fiery chutney that incorporates the state’s famous Dollay Khursani (round chillies). Similar dumplings (jiaozi) are found in China and Japan (gyoza), differing slightly in flavour and accompaniments, perhaps, but obviously originating from the same cultural cooking pot.

 Lemons and herbs are used liberally in Assamese cooking which is light and fragrant, and like other Northeastern food, makes minimal use of oil and spices. Herbs, bamboo shoot, fermented soya beans, limes and fiery hot chillies make their appearance in all the eight states, similar to Thai, Indonesian, Burmese, Vietnam and Cambodia cuisine to varying degrees. For those who want a taste of something extraordinarily different from Chicken tikkas, naans, biryanis, idlis, dosas and sambhars, here are three recipes redolent of the misty mountains of Northeast India.

Doh Sniang Nei-iong: Pork with black sesame
This is a Khasi dish from Meghalaya.

INGREDIENTS

  • Half kilo pork belly
  • 150 gms black sesame seeds - Roasted and ground
  • 2 tbsp fresh ginger garlic paste
  • 1 onion, finely sliced
  • 3 - 4 green chillies - chopped
  • 1 tbsp red chilli paste
  • 1 tbsp turmeric powder
  • Mustard oil
  • Salt to taste

 METHOD

1. Boil the pork belly in a pressure cooker (this reduces the cooking time) and cut into large cubes.

2. In a thick-bottomed pot or casserole dish heat a few tablespoons of mustard oil till it smokes. Reduce the heat and chuck in the sliced onions. Let it fry stirring it once in a while. Add the ginger garlic paste and fry for another couple of minutes till its fragrant. 

3. Once the onions have changed colour add the pork cubes, chillies and the chilli paste. Stir well and mix properly. Add the salt and the turmeric too. Saute on medium heat and let the pork cook for 15 minutes.

4. Mix the ground sesame powder with a few teaspoons of water to make a thin paste. Pour this into the pork. Water is added to the sesame powder to make it easier to mix it into the pork, so don’t use too much water. Now cover the pot and let it cook for another 5 minutes or so. Stir once or twice. It is ready to serve once the oil shows on the surface and the water has evaporated.

 

Chicken Momos
This Tibetan dish is also common to the Bhutia people of Sikkim, Sherpas of Nepal and Dukpas of Bhutan as they all share the same ethnicity and culture. However, in Tibet, momos are made of beef. In Sikkim, Nepal and NE India pork and chicken are the preferred meats.

INGREDIENTS

  • 3 cups of standard all-purpose wheat flour
  • 1.5 cups of water
  • 500 gms of ground chicken
  • 2 inch knob of ginger minced or grated
  • 3 medium red onions - chopped fine
  • 1 1/2 heaped tablespoons fresh ground ginger 
  • 4 stalks of spring onions, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves ground
  • 1/3 cup of green coriander, chopped small
  • Salt to taste

METHOD

1. Put about 3 cups of flour in a large bowl and slowly add about 1.5 cups of water.
2. Mix the flour and water very well by hand as you would for making chapattis or flatbreads and knead well until you make a fairly soft, smooth ball of dough,

3. Leave the dough in the steamer with the lid on while you prepare the rest of the ingredients, or put it in a plastic bag so that it doesn’t dry out. Combine all the ingredients with the ground chicken and mix well.  Set the mixture aside while you prep the dough.

4. Roll out the dough quite thinly. It should not be too thin or too thick. The thickness of 3 wonton. After you have rolled out the dough, cut it into little circles with a 3- inch dough cutter or a small steel bowl (katori).

5. Hold the flat circular dough in your left hand and put a tablespoon of the chicken filling in the middle of the dough. Fold a circle of dough in half, covering the filling.
6. Press together the two edges of the half circle so that there is no open edge in your half circle, and the filling is completely enclosed in the dough. You will now have the basic half-moon shape. Now pinch and fold along the curved edge of the half circle.

7. Start at one tip of the half-moon, and fold over a very small piece of dough, pinching it down. Continue folding and pinching from the starting point, moving along the edge until you reach the other tip of the half-moon.

8. Lay the momos in a lightly-greased steamer and keep the lid on them, or you can lay them on wax paper and cover them with the damp cloth. (this keeps them from drying out).

9. Boil water in a large steamer. (I use a large double-decker one, and instead of water I boil the chicken or pork bones with ginger, onions and celery to make a clear soup which I serve with the momos, garnished with chopped spring onions).

10. Oil the steamer surface lightly before putting the momos in, so they won’t stick to the metal, then place as many as you can without touching each other. Add the momos after the water is already boiling.

11. Steam the momos for about 10-15 minutes. Serve warm with a hot chilli and tomato chutney.

 

Fish curry with bamboo shoot Or Khorisa Maas 
This is a dish from Assam.

INGREDIENTS

  • 4 pieces of fish (pomfret, mackerel or a sweetwater fish like carp)
  • 1/2 cup fermented bamboo shoot
  • 1 red onion - finely chopped
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic finely chopped
  • 1 inch piece ginger grated or ground
  • 2 green chillies chopped
  • 1/2 tbsp turmeric powder
  • 1/2 tbsp red chilli powder
  • 2 tablespoons of mustard oil
  • Salt to taste
  • Fragrant lime 

METHOD

1. Wash fish pieces under running water. Rub with salt and turmeric powder. In a pan, heat oil. Fry fish pieces.  Drain and keep aside.

2. In the remaining oil, add the sliced onions. Fry till translucent and then add the ginger and garlic and stir-fry for 1 minute until fragrant. Add turmeric and red chilli powder. Stir and add the fermented bamboo shoot and chopped green chillies. Add water and bring to the boil. Stir well to combine. Add fish pieces and salt and cover the pan. Grate the skin of the lime over it and cook for 5 minutes over in medium heat.

3. Remove from heat and squeeze fresh lime over it and stir. Serve hot with rice. Goes best with joha or Thai rice.

 

1 comment for “The tastes that bind”

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