Flavors of Northeast India

December 18, 2008

I begin with a disclaimer and an apology. The disclaimer is destined to dear Jim and others whose palates and curiosities are in search of spice: eat now before reading further. The apology to friends of the North and those who know no other form of Indian cuisine – there is more to savour here than garam masala-spiked dhals, malais, heavy gravies, spears of red no. 5-ed chicken, and breads from the tandoor!

Let’s begin with the flavors of Bengal, which to this vegetarian seem subtle, elegant, and refined, echoing the earthy natural colors and weaves that Kolkata women seem to prefer in their saris as well. No garam masala tossed into the tarka here, instead single spices are allowed to stand their own. Posto – ground white poppy seed paste – flavors potatoes and/or ridge gourd. Pungent mustard seed is mixed with fresh cottage cheese and steamed in a banana leaf. Cinnamon bark warms a sweet moong dhal. Banana blossom appears in many forms – cutlets, chops (tempura-like, with a coating made from pulses, and stir-fried with coconut. Paneer balls are filled with plump yellow raisins and served in a ground cashew sauce. Tomato chutney is sweet, not savory – cooked and reduced slowly almost to a point of jam. Luchis (Bengali pooris) accompany the meal, which is started with a green mango juice tempered with roasted cumin and rock salt; a pre-digestif.

I keep notes of all the lunches ordered at each restaurant for further reference and exploration. I like the thali at Kewpie’s because you can savor small amount of many different vegetables…and the meals ends with misty doi – yoghurt thickened with jaggery (date palm sugar). But the steamed paneer is best at Oh Calcutta!, along with the peas cakes in tomato/ginger sauce. Aaheli used to have the best ambiance, but it is Christmas season even there now, and there is an unfortunate singer cum Casio keyboard player that provide forced accompaniment to the meal.

I recollect each place on the Northeast itinerary through the memory of a meal. At Ri Kynjai on Umiam Lake in Shillong, we had the first meal of red rice. The local food tastes decidedly non-Indian (low in oil and spice) and reminds me of the tribal food tasted 15 years ago at Inle Lake in Northeastern Burma. Simple greens (bok choi, spinach, celery) are boiled with chilis, banana flower is shredded rather than minced and served ashy. In Kaziranga, we discover chimney soup and sticky rice cooked in bamboo. The predominating flavors are sourness of lime and maybe tamarind – clean flavor that balance light vegetables with minimal fuss. In Nagaland I see live silkworms for sale in the market. They are so much plumper than I expect that I make a make a movie of them writhing on the cloth – but stay far away from trying them in a curry. Nagas are meat-eaters (and former head-hunters) eating a lot of pork (black pigs like in Tibet), and wild meats that we generally know as the domesticated house-pet. But I am enraptured by the raja mircha chutney. Hot, yes, but complexly so, and further down the pipe. Instead of numbing the lips and gums, the jolokhia chili slides down smoothly and then explodes with smoky, earthy flavors in the upper chest. Tucked away in a fingerfull of rice, it’s almost addictive. The fermented fish chutney (again, similar to Burmese mohinga) is less my taste, mostly because I can’t help but wondering where the Nagas are catching their fish. Luckily there is banana wine (cloudly like an Ouzo with water), rice wine, and grape wine to wash away the fishyness.

A sidebar here on aspirated labial sounds. We’ve been offered pish instead of fish, pour pieces of pruit, and also flain naan. But just when we mastered this dialectic difference, the silibants were affected as well. Fish became fiss. On Majuli Island, I began to wonder if the two sound mix-ups every combined. Were those ladies with nets really fishing? Or pissing?

Majuli Island. Suddenly mustard seed oil invaded every dish. It’s nice with salt on fresh slices of cucumber, carrot, and tomato, but can tend to overdominate when it appears with every vegetable. Red rice is spongy, I learn. It shouldn’t be eaten on a daily basis. But lighter pink rice is nutty and tasty, too. The rice we eat here has been recently harvested, shucked and milled. Bipul our driver asks me if we harvest rice in my village of Chatham, too. No, we buy it in the supermarket. But, surely we have the cow walk on it to release the husks? No, again, alas, rice comes in 5 kg sealed plastic bags. He finds my home village to be very small in population, but a bit disappointing in its practices. No nightly bonfires. No joint harvesting. No cows tied up at night under the bedroom.

At Thengal Manor the Bihari cook serves us an excellent tomato soup with croutons, French beans, light paneer, mixed leavy greens, and to conclude with a sweety of bread pudding. A light lunch consists of pomelo salad with red onion, coriander leaves, salt and lime juice and the smoothest frothiest raita ever. He’s very fond of his mixie, and seems to have shaken up the raita in it as well.

Back here in Kolkata we’ve found the best dosa in town at Raj’s, in the food court at Forum shopping mall. The coriander dosa is served with a tomato-y masala next to it and a very light sambar. Curd rice is laden with fried urad dhal and accompanied by my favorite chilies – soaked in salt and yoghurt, dried, and then quick-fried. Tamarind in Ballygunge offers a selection of South Indian delights. The meal starts with buttermilk with tempered curry leaves and black mustard seed. We try appam with avial of raw banana, drumstick, and gourds in coconut, green beans thoran, and coorg paneer in a minty onion mixture. The best Chinese food is available a la carte at Mainland China. Crispy spinach leaves. Hot pot veggies, thaka noodles. Dumplings filled with sweet corn and water chestnuts made to order. Firni (a pudding made with ground rice) and sweet curd I buy daily at the Pure Milk shop. The owner selects a small clay pot, wets it down, and fills it with freshly set yoghurt which I carry, covered with paper, back to my room.

Today I have leftovers. I took Ronnie’s morning jazzersize class (inspired by Graham and Limon technique), followed by a breakfast of upma and papaya and then a chat with the new French consul general about the state of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism in France. Now it’s 10 am, but still misty. The winter weather is confusing the wildlife. The jackals are still out on the golf course waiting, like me, for the sun to break through.

Susmita’s raja mircha (jolokhia) chutney

You will need 1 or 2 raja mircha chillies, soaked, along with salt to taste, a few drops of mustard oil,  few cloves of garlic, a bit of ginger, coriander leaves,  afew drops lemon juice or tamarind/imli and a pinch of sugar to be grinded in a mortar and make to paste of all these ingredients together.

One thought on “Flavors of Northeast India

  1. Great blog! My Aunt Gail turned me on to it… I am interested in the supply and demand of the food.Where to rural populations get their food? How much does it cost? What affects pricing? Is the market being controlled to the benefit of factory farms? What does smaller agriculture need to succeed? What can be done about that? Is there too much government involvement or too little? Do consumer habits need to be changed? Addressing these issues in my research paper. If you have first hand thoughts that would be great –

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