Header image courtesy of O’Tenga (via Twitter)
In many ways, India’s Michelin star chef Atul Kochar’s food represents the apex of classical Indian cuisine. After all, his quest to cook meals from every region in India has almost been fulfilled after decades of practice and service. Well, almost! When he was asked if there’s really a room left for anything new, his answer was “cuisine from the seven sister states!”
The seven sister states refer to the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura. The geographical and cultural landscape of this mountainous region of northeast India varies dramatically from the rest of the country. And so does its cuisine, which in some way, bespeaks the extreme climate and harsh conditions in which the crops grow. It’s unique in a lot of ways and doesn’t necessarily gel with what we know of authentic Indian flavours.
For instance, the use of soya, or techniques such as fermentation and preserving food for long durations, is almost non-existent in Indian cooking. And that’s what makes the regional cuisine stand out and be so intriguing to people even from within India. So, here’s an earnest attempt to showcase the exotic flavours from the most unexplored terrains of India—the mighty Seven Sisters!
To the quintessential foodie, Assam has to offer an intriguing array of culinary jewels. It’s all about getting that right depth of flavours and complexity with a minimum amount of ingredients and cooking. In the end, a good dash of best quality mustard oil perfectly binds the dish with its distinctive flavour and aroma.
Masor Tenga is a hearty, humble, Assamese fish curry that is a regular feature during lunch and dinner in any Assamese household. Ou Tenga (चलता), or elephant apple, gives it that distinguishing tangy taste and use of typical Assamese herbs and spices add to the overall spiciness of this dish. It starts by marinating fish pieces in a generous mix of turmeric, red chilli powder, and salt, and deep-frying them in mustard oil. The fish is then cooked with tomatoes, kokum (कोकम; a citrus fruit with a taste resembling that of raw mango), coriander leaves, and a variety of seasonal vegetables. Masor Tenga is best enjoyed with a bowl of boiled rice on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Simple, fulfilling, and fresh are the three words that embody Naga cuisine, but what is it that makes it so individualistic yet varied? Not many people know about traditional Naga cuisine, and there’s a reason why—it’s almost impossible to imagine Indian cuisine without aromatic masalas, excessive use of oil, or pantry staples such as onion, garlic, and chillies. And Naga cuisine is just that (or not)! Put simply, Naga cuisine is a beautiful conglomeration of multiple traditional recipes of its innumerable tribes. Coming from a place where it is almost impossible to grow a huge variety of vegetables, dried and preserved meat plays a significant role in their everyday lives.
Smoked pork is one of the many pork delicacies that every Naga home takes pride in mastering it. The primary ingredient is of course pork, which is hung from skewers on low fires till the meat turns tender, sun-dried for over a week, and stored for months before being used to make delicious curries, and quintessential Naga staple called Axone—a fermented soya bean much famed for its peculiar smell and flavour. The smoked and dried pork is cooked with axone paste, fermented yam leaves, bamboo shoots, and a generous dose of ghost pepper. The addition of fermented products imparts a pungent smell, thus making it an acquired taste for anyone trying it for the first time. But team it with some steamed plain rice, and you are sure to get a taste of heaven.
A profoundly comforting bowl of mildly spiced aromatic rice enhanced by the smokiness from the pork and sweetness from caramelised onions, this Khasi favourite is traditionally served on a cold winter’s evening or a rainy afternoon, when it warms from within. There are few things more comforting than a bowl of well-made Jadoh served with a boiled egg on top, especially at the end of a wet day in the hills, which isn’t a rarity in this part of the country considering it is one of the wettest regions on earth. Jadoh is arguably Shillong’s favourite food, and once you taste it, it’s easy to see why!
Traditionally, Jadoh is prepared with a faintly brown, long-grained rice which is extremely low on gluten. The rice grains are fried on oil and cooked with a spice mix of green chillies, turmeric, ginger, garlic, onions, and black pepper. Chopped pork or chicken pieces along with a combination of seasonal vegetables are added into the mixture. Water is then added, left to boil and combine to give it that indigenous aromatic flavour. If you are up for an adventure, we would suggest trying jadoh snam—a Khasi speciality made with pork blood.
Home to around 20 tribes, Tripura is far off the tourist trail and quite distinct. While it is true that an amalgamation of many cultures makes up the state, one cannot help but wonder how inspired a plate of Tripura food is by the food culture of Bangladesh. Given that it is bordered by Bangladesh from three sides, it comes as no surprise. Tripura may be a foodie’s unrealised dream, but once you taste it, you will ask for more.
Tripura cuisine is most known for its recipes without oil, and Chikhvi is one of them. It is a representative dish of the state made of bamboo shoots and pork. The magic begins by adding peeled and chopped bamboo shoots, chunks of pork, jackfruit, green papaya in a pot of boiling water with baking soda along with generous portions of ginger paste, turmeric paste, rice flour paste, and chopped lime leaves, and green chillies. The ingredients are then simmered on low flame for about an hour to obtain the ideal balance between smokiness and lusciousness. The result is tender pork and pickled bamboo shoots that are the hallmark of Tripura cuisine.
We all love farm-to-table food, don’t we? There is, after all, something incredibly satisfying about vegetables picked no earlier than yesterday morning and trundled to the dining tables at the peak of their freshness. Most Indian dishes don't quite hold a virtuous reputation when it comes to eating local, organic, and artisanal ingredients. Manipuri households, however, are a big exception with backyard ponds breeding their own fish, and gardens growing the freshest vegetables and herbs. Everything here is pretty much organic, and freshness is a routine.
Even if you aren’t much of a salad person, a bowl of Singju, which is essentially a salad made of freshly foraged vegetables such as raw papaya, cabbage, banana flower, and lotus stem, will definitely change you and your food preferences. Mixed with roasted gram flour and pigeon peas, Singju will tickle your taste buds, not just with bold earthy flavours but with some of the finest natural ingredients the countryside has to offer.
Amongst all the states boasting of their flavourful regional cuisines, one of the seven sisters—Mizoram—also has a variety of unimaginably delicious delicacies to offer. Traditionally, Mizoram cuisine is pleasantly mild on our palates and considerably tinted with influences from Chinese and North Indian cuisines. What makes it stand out is the irresistible fragrance and presentation of tempting delicacies laid out on banana leaves.
While smoked meat forms an integral part of the cuisine from Mizoram, some vegetarian-friendly dishes have gained a foothold due to the fact that vegetables are commonly grown in almost every backyard and also because Mizos simply know how to make the most humble and nutritious ingredients emerge as stars with simple flavourings. Sourcing the best quality seasonal vegetables can be tricky, so when you do, make sure they take the leading role. Panch Phoran Tarka isn’t just about slicing a whole bunch of seasonal vegetables and frying them together. It is about getting that right amount and blend of seasoning using five seeds of quintessential Mizo cuisine—fenugreek seeds, nigella seeds, cumin seeds, black mustard seeds, and fennel seeds. The end product is a wholesome and nutritious dish which is subtle on flavours yet extremely comforting for the soul.
Dishes can be infectious. They are designed to trigger feelings and sensations, spreading far beyond the borders of any state and its culinary mores. Perhaps that’s what lends flavour to this comforting bowl of noodle soup—that it is, after all, all about the emotions. A bowl of Thukpa speaks a lot about its arduous journey from the remote mountainsides of Tibet to finding an integral spot on Arunachal Pradesh’s culinary scene which is as diverse as its landscape.
Thukpa is a cosy bowl of goodness that can instantly warm you up on a chilly night. It is packed with a wide assortment of crunchy vegetables and derives its primary flavour from the minced meat that’s added to it along with ginger, lemongrass, and garlic. Through the length and breadth of Arunachal Pradesh and beyond, local street vendors and fine dining restaurants are serving Thukpa, which makes it a perfect go-to meal for exhausted travellers looking forward to slurping to their heart’s content. Thukpa is something that cuts across all geographical boundaries of northeast India and makes for an apt ending to the seven sisters’ culinary journey.