Indian food abroad has largely been restricted to north Indian and south Indian food, mostly generic and popular dishes tweaked to cater to foreign tastebuds. However, in India, the diverse food culture has opened avenues to discover cuisines across regions.
Many youngsters from north east India travel across the country to study and work. And the poor knowledge of their food culture – mostly restricted to momos and thukpa – is fast changing. Budding chefs should gain a brief understanding of the cuisine of the region, quite unique and set apart from anything else mainland India has to offer.
Many eateries have flourished across the country. In Goa, Meiphung in Baga claimed to be the state’s first Naga restaurant serving traditional Tangkul meals of beef with yam, pork curry with smoked chillies, fried chicken and iromba chutney. Soul Chef in Panjim has also earned a loyal following thanks to its service of authentic Assamese and Meghalayan food including pork bamboo shoot curry, dohkleh and fusions of house-made chocolate gelato infused with bhoot jolokia peppers.
Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar has taken north east Indian cuisine to London with Kanishka, serving dishes from all Seven Sister States – Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, as well as Sikkim. The menu includes venison steak with fermented soybean and black sesame sauce, cumin and timur pepper-spiced goat curry, Mizo vawksa (smoked pork stir fried with mushrooms), sana thongba (Manipuri paneer curry) and others.
Each of the states in north east India has their own style of preparation, with a mix of fiery and mellow tastes.
Rice is the staple food here, eaten with fresh local vegetables, fish and meat often cooked lightly in pungent mustard oil. Fish is usually from freshwater sources with masor tenga or sour fish among the most popular dishes in the region. Chicken, venison, squab, mutton, duck and pork are favourite meats cooked with special herbs, while red ant chutney is the region’s most famous delicacy.
Three main tribes make up the state of Meghalaya – Khasi, Jaintia and Garo. They mainly combine rice with spicy dishes made from fish, mutton, pork, duck and beef with pickled bamboo shoots a favourite addition. Popular dishes include jadoh of red rice and pork, dohkleh (pork salad), nakham bitchi (fish soup), pumaloi (steamed rice cakes) and its pork version pudoh, donning (pork curry), tungrymbai (fermented soybean).
Mizo cuisine uses less heat and more spice from local herbs. The main dish is rice eaten with bai (string beans and edible ferns cooked with herbs), bekang (fermented soybean), smoked meat flavoured with fresh greens and herbs, and mixed steamed vegetables.
Cooked with minimal oil, food from Tripura is pretty healthy and often flavoured with berma, fermented dry fish. Local vegetables and herbs are widely consumed, including elephant foot yam, gourds, beans and taro. A wide variety of meats and freshwater fish are also cooked.
Nagas typically combine rice with vegetables and pickle, with dried or smoked meat on the side. The food is usually spicy, bhut jolokia chillies being the state’s most famous chilli export. Among the popular dishes include pork stew, bamboo steamed fish, mixed beans and vegetables, with the unique tastes of wild edible delicacies from the south.
The simple, tasty food of Manipur is wholesome and flavoured with aromatic local herbs. Commonly consumed dishes include chamthong – a vegetable stew, eromba – fish and vegetable paste, singju – a fresh salad with lots of local vegetables including lotus stems and banana flower, nga thongba – a delightful fish curry and chakhao – a black rice pudding.
Pork and beef feature heavily in Arunachalese cuisine. They also make a dish solely of bamboo shoot, mustard and garlic; with pehak – a soybean paste that’s one of the state’s spiciest dishes. Other unique dishes include chura sabji made with fermented cheese, pasa or raw fish with a spice mix, po cha or butter tea and lukter, a local beef jerky of sorts.
The food in Sikkim is a blend of Tibetan, Lepcha and Nepali cuisine featuring indigenous ingredients such as ferns, wild lilies, bamboo shoots, pumpkin leaves and tree tomato or tamarillo. Important dishes from the region include dhindo – a cornflour, buckwheat and millet meal, a fermented soybean curry called kinema and yak milk soup called chhurpi.