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Food of the seven sisters

Not just about dogs. An excellent introduction for food enthusiasts to the rich diversity of cooking of the Northeast.

india Updated: Oct 11, 2003 10:59 IST
Kaushik Ramaswamy
Kaushik Ramaswamy

The North-East Cookbook
Hoihnu Hauzel
Penguin India
Pages: 200
Rs 250
ISBN: 0143030272

For some reason, the rest of the country thinks Northeast cuisine is all about dogs. Incidentally, it’s only the Nagas who eat dogs; nobody in the other six States in the region does. This book thus provides a fair picture of the different kinds of tribes and their ways through their culinary habits. It attempts to break all the myths that outsiders believe and put the right image forward — that of different sub-cultures celebrating their food, simple and healthy. The chapters deal with each of the seven states, giving a brief on the history of culinary habits in a simple yet comprehensive manner.

The cooking styles would appear alien to mainland India. Rice beer, ginger, pork, fish, fermented fish, beef, mutton and all sorts of vegetables are the favourites. The people of the Northeast ferment their fish, dry and roast their pork, smoke the mutton, pickle their beef and love stewing their chicken with vegetables and ginger. The food essentially is low on oil, spice and is subjected to minimal heat, making the food the ideal stuff for urban India’s weight-watchers.

Some recipes of boiled vegetables do not even demand salt, retaining the nutrient value of the food. But people in the region’s cosmopolitan areas have slowly started to enjoy deep fried chicken and pork. Still much of the food cooked in Northeastern kitchens is traditional and in accordance with tribal and religious affiliations.

The recipes in the book require nothing more than what one gets in the local market. Due to a minimal use of spices in most recipes, the Bhamon recipes of Assam and Manipur come as a respite. Masor Jhol and Mangsor Jhol cooked in Assam are quite like the ones made in Bengal. But the emphasis is on healthy food and never overcooked. Vegetables are cooked to the point till they retain their colour, not quite the way they murder the vegetables in other parts of India. Some easy methods to preserve pork, beef and fish through smoking and fermenting make food from the Northeast extremely interesting for adventurous palates.

An essential book on Northeast cooking, it is an excellent introduction for food enthusiasts to the culinary art of the area. Some recipes, however, can be so spicy that they’re best not touched at all. Twenty grams of Raja chillies from Nagaland can kill about 20 people, but to the one who can hold it is the promise of a life lasting a century.

Pongsen (River Fish Chutney) — Nagaland

250 gms : small river fish (rohu or hilsa)
50 gms : Fermented bamboo shoot
6 spinach leaves washed and shredded by hand
1 tablespoon salt
1 bamboo hollow, 3” in diameter and 5” long

** Clean fish, wash and drain thoroughly.
** Combine all ingredients except garnish, and place in bamboo hollow.
** Carefully seal opening of bamboo with foil.
** Place bamboo over a charcoal fire for 20 minutes till the aroma of roasted fish wafts through the air. Rotate bamboo occasionally to ensure even cooking.
** Cool and pour contents onto a plate.
** Sprinkle over garlic and serve with steamed rice.

Variation: The chutney can also be made with prawns or crab.

First Published: Oct 09, 2003 11:15 IST