Bring a bit of the North-East into your kitchen
On a trip to Meghalaya in 2019, I found myself scouting the local markets for fermented bamboo shoots, native peppercorns and forest honey to bring back to my Mumbai home. My journey into the little-known, fascinating world of North Eastern cuisine had just begun.
For a long time, sourcing region-specific produce has been the single biggest hurdle for those keen to prepare North Eastern food at home. But, things are changing with several brands pushing themselves to provide an online marketplace pan India. If you are an experimental cook, and curious to explore the flavours of this faraway cuisine, here’s how you can start.
Pickles and sauces
Bamboo shoot and chilli peppers are probably the most familiar ingredients from this part of the country. Fresh or dried, fermented or pickled, bottled bamboo shoot can make for an interesting addition to your pantry. Guwahati-based Agraja started retailing this fresh and fermented produce last November, to showcase a wild variety of bamboo shoot found in Arunachal Pradesh. Chef Mary Narzary, who lives in Bhalukpong, a town on the Arunachal-Assam border, sources the prized shoots from the adjoining forests in the west Kameng district. Both the fresh as well as fermented chunks can be added to meats or vegetable stews and stir fries. Narzary also accepts pre-orders for pork pickles.
Roots Agro takes pride in small batch condiments such as Hot Bamboo Shoot pickle, and Naga Mircha hot sauce made with the GI-tagged King Chilli of Nagaland. “Our purpose is to focus on the fresh agricultural gems of the land, and celebrate them in their purest forms,” says founder Sentinaro Alley from Dimapur, who revamped the brand earlier this year. While the pickle adds that extra oomph to any meal, the hot sauce can be added to absolutely anything that needs heat. The flagship product, however, is a hot sauce made with the sweetest passion fruits from the picturesque Wokha district. The mild tang of the seedy fruit and fiery kick from Naga mircha make for a smack of a condiment to eat with fried fish, to make salad dressings and even spicy cocktails.
Rice and grains
The rich biodiversity of rice from the frontier States of the North East is finally having a moment. Heritage varieties such as joha saul from Assam, and black rice from Manipur, are now available pan India. “There's a homogeneity to rice that's easily available. We eat daily and it is just a bundle of starch,” says Chaya Bahirvani, who grew up in Shillong, and co-founded Pahari Roots with sister Bhavna Ahuja and friend Stephanie Marbaniang. The trio launched a selection of heirloom rice last September to showcase their nutritional goodness. There’s aromatic joha saul from Assam, white sticky rice from Meghalaya, red and black rice from Meghalaya and Manipur. The experimental rice-eater can cook a variety of everyday sweet and savoury dishes with them such as idli, dosa, biryani, pulao and kheer. Fans of South-east Asian cuisine can rustle up Buddha bowls, Thai mango sticky rice and rice fritters. The black rice can be used to make coconut puddings and dosas.
In Nagaland, Ilandlo has been assisting small businesses find their footing since 2014. The online aggregator is recommended by professional chefs and home cooks, who grew up in the region and settled outside for work, for its rare specialty products like smoked meats, and fermented items like axone and anishi. Dimapur-based founder Lipokjungla Ozukum says the demand for native foods, especially grains grown in the territory, have seen a surge during the pandemic. She works in the remote districts of the State to create a link with farmers cultivating rice, millets and local lentils such as kholar or kidney beans. The latter can be cooked like rajma, or made into a Naga stew with smoked pork and bamboo shoot.
Oils and spices
Cooking with heirloom spices has been made easy by The North East Store, an online platform that works with small entrepreneurs of the region. The Shillong-based aggregator has been on a mission to create a demand for the GI-tagged Lakadong turmeric of Meghalaya since 2019.
(To be contd)