Table laid out in the winter sun

January 18, 2009

Ever had a lotus stem salad laced with fermented fish, evaporated cane juice cookie, chopped eel spiced with chillies or a plate of fried mountain onion roots?

Okay, they’re probably not on the menu of your average restaurant but to my pleasant surprise all the above and much more were on offer in New Delhi at a cultural event dedicated to northeast India.

The main attraction seemed to be the food — cuisines from all eight states that occupy India’s hilly northeast region. Maybe it was because of their novelty factor (not many restaurants in Delhi offer such dishes) but many people lined up at the food stalls (although admittedly, many were probably just gawking at the unusual dishes on display).

Consider this. Manipur state offered a peculiar salad known as the “Singzu” made from lotus stem, cabbage, powdered sesame seeds, mountain herbs, peas and gram touched up with pungent fermented fish.

The main attraction at the Mizoram stall were the fermented bamboo shoots, fried mountain onion roots and even fermented crab mixed with sesame seeds. While the ‘thali’ at the Nagaland stall comprised rice, pork, fried eel flavoured with a highly pungent chilli known as Raja mirchi and fermented soya beans.

The Northeastern states are connected to the rest of India by a tiny strip of land sandwiched between Nepal and Bangladesh and are traditionally more isolated.

Initiatives like the festival aim to promote and expose the culture of the region to the mainland audience.

As eminent anthropologist Prof A.C Bhagbati put it: “Events like this would pave the way for integration of the Northeast with the rest of the country.”

But I wasn’t sure how people would assimilate the whole experience of the event which showcased the history, art and lifestyle of the region.

Take for instance the cuisine. Coming from the Northeast myself, I am accustomed to the local delicacies but was not sure if other visitors, who were having their first taste of the usually forest-based dishes, would find it to their liking.

My fears were unfounded.

“I tried it, and I liked it. Very nice,” said visitor Anjali Joshipuri of the “Singzu” salad. She and her husband said they planned to try out other dishes as well, as they sat on a table laid out in the winter sun, waiting for a plate of porridge made from rice and chicken.

For the less adventurous, there were also the familiar momos (dumplings) and noodles at the Sikkim stall. Also on the menu — sticky rice puri (a kind of fried bread) and cookies made from “kurtai” (derived from sugar can juice) and peanuts.

Judging by the crowd at the food counter, the Nagaland stall seemed to be the hotspot. Exhibitor Temsiichuba Jamir said visitors loved the Nagaland “thali”, an opinion seconded by visitor Latika Varadarajan, a chirpy lady who seemed to be in her seventies.

“Superb,” she said, chewing on fermented bamboo shoots for the first time. “If you need a food taster, I’ll be happy to volunteer”.

We both had a hearty laugh. It’s indeed the food that binds us all.

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