Food can be the window to a culture and instantly provide deep insights into the everyday life of the people. It is also a wonderful tool of soft diplomacy, as it effortlessly builds bridges across regions, religions, castes and class lines. These factors, and the reality that not much is either known or been written about the rich cuisine from Northeast India compelled journalist and author Hoihnu Hauzel, who hails from Manipur, to pen ‘The Essential North-East Cookbook’, which offers a variety of wonderful flavours from the region. She has recently brought out the second edition of this guide to “exotic delicacies that are not a part of mainstream Indian fare”. In this one-on-one, Hauzel talks about her passion for food and how it’s just a matter of time before northeast food becomes widely popular. In addition, the author shares two of her favourite recipes.
Q: You’ve been a long-time journalist and columnist. How did your journey as a food writer begin?
A: I developed an interest in exploring and talking about food from the Northeast quite early. I was once asked to give a talk on our regional cuisine on the occasion of International Women’s Day by the All India Radio in Manipur and that led me to go deeper into researching on local foods and food habits. That is when I realised that not only is there very little known about our cuisine but, more importantly, there is no written information available. It sparked off an interest within me and I began to write regularly on our delicacies.
Q: What’s your food philosophy?
A: I see food as a means to bond and also to bridge the regional divide. For me, food is what keeps my relationships and friendships going. I reach out to my friends, who are not from the Northeast, through food. I love to invite them over and cook special meals. I even share ingredients from back home with them. What I have observed over the years is that there is a keen interest to learn more about our food. In fact, I truly believe that food is the most effortless way to understand a people and their culture. When someone is familiar with the food of a particular community, s/he is naturally inclined to gain deeper insights into their life and respect their traditions.
Q: So what is food from the Northeast all about?
A: The dishes from the Northeast are not heavy on oil and spices and yet are delicious. They are perfect for health freaks and weight watchers. We use several locally grown aromatic herbs which makes them exotic. They are light, healthy and easy to prepare. Simplicity, in fact, is the hallmark of the cuisine. The basic components of a meal are steamed or boiled rice, accompanied by a gravy-based meat or fish dish, chutney and washed down with a soup of boiled vegetables.
Yet, while the basics are similar there are differences in the foods consumed and the methods of preparation, based on religion and culture. For instance, the tribes that are not influenced by Hinduism relish meat, while Hindu communities like the Asomiyas of Assam eat fish and mutton, and the Meiteis of Manipur eat fish at the very most. People from the predominantly Christian states of Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, and about 40 per cent of the Manipuris do not have any religious restrictions in their diet.
Rice with vegetable
* Half cup rice
* Leaves of one medium-sized cabbage (washed and torn into 1” pieces by hand)
* 5 French beans (trimmed and broken into small pieces by hand)
* 1 tomato (chop)
* 5 large mustard leaves (washed and shredded by hand)
* 1 tbsp ginger (chopped)
* 1 medium-sized onion (chopped)
* 1 tbsp garlic (chopped)
* 3 green chillies (chopped)
Salt to taste
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
1. Wash rice and drain.
2. Place two-and-a-half cups of water in a pan and bring to boil over high heat.
2. Add rice, bring to boil again, lower heat, cover pan and simmer till rice is fluffy and soft.
4. Mix in remaining ingredients, and continue simmering over low heat, stirring occasionally till the vegetables are done.
Serve hot or cold.
Variation: Add either chicken or pork shredded into pieces into the mixture.
(Note: The dish is usually served in the afternoon as a snack. In the old days, it was taken to the fields for lunch by the cultivators. Today, Galho is served as a delicacy in most restaurants in Nagaland)
Khasi pork dish cooked with black sesame seeds
* 1 kg pork
* 4 medium sized onions, sliced
* 2 tbsp garlic paste
* 2 tbsp black sesame seeds
* A pinch of turmeric powder
* 1 tbsp salt
1. Wash pork, drain thoroughly and cut into three-inch pieces
2. Place pork in a cooker over low heat and cook for about 15 minutes, stirring constantly till the fat oozes out.
3. Remove meat from the cooker and set aside.
4. Add the remaining ingredients and cook, stirring frequently till the fat separates.
5. Add the pork and cook for about 5 minutes.
6. Pour in two cups of water, close the cooker and cook under pressure for 15 minutes.
WOMEN'S FEATURE SERVICE