My father was an Anthropologist. Hence, I accredit my interest in tribes and culture to those genes I inherited by virtue of my birth. And I still do not remember where did my interest in cuisine start. My remotest memory traces back to days, when as a ten year old along with another mad foodie childhood friend Mighty Bhullar aka Rattan Amol Singh Bhullar who later became a popular and passionate chef amongst the the tea planters of Assam, I would sell household junk to buy sausages from Harrison’s, Chandigarh and have them with fried onions.

A combination of these fundamental interests was to prove quite lethal gastronomically in years to come. After all, it was to sober down the fire of hunger for which civilizations came about.

Fisherman fishing in the Luit/Lohit or the mighty Brahmaputra

Fisherman fishing in the Luit/Lohit or the mighty Brahmaputra

It is not easy to be born in India and to be writing about food, let alone tribal food. This country can proudly boast of thousands of varieties of food keeping in view its rich cultural diversity and traditions. My trail of tribal food started almost three decades ago when as a child I would accompany my late father on many of his field trips to remote corners of Himachal, Kashmir and subsequently to the North eastern states. It became part of my gastronomical adventure. My interest graduated to a passion and now has now post graduated to an obsession. 

Known as the ‘Children of God’ the tribals or adivasis are the indigenous people of India who have carefully preserved their age-old customs & traditions till this day.  Observing the vast differences in lifestyle and culture, one can only wonder whose children we are. Although a large part of the tribal populace has integrated with the mainstream and has undergone a sea change in lifestyle, what has remained closest to its purist form is their cuisine. As I was exploring all of these I could also see a gradual unfolding of patterns, common threads and designs. It gives me the same feeling of enigma, which surrounds the possible trade between various civilizations.

In an age of growing animosity and apathy amongst men, tribal hospitality and strong love for one and all is a shining example for all. Their festivals, dance & song are pulsating with power, joy & enthusiasm for life.

Enough to make you want to ditch the trappings of modern mayhem for a loincloth and a fancy headdress? For the un-decided here is the final factor that will tilt the balance: tribal cuisine! While Indian cuisine has taken the world by storm with the ubiquitous curry, tribal cuisine avoids those very items that define Indian food: oil and spices. Depending on raw and roasted food, vegetarians lean toward dishes of sweet potatoes, salt and wild leaves. Dried seeds of fruits like mango and jack-fruit are often consumed. Ragi is the cereal of choice. Non-vegetarians are spoilt for choice with dishes ranging from pickled red ants to animals like rats, boar, snails and the like roasted or boiled.

Though tribes are differentiated on the basis of six primary ethnic groups: Negritos, Pro-Australoids or Austrics, Mongoloids, Dravidian, Nordics and Western Brachycephals. For the sake of convenience we will rather segregate them on basis of the region they inhabit. I’m certain you will be far happier singing North, South, East & West than spewing a mouth-full of syllables! And for this particular issue, we will stick to what we call India’s northeast.

 North East India my Favourite land

Northeast India, the only region that currently forms a land bridge between the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, has been proposed as an important corridor for the initial peopling of East Asia. As for me, northeast is home- the brilliance of colourful hand woven textiles, the captivating folk heritage, its uncut umbilical chord with nature and most importantly the wonderful variety of food. Dancing your way through the hills seems like just the way to travel through this picturesque, breathtaking land. I can already picture myself jumping hills in a single leap. No wait…that’s Superman! For mere mortals however, modern conveniences will suffice. Though the tribes have their own dialects, Hindi, English and Assamese are also widely spoken as link languages in this land comprising eight beautiful states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim. And it is a promise that it will be no less than a spiritual journey to walk through the lanes of these hills and discover what these people are made of. But for today, let it be just food.

Pork is the favourite meat of the tribals of North east the picture shows women selling smoked pork

Pork is the favourite meat of the tribals of North east the picture shows women selling smoked pork

Peculiar, bland, hot, aromatic, healthy, fleshy, fatty-yes these adjectives can be used all at the same time for a northeastern tribal meal. While a meal is incomplete without a steaming platter of steamed rice, various green vegetables and predominance of meat and fresh water fish is obvious. Though each state has their peculiar culinary style, each of them definitely has a nose for the pungent aka bamboo shoot, fermented soya beans, fermented fish, and fermented flesh amongst others. Bamboo shoot is used widely as a souring agent in almost all the tribes. Fermented soya bean popularly known as akhuni in Nagaland, kinema in Sikkim and turumbai in Meghalaya, is a significant ingredient, used to create a pungent aroma in various dishes, also used as a pickle. When I say pickle, an array of hot chilies is indispensable for me to mention. The world’s hottest chilli popularly known as Raja Mircha or the king chilli has various names like U-morok in Manipur and bhoot jolokia in Assam and is widely relished. None of the pork dishes for e.g. in a state like Nagaland is complete without the flavour of this fiery chilli. I’d say, if you have a brave heart and a desire for fire, just ask for it. 

The land of the freedom-loving, martial race of the Nagas, Nagaland itself has almost sixteen tribes and an umpteen number of sub tribes with their distinct food habits. Tribes like the Semas and Angamis prepare their pork with akhuni while Ao Nagas love their pork with anishi –a preparation made of dried yam leaves. The Angamis prepare galho a stew, adding lots of green leafy vegetables a little portion of rice and akhuni and of course now all of them prepare all of it.My Charming Godmother or Aunty Tutu the daughter of the legendary Phizo makes the best Galho that I have ever tasted. There are other styles like pork with dried bamboo shoot, with lettuce and spinach leaves and others. The Lothas love their bamboo shoot and cannot live without the Raja Mircha-infact dry bamboo shoot  from Wokha the land of the Lothas is awesome. These tribes smoke their meat at home, over their large kitchen fire, ferment them underground, literally. Well, the same goes with beef, chicken, fish, snails, shrimps, silk worms, red ants and others. And of course it is not just peculiar to the Nagas but various other tribes of northeast India. For the tribes in Arunachal, killing mithun or the bison is the symbol of utmost valour and wealth. And of course eating it!    
 
Arunachali Kitchen

Arunachali Kitchen

Rice is fundamental. You have various kinds at that; the favourite of them all is the wild sticky rice. Many a times rice is prepared in hollow bamboo tubes. Apart from steaming the rice, they prepare them like a stew. The Bodos of Assam prepare a stew out of chicken and a rice powder called onla wangkhrai. The tribes in Meghalaya have a rice preparation called jadoh out of rice and pig liver. In Arunachal Pradesh too, like all other states, rice is consumed at every meal and has different names; ekayi, tongtep, khautek, porok amin, dung poo are a few. Dals and lentils are also staple, however, the methods of preparation varies. Most of the times in the north eastern states, rice will be prepared with yam stem, bamboo shoot and other locally grown herbs. 

 
Despite the predominance of flesh in their cuisine, the people of northeast are heavy vegetable consumers as well, given the fact that they are grown naturally in abundance. Nagaland and Mizoram are organic by legislation! In Sikkim they ferment leafy vegetables like rayo saag, leaves of mustard, radish and cauliflower and sun dry it for later consumption. They call these preparations gundruk and sinki. Sinki is prepared from radish taproot only. Momos and thukpa of course make a wholesome meal! And of course, Sikkim is known all over for its cottage cheese.
 

Like pork, chicken, duck and all all other edible flesh, fish is also very popular and has variety of ways of preparation. Fresh water fish is barbecued in banana leaves in Meghalaya, Assam and other states. Fish intestines are relished. Many people make mixture of rice powder or a handful of steamed rice and fish intestines and prepare a delicious preparation out of it. Fermented fish chutney, dried fish chutney with oodles of green chillies let your nose running for hours after you eat them. People in Tripura love their fermented fish preparation called shidal. The Riyangs of Tripura love to cook their vegetables in hollow bamboo over chacoal fire. Just imagine the flavour it would exude!

Koldil: banana flower

Koldil: banana flower

Robab tenga: grapefruit

Robab tenga: grapefruit

Technically Manipur is not a tribe-dominated state, as their prime inhabitants the Maiteis are staunch Vaishnavaits. However, Manipur also has its fair population of tribes namely the Kukis, Paiteis, Zilliongs etc. manipur has some of the best chutneys that I have relished. Singzu is chutney prepared from green vegetables, chick peas and fermented fish called ngari and is relished all over the state. The most interesting part of northeastern tribal cuisine is the usage of minimalist spice. A chilli or two (enough for sparking the fire), ginger and garlic, occasionally sesame and some local herbs are the ingredients to tickle your taste buds.

Beverages in North East:

What does these intoxicatingly beautiful people do when it comes to intoxication? Why, they brew their own beer of course! All the tribes have their recipes of brewing rice beer. As it is self explanatory, it is brewed from rice. Rice is soaked in water for several days to let it ferment. Few intoxicating agents are added to give that zing. These agents are mostly local herbs. In Arunachal, the local rice beer is called opo or apong or yu, o or marwah. While in Assam it is called laopani or kshaaz. Each tribe has their own method of distillation, however the raw materials are more or less the same. Most of the times, the rice beer is offered to the deities before consumption, and needless to say, every celebration is pretty incomplete without serving rice beer.

Apong bieng prepared for a wedding in Kenri's home in Basar in Arunachal Pradesh

Apong bieng prepared for a wedding in Kenri's home in Basar in Arunachal Pradesh

But of course, we must not forget that Assam is the tea hub of the world. Though the people involved in the laborious cultivation are the adivasis who were brought by the British planters some two hundred years ago from the Chota Nagpur plateau primarily the region of Bihar, Bengal, Orissa, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Hence a huge number of Oraon, Mundas, Khariyas, Saoras have become completely engrained in the demography of Assam and follow not only some of their original food habits, but also certain assimilated habits. Black tea which the people in Assam call laal saah, is mostly consumed with jaggery and is extremely popular in the villages. Towards the Northern part of Arunachal Pradesh lies the great Himalayan range and it’s chill and the mountaneous topography definitely makes butter tea extremely popular, especially in the districts of Tawang, Siang and Kameng.

 As I say, it is never enough when it comes to food-be it eating, cooking or writing. I still feel a little incapacitated because of the fact that there are several things, several dishes I had to give a miss because of the extensive subject matter. Considering the fact that the northeast India’s demography is tribe dominated, time and space is always insufficient to talk of the legends.

SUCH IS THE HOSPITALITY OF THE TRIBALS OF NORTH EAST THAT THEY WILL FEED YOU TILL YOU GET FED UP-I AM ONE OF THE FEW FORTUNATE ONES