As a devotee of all things edible I’m always on the lookout for something new – ingredients, dishes, equipment or even cuisines. So when I received an email from Rushina’s APB Cook Studio about a Dine & Demo session on the food from the North East of India, particularly the Seven Sisters, I was intrigued. I had to admit that apart from some Bhut Jholokia pickle and, of course, momos, I hadn’t tried much from this part of the country. More reason to attend the session, I thought.
Gitika Saikia was our guide for this culinary journey. I met up with some of the other guests and we all chatted about our experience with cuisine from the Seven Sisters. And there was someone else who mentioned momos too! I heaved a sigh of relief. So I wasn’t the only one!
Before we sat down to dine, we had to finish the demo part of the afternoon. Gitika began by showing us how to make the Dau Jwng Sobai Jwng, a dish of chicken cooked with black dal, which is typical of the Bodo community from Assam.
In between all the sauteeing and stirring, she spoke to us about the cuisine of this region and how it uses a lot of indigenous herbs.
One of the interesting things was that most food here is steamed or boiled, hardly anything is fried! After the chicken, Gitika moved on to making a pork dish that was flavoured with a black sesame paste. The Donheiiong, which is from Meghalaya, tasted as unusual as it looked.
Then came the best part of the afternoon – delicious food over lots of conversation and laughter. Can it get better? Here’s what we had.
The meal started off with drink, an appetizer, made from dried amla/awla and some herbs. This was sour but had a sweet after-taste.
After this we moved on to a watery, fish-based soup from Arunachal Pradesh called Pasa.
This soup used a herb called ‘Mosola paan’, which had aromas similar to Tarragon. Gitika had a lot of these with her and being the generous person that she is, she was only too happy to give me some to take home. I immediately started thinking up of dishes I could make with this – use it in a burnt butter sauce with some gnocchi or maybe make a clear chicken soup from it, would it taste good if I used it in a pesto? But before I could let my thoughts wander further it was time for the main course.
The main course featured the chicken and pork dishes that Gitika had shown us how to make. By now, the aromas had filled the room and all of us were waiting to dig in. Sticky rice, wrapped in banana leaves, was served along with these dishes.
As an accompaniment we were also served some chutneys – one was made from a fermented soy bean paste, called Akhuni, this pungent chutney takes a little getting used to but we were told that it is one of the most popular dishes from Nagaland. The other chutney was a flavourful one made with dried sardines, onions and tomatoes, called Mosdeng Serma from Tripura. Along with this, there was also the Eromba, a dish of mashed potatoes and dry fish from Manipur, since I’m not a huge fan of potatoes I tried just a little.
As we sampled the two chutneys and the Eromba we spoke about the diversity of North East cuisine and how it needs to get the attention that it deserves. Perhaps events like this would help, we echoed.
Just as we thought we were done, huge bowls of something that looked like a clear soup with lots of veggies arrived at the table. We looked on in curiosity. Was this an Indian version of the famous clear soup, some of us asked. Gitika informed us that the dish was called Bai, from Mizoram, and it was the only vegetarian dish that day. This is a soup-like dish that features a lot of vegetables but the difference is that it is eaten with rice and not noodles, like we usually have a clear soup. The Bai had clean flavours, minimal seasoning which meant that the vegetables shone. I quickly asked Gitika for the recipe, I was sure this is something I would make at home.
Next it was time for dessert. Thankfully what Gitika had planned was something light – puffed rice with cream and jaggery. Now I don’t like cream but I love jaggery, so I considered skipping this dish. But when she told us that the jaggery was made at her home back in Assam, I was sold.
I tried a little bit of the dessert, mixed the puffed rice with the cream vigourously to allow the golden, almost caramel-like shades of the jaggery to stain the entire dish and then I took a bite. Heaven. If I could get jaggery like this here, I would be such a happy girl! It was almost as if Gitika read my mind, “Would you like to take some with you?” she asked. Why would I refuse?
So I went back home satiated with the drool-worthy meal, some recipes, some ingredients, a lot of memories, definitely a lot more enlightened about food from the North East. Now, all that’s left is to make a trip to this part of the country!