A festival that served Northeastern culture on a diverse platter
Something was different about the setup. It lacked the usual large crowds cheering and pushing through to get a glimpse of the action. COVID-19 has hit really hard, and this sight is an outcome of its consequences. But the colours that adorned the streets were exuberant and glamorous. Lots of music, dance, artefacts, and food on display. This is a culture at its peak. It is the 8th edition of the North East Festival, and even coronavirus wasn't strong enough to dampen the spirits or lessen the grandeur of one of the region's most important annual events.
To emphasise, North East India comprises of thick, green forests filled with nature's goodness. Its alluring and vast landscape comprising tall rocky mountains, hills, and valleys are a sight to behold. Little wonder this geographical enclave in India is home to thousands of tourists annually. Each of the eight states: Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Tripura, Nagaland, Manipur, and Sikkim is special in their own way. Assam, for instance, is known for its unrivalled production of quality tea with one of the largest industries in the world.
Another fascinating aspect of the North East allure is the ferocity to which traditions and cultures are upheld. Each state consists of various indigenous tribes and clans, which individually upholds their own tradition and culture, in the form of music, food, and fashion. There is truly a lot to explore in the North East. The vibrant cultures that exist often present several cultural ceremonies and festivals that will not only entertain tourists but also improve its overall charisma and beauty to the rest of the world.
North East Fest goes digital
Ever since it began several years ago, the North East festival has become a yearly event attracting thousands from all over the country and beyond. This year, the festival, brainchild of entrepreneur Shyamkanu Mahanta, was held in Guwahati at the Radisson Blu, from the 19th to 20th December. Unfortunately, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic this year, the event could not be attended by as many people as needed. It was however transmitted live to a global audience through digital platforms.
A gastronomical jamboree
A huge part of promoting the culture of North Eastern states involves parading foods that are peculiar to it. The food section at North East Festival was curated by ethnic food expert and home chef Dr Geeta Dutta. It was a perfect depiction of the food cultures of several tribes, such as Singpho, Mishing, Bodo, and so on.
Dr Dutta focused mainly on healthy, nutritious and traditional staple vegetables, spices and cooking methods. "When Mahanta told me the concept of the digital presentation of our cuisines, I was confused, because food means flavours. How do I convey the flavours digitally? Then I thought, visual presentation matters a lot; the key lies in making the whole spread artistic and making it easy for others to understand our traditions. With these things in mind, I conceived the idea of the unique presentation of our North Eastern cuisines," she says.
There was a minor difficulty in portraying the ethnic identities of the different tribes and states in the Northeast. The short time frame given to accommodate all these cultural differences was also a factor. Dr Dutta explains this, "For example, Assam itself has so many varieties of dishes, it was tricky trying to present them all. But I wanted the audience to take back the gastronomical culture of the North Eastern states in a nutshell; right from ingredients to utensils and cooking methods. I used our traditional 'Kaah' (bell metal) utensil like 'Baan Bati', 'Kahi', 'Tou' along with banana leaves to represent Assamese cuisine. Whereas to represent Nagaland , we used handcrafted Naga wooden serving crockery.''
The food of Sikkim indicates the culture of this state, which is a mélange of India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet. The Sikkim stall, represented by Sikkim House Guwahati, displayed their regular food items like Maize Rice, Pahili Dal, Momo, Thukpa (noodle soup), Kinema Curry (fermented soybean soup), Gundruk (a combination of radish leaves and cauliflower cooked with spices and tomato sauce), Sel Roti (fried bread), Khapsey (deep-fried pastry/biscuit), Chhurpi Chutney (pickle of onion and cottage cheese made from yak milk), Jero (sweet dish), Aloo Dum (potato gravy), Kodo Ko Roti (pancake prepared from finger millet), local orange squash, and many more.
Also, delights like Newari Achar (Nepali-style pickle) and Sha Phaley (half-moon-shaped, deep-fried Tibetan snack that is stuffed with meat or veggies) are peculiar to the Sikkim food culture. One of the hottest chilli peppers in the world, the Dalle Khursani, mostly originates from the Sikkim as well.
The Bodo cuisine from Assam, not known to many, was showcased by Ordab - The Bodo Kitchen. Rice and fish is the principal food of Bodo people. Rice is served boiled, hand pounded and steamed, powdered to use as thickening agent for curries and also fermented to make beer and wine. Vegetables, dry fish and meat are also fermented on regular basis. Pork is the most loved meat dish. Another of their favorite is the snail, and not to forget the silkworm. All these contribute to a very unique cuisine of the Bodos.
The stall showcased cuisines like Bhat (rice), Ondla Dau (chicken cooked with rice flour), which is a very common dish among the Bodos. Also, Nathur Gwran (dried river shrimps), Emphou Latha Eunai (fried silkworms), Sobai Jung Samo (black lentils with snails), Oma Narzee (pork fats cooked with dried jute leaves), and Oma Jung Kheradaphini (pork cooked with dry kheradaphini herbs). Kheradarphini herb, as we were informed, is found in the foothills of Bhutan and is believed to be good for jaundice.
"Dishes prepared with dried jute leaves and silkworms are not a common sight in other parts of the country. Several people showed interest in knowing the cooking methods. I did a lot of homework to make the entire presentation precise too," Dr Dutta mentions.
As for the Naga cuisine, it was represented by Nagameez. With more than 16 tribes residing in Nagaland, one can only imagine the variety of food offerings. When we talk about Naga cuisine we come across all kinds of meat, fish and vegetables - smoked, dried or fermented, rice as a staple and a host of spicy chutneys.
Akhe Chishi, who was aptly dressed in a traditional Naga attire helped us understand the different dishes and their ways of preparation. The stall showcased a wide range of traditional Naga dishes like Pork with Bamboo Shoot, Smoked Chicken Anishi, Dry Fish Chutney, Smoked Pork Anishi, Smoked Chicken Axone, Kolar Beans, Naga Dal, Smoked Yam Anishi, and a lot more.
Smoked Kusia (swamp eel) remained the highlight. She also had displayed an array of spices, herbs and vegetables such as mejenga, king chilli, wild Naga tomato, Naga beans, Naga garlic, and mushrooms.
Taii Singpho, a popular restaurant in Guwahati, showcased the traditional cuisine of the Singpho tribe. For the uninitiated, the Singphos are scattered across the Patkai range, stretching from Margherita subdivision and Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh to parts of Myanmar and Yunnan province of China. They are divided into four classes namely, Shangai, Myung, Lubrung and Mirip.
The stall included Boiled Pork in Bamboo Shoot and regional herbs, Aloo Pitika, Veg Salad, Dry Fish Chutney, Fish Pura (roasted fish), Patot Diya Pork (pork cooked in banana leaves), Tupula Bhaat (steamed rice wrapped in tora paat/plantain leaves), Pork Stick, Pork Salad, Boiled Dal, Pork Gravy cooked in Rice Flour, among others.
Mridul Islam, representing the stall said, "A common sight in a traditional Singpho kitcheh would be pork, fish and chicken cooked with indigenous herbs, teamed up with steamed 'Maytong' (a kind of glutinous rice), accompanied by various chutneys. We use little or no oil to prepare the dishes."
The Mishing stall Do:Nam had on display an extensive preparation of their local delight. To name a few were Miri Dali Maas (a lentil and fish preparation), Kola Khar (an alkaline preparation of banana peel's ash extract), Ash Colour Rice Beer, White Rice Beer, Smoked Fish, Opop Pitha (a savoury snack made with rice flour and more than 100 herbs).
The Mishing, also called Miri, is an indigenous community inhabiting parts of the Indian states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Pork and domestic fowl’s meat cooked with wild greens are extensively consumed, and are paired with their local alcoholic drink - 'Apong'.
At the stall, we were showed the 'Tasuk' - used in 'Apong' (rice beer) processing. While the Singpho tribe presented dishes cooked and wrapped in tora paat (plantain leaves), the Mishing tribe used kol paat (banana leaf).
The Assam stall by Raja Mircha was one of the major highlights of the event, showcasing the whole of the Assamese food culture with regular and festive fare such Jolpaan (flaked rice, home-made curd, jaggery), Poita Bhaat (fermented rice), Koldil Kukura (chicken with banana flowers) , Til Diya Kukura (chicken in sesame) Maasor Tenga, Pork Fry (fried pork), Pork Pura (pork roast), Aloo Pitika (mashed potato), Haanhor Mangxo (duck meat), Payox (rice pudding), Tamul-Paan (betel nut and leaf), and so much more - all presented beautifully in bell metal utensils.
Bedanta Bhagowati, owner of Raja Mircha said, "A traditional meal in Assam begins with Khar and ends with a Tenga, a sour dish. The food is usually served in bell metal utensils. The belief is that when food and water is served in such utensils its good for health and boost up immunity. Tamul-Paan generally concludes the meal. I wanted to showcase as many dishes as possible. Despite the relatively low number of spices, mostly garlic, ginger, black pepper and chillies, used, the food is always bursting with delicious flavors you can’t find anywhere else. We, Assamese people, prefer simple preparations, and usually drying and fermentation are used as preservation methods. Thus our food is said to be unpretentious and healthy."
The Manipur stall, sited at the outdoor area, showcased food in small boat-shaped bowls of banana leaves. From Eromba (a stew of boiled vegetables with lots of red chilies and dried fish) to chicken and pork curries and mashed fire-grilled brinjal and potato, they had quite a good options on display and for consumption.
"Personally, I would love to highlight the Assamese staple dish ‘Poita Bhaat’ - fermented rice full of probiotics and has proven health benefits . It is usually served with side dishes like mashed roasted fish, mashed boiled kothal guti (jackfruit seeds), khorisa (fermented bamboo shoots), fried fiddlehead ferns, king chilly, fried chickpeas, sliced onions, salt and drops of mustard oil. Another product that needs to be popular is Kolar Beans, packed with high protein, from Nagaland. It is grown by generations of the Yimchungrü Naga tribe living in Tuensang and Kiphire districts and on the other side of the Indo-Myanmar border. I also feel our traditional fermented products need more research . Say, for example 'Xukoti Maas', 'Namsing', 'Khorisa', and 'Axone'.
Like us, several other visitors, both virtual and physical, wanted to know about the green rice kernel that was on display at the agricultural stall. We were told that this unique rice variant was first discovered in Chhattisgarh, way back in 2016. The light green colour comes from chlorophyll pigment in the kernels. Extensive research has been done by the scientists of Indira Gandhi Krishi Vishwavidyalaya (IGKV) in Raipur. It's gluten free, high in fibre, and protein content .The chlorophyll content fights to prevent cancer, making it a healthy product. Green rice cultivation can also be seen in Morigaon district in Assam.
Cultural awareness and celebrations
The North East Festival offers numerous benefits for the indigenous people and visitors as well. As it creates awareness on the North Eastern culture - its food, people and music - and the importance of preserving that culture, the North East furthers stamps its name on the global map quite remarkably, offering a medium for indigenous entrepreneurs to reach the world.