In this, the Sixth part of our north-east foodie trail series, we bring to you food from Amazing Arunachal Pradesh
What better way could there possibly be to conclude our North East series than to make a gastronomic journey to the north-easternmost state of our country?
With this location, Arunachal Pradesh is the first to be woken up in the morning with the rays of the solar system’s king, leading to it being called “The Land of the Rising Sun”. Gorgeously green forests, subterranean valleys and lakes perched in the lap of snow-clad peaks, the beauty of these lands stretches as elaborately as its intricately weaved history. It’s past traces a mention in the epic of Mahabharata, in century-old tribes to even the Sino-Indian War of ’62. Pages of history have influenced the pages of the menus here.
Let us have a look at what edible marvels are found in the largest one of the 7 sister states:
Our voyage to the world of North Eastern food would be incomplete without the region’s quintessential bamboo. Whipped up in the households of each of the “sisters”, its significance to Arunachal finds special mention for its manifold uses. From a piping hot curry to the shoots being precariously stuffed with meat, to chutney and even a pickle, it is the desired ingredient for an array of meals. If you’re treading in these hilly terrains, bamboo will become your staple food before you know it. As the locals prefer a nutritious approach, you can eat a delicious form of bamboo along with boiled vegetables also. It turns tender as it is slow-cooked after being marinated in the seemingly sizzling ground spices and a dash of baking soda for punch.
The resulting veggies are scrumptiously crunchy with notes of a slight nuttiness to them. The Ziro Festival is now on the bucket list of many and if you do make it there, make sure to ask for some pika pila. It is a pickle made with bamboo shoots, pork fat and spices, passed down through generations by Ziro’s Aptani tribe. The earthiness of the bamboo dish is thus well complemented by this zingy pickle.
Lukter is the momentous meeting of meat with chilli. Originally, the meat was cooked and dried for roughly 2-3 days until it was acquainted with the other ingredients. Speaking of which, the fiery bhut jolokia, considered India’s hottest chilli is roasted for the emission of its noteworthy spiciness onto the meat. Traditionally, a side dish, this fried meat is consumed with steamed rice.
Arunachal has a distinctive style of preparing rice, one is dung po where the rice is placed inside leaves and broiled in brass vessels, the other is kholam where rice is placed inside bamboo shoot tubes filled with water. The authentic aromatic rice and fermented soya-bean and chilli chutney called pehak, are the ideal accompaniments for lukter, altogether presenting you with a flavoursome meal. Although lukter can be made with any meat, the Nyishi tribe of hunters, fishermen and farmers are to be attributed for this recipe and in their age-old fireplace, they would smoke beef for this dish. Let your palate savour the plate full of piquancy.
Another interesting and exciting aspect of tasting different cuisines is also witnessing somewhat new and unique culinary methods. In Tawang’s 400 years old monastery I learnt from a monk in the canteen that ngatok is a fish which is cooked either by wrapping the fish pieces in leaves and roasting them upon a hot stone or by placing a stone wrapped within a banana leaf amidst the fish chunks whilst cooking.
Either way, the stone lends an unexpectedly relish-worthy smokiness to the fish while the leaves add their fragrance. Lemongrass along with a bunch of fresh herbs grown indigenously in the state which was bestowed with the nickname of the “Paradise of Botanists”. These local plants are credited for the bowl full of broth, capable of stirring up a ravishing appetite with just a whiff of it. The humble zest of lemongrass and these herbs with meat that turns gentle at the prowess of home-cooks and professional chefs alike, and you will find yourself immersing in a velvety bowl of wholesomely prepared fish.
Once upon a time, the yak meat was popularly eaten around here. But overtime religious friction and regulations have led to the practice fading out heavily. Yet other food sources from the land’s prevalent animal, are still intrinsic to societal cooking, be it the yak milk or even the cheese. Chura sabji consists of seasonal vegetables which add a layer to a dish which essentially revolves around fermented yak cheese. Thus, it may use spinach, beans or even just a handful of cilantros.
Urbanization has also led to it being readied with cheese from cow milk instead of yak. However, in the heart of Arunachal, such as the small towns of Bomdila and Dirang, you could request your host for the traditional version. Chura sabji can be consumed both, as a soup as well as a curry. Its creaminess is brightened up with a twist from the chilli flakes or bhut jolokia. Their union makes this a hearty main course must-have, especially with the aforementioned trademark style of steamed rice.
Nothing like a good old beer and good company for a merry night, right? Beer is probably one of the most loved alcoholic beverages universally. Our North Eastern countrymen make
their own kinds in each state. While the apong is the fermented rice beer popular in Arunachal Pradesh’s neighbours too, the marua is actually made using millets instead. The latter’s fermentation process takes about 15 – 20 days. Meanwhile, the much loved apong actually has two types known as the nogi apong and poro apong, their distinction going beyond the colour shades to even the strength of the taste. And if you’re looking to clink your glasses and say cheers, hold that thought because the drinks are served in mugs carved out of bamboo shoots!
The ethnically prominent Monpa community’s new year celebrations are replete with both, marua and apong. As for the true-blue tea lovers, there’s the butter tea called po cha with the local signature, yak butter. Pick your choice of drink everyone! The North Eastern cuisines thus narrate their overlapping and distinguished flairs, both.
Arunachal Pradesh or “The Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains” imbibes its own identity which serves the diner with no-frills food that in its simplicity satiates one in the quest to feed the epicurean itch.