In this, the fifth part of our north-east foodie trail series, we bring to you food from the magnificent state of Meghalaya.
Stretches of lush green subtropical forests, a plateau of hills and mountains, waterfalls gurgling in every corner and the state with the heaviest rainfall in India, welcome to Meghalaya. The folks trace their origins to Mon-Khmer (Khasi) and Tibeto-Burman (Garo) groups. Although Shillong became the face of the posters for North Eastern tourism and travel, the population remains predominantly rural. A fact that shows up even in their food which on one hand is everything a tourist may desire but on the other hand occasionally shows the colours of the Khasi tribe, around whom the mysteries of human sacrifice, donning of animal tusks, etc. revolve. Thus, if we had to personify the state, we’d be acquainted with an individual wearing the jainsem, the state’s trademark traditional mulberry silk attire and eating from a varied yet vibrant buffet. Some dishes that you may find in the spread are:
Rice is to the North East is what phulka is to North India. Beyond the steamed rice with curries, Meghalaya has a plethora of dishes where rice is the centre of attention. Amongst them the jadoh is the most beloved, as adored as biryani and as commonly consumed as fried rice. This Khasi tribe recipe involves “ja” meaning rice with “doh” meaning meat, mostly pork. They are slow cooked and mildly spiced with turmeric, pepper, cilantro and caramelized onions. Its deliciousness lies in how the preparation is done in the pork fat itself, presenting the smokiness of the meat drenched in its juicy flavours and fried with each rice grain doused in the essence of the ingredients. Popularly referred to as “red rice” for their unique colour, the truth is that it is authentically cooked in the blood of the meat. I won’t say that it tastes bloody good, hah, but it certainly lends a metallic tinge to it. This adventure can be undertaken only by heading to the villages, most prominently Mawlynnong and Mawphlang.
The hilly terrains happen to eat one thing just as much as rice which comes as no surprise is pork. If you’ve had your fair share of starchy rice, then the dohkhlieh will please you as you can indulge in it as either a salad or even with Indian bread. A healthy option to appetize everyone, the salad involves onions, green chillies and ginger, each oozing their zest and spicy characteristics into the finely chopped boiled pork. Traditionally, the salad incorporates the pig brain pieces but you can request for the belly as well. What one might find repulsive, another may relish, thus, for the latter category, there is also the delicacy of blood sausages which consists of pork lungs, liver and intestines stirred in the blood and rolled up as sausages. Do you dare to try it?! Otherwise, the salad dohklieh is simply whipped up to tickle your tummy right with its fresh and light ingredients.
If some of the aforementioned dishes sound fishy to you, then let me present the last of the whacky ones, nakham bitchi. This dish is served as a non-alcoholic digestif prior to or subsequent to a meal to aid digestion. The fish is first fried and then sun-dried or fire-dried to be served in a hot bowl of broth. Chillies and ginger add to its piquancy but during my visit at a homestay in Cherrapunjee, I learnt from an old lady that generally even a pinch of soda is added and the stock is blended with distilled ashes. This allows the stew to borrow a slight sooty taste, however, this method of cooking is more popular with the Garo tribe from whose kitchens this soup came to Meghalaya. Nowadays, the ashes are exempted and the peculiar odour is effectively camouflaged with a solid dosage of spices in the soup. For fish lovers, this soup is an experience of slurping or eating a hot and spicy nourishing palate cleanser that has the added benefit of pleasing the palate too.
Before our vegetarian friends are disappointed because of the preference for meaty menus, they should know that the likes of momos, noodles and even dal roti are easily available in Meghalaya. For those craving a true taste of the state, there is the aalu muri – similar to bhel puri with boiled potatoes, the patent bamboo shoots and putho – a North Eastern version of idli. But if you are looking for something on the main course, the Khasi tribe even cooked a distinctive dal called daineiiong. Initially, it was a pork curry with black sesame but today this take on the dish as a dal caters to more foodies looking to delve into the tricks of the state’s chefs. It is an amalgamation between lentils and black sesame seeds where the ginger garlic paste and tadka cook up the national favourite. When in India nothing says wholesome meal like good old dal and if in Meghalaya you are pining for maa ki dal, satiate your soul with daineiiong.
While chocolates and ice-creams work well for the sweet tooth bearers, you can also spoil yourself with a sweet indulgence from these very lands, the pukhlein. Once again, rice has come to greet you but this time it is tossed in jaggery and then pan-fried. When I first laid my eyes on pukhlein at the Mall Road, I was reminded of the North Indian malpuas. Biting into its golden-brown goodness topped with the occasional dry fruits, the pukhlein melts into your mouth. The dessert is the promised partner of all joyous occasions and is found plated up in festivals including the local tribe’s harvest festival of Wangala. They are also eaten as a snack in the absence of sakin gata, the undisputed staple rice cake snack. Be it an accompaniment to Meghalaya’s own black tea or the fermented rice beer called kyat, or even simply by itself, the puklein is not something to miss, so, make sure to soak into its sweetness.
Suffice to say, delicacies hailing from the “abode of clouds” as Meghalaya is known, are an acquired taste, reflecting customs and cultural norms that get cooked right into the misty state’s cuisine.