Manipuri cuisine. When you read these two words, what came to your mind? Nothing? Some strange looking soup with floating bits & pieces perhaps? Or maybe the stew of an unusual animal? What would you say if I tell you that you can be assured of rice? Great, now we’re calming down. What would you say, I wonder, to completely home-grown, garden fresh vegetables & lots of herbs & spices? So, we are on the same page now. Finally, if you eat meat, what would you say to some delicious fish? Even if you don’t like fish or don’t eat meat, there are abundant dishes with the 3 staple ingredients of any Manipuri dish: Rice, vegetables & herbs. There is a Manipuri version of the paneer for you too!!
Featured Image Credits : Rinky Hrb (Instagram : @yummylicious_rinkyhrb)
Welcome to Manipuri cuisine, arguably the only cuisine of Northeast India which resembles those of the mainland the most. Like the other Northeast cuisines, it is tribal in origin & garnished with lots of leafy vegetables, spices & herbs. The people of Manipur hold their vegetables dearly, growing them in their own backyards & gardens. With rice as a staple, the cuisine of Manipur differs from community to community. There are about 33 different tribes, each having its own distinct cuisine. The ethnic, religious and cultural background of the people influence what they eat.
Being a majority ethnic group in Manipur, the Meitei stand out from the other tribes due to their largely vegetarian diet. Their consumption of non-vegetarian food is restricted only to fish and chicken. However, on all religious festivals and feasts, non-vegetarian is shunned and not even fish is served. And of course, every dish is paired with boiled or steamed rice.
The other tribes are hardcore non-vegetarians and do not have any religious restrictions in their diet. The hill tribes love their pork curry with rice. The cooking style of one tribe differs from the other although they commonly rely on a few choice ingredients. For instance, to flavour their meat, they use either mustard leaves, passion fruit leaves, bamboo shoot fresh or dry. To make sure they never run out of meat, every kitchen invariably stock dry meat that has been smoked in the sun. During cooking, a piece or two is added to the dish to enhance the flavour.
Despite the diversity present even in Manipuri cuisine, a common ingredient that is used by all Manipuris regardless of their faith and language is bamboo shoot and dry or fermented fish called Ngari.
Being boiled & steamed rather than fried, Manipuri cuisine gets its flavour from the many herbs & spices that go in, resulting in food that is tasty & has a heavenly aroma.
Some of the herbs used in this cuisine are:
Awaa phadigom (Mexican coriander)
Mayang-ton (Lemon Basil)
Toning-khok (Chameleon plant)
Mukthrubi Phakpai (Vietnamese coriander)
Chantruk (Wavy Bittercress)
Nungshi hidak (Mint)
Maroi napaakpi (Hooker chives)
Maroi naakuppi (Chinese chives).
The flavour rules of Manipur custom are very stringent, as food on the table must be delicious. Even if there is no meat or fish, the vegetables must be cooked well enough to impart enough flavour. Ginger, garlic, a pinch of dry fermented fish or even dried meat are among the ingredients used to impart flavour. So, without much further ado, here’s what you should be having when in the ‘Jewelled Land’:
Local snacks – ‘munch’ worthy throughout the day!
Found in every nook & cranny of Manipur, the pokphoms (makeshift shacks) are manned by hardworking ladies who whip up the tastiest snacks throughout the day. Bora (pakoda), Aloo Saak (Fried aloo), Kanghou (fried chick pea with thyme & chillies) accompanied with black sugared tea are the snacks that the locals consume all day long. This is just the beginning!
Traditional Manipuri Thali – eaten through the ages!
The trained chefs of Manipur, called Bamons (etymologically derived from ‘Brahmins’), make this rather exquisite thali comprising of 30 dishes. These dishes consist of salads such as singju (onions, cabbage leaves, ginger, coriander, lotus stems – all finely mixed with Ngari i.e. fermented fish & no vegetable oil), curries such as ooti (a vegetarian delicacy made of bamboo shoot, yellow peas and chives), hawai-uri thongba (a bean stew), bawngsha (a beef curry) and Chamthong or kangshoi (a stew cooked with seasonal vegetables and dried fish).
Chamthong or Kangshoi – the perfect stew for that chilly evening!
Already a member of the traditional thali, this dish is very popular in Manipur. It is a vegetable stew & consists of seasonal vegetables that are boiled and flavored with sliced onions, cloves, salt, garlic, maroi and a bit of ginger. It is served with rice or fish and consumed piping hot.
Eromba – the proverbial fish dish!
Another favorite dish among the locals, it includes the Ngari fish. Eromba is prepared by boiling a lot of vegetables along with some dry fish. It is mixed until the texture becomes like a paste. Finally, it is garnished with maroi and a sprinkle of coriander leaves.
Morok Metpa – the chutney that goes with every dish!
The chutney to go with in Manipur, it is prepared using dried green chilies. The chilies are mashed into a paste and then boiled with some Ngari fish. Once again, it is mashed and then sprinkled with salt. It is enjoyed with all kinds of meals.
Paaknam – the fish ‘pancake’!!
Resembling a pancake, this fish cake is prepared with the traditional Ngari fish. It is finally wrapped up in a banana leaf and steamed. It is quite a delicacy and is enjoyed by locals and tourists alike! Paaknam is served with a sweet chili sauce.
Chahao Kheer – the sweet ‘risotto’!
Chahao Kheer is a delicious kheer that is prepared on many special occasions in Manipur. It has a pleasing shade of purple and is made using black rice, milk and cardamom powder. It is generally garnished with dried fruits like raisins or other nuts. It is akin to having a sweet risotto!
Alu Kangmet – ‘Manipuri’ mashed potatoes!
Alu kangmet is a very simple dish. Boiled potatoes are mashed wonderfully and mixed with fried red chilli, salt and drizzles of mustard oil. The ideal Manipuri ‘mashed potatoes’ to ensure a filled stomach for that national park adventure!!
Nga-Thongba – the fish stew to comfort you!
In Manipur, fish curry is comfort food as fish is used in almost all preparations. A delectable fish stew that is prepared with boiled potatoes, fresh bay leaves, onion, cumin, chillies, chives & the Nga fish, it is often flavored with crushed pepper and other spices.
Sana-thongba – paneer done ‘Manipuri’ style!
In case you were wondering what ‘comfort food’ is in store for vegetarians, look no further. Sana thongba is a vegetarian dish prepared using paneer in ethnic Manipuri style. Oh, & don’t be surprised if you find it sweet, for that’s how it’s done. There can be no better comfort than sweets, if you ask me!!
Just like its north Indian cousin ‘kadhi Pakora’, Pakora Thongba is made from besan (gram flour), chives.
Much like the Bengali shukhto, Suktani is an interesting vegetarian dish made of assorted vegetables with a sprinkling of neem leaves.
A fennel-flavoured flatbread made of molasses and flour somewhat like sheermal, albeit darker because of the use of molasses.
Manipuris love their sugarless milky tea at the end of a meal. Even so, they do make several sweets on special occasions, which are bound to attract sweet lovers. Sana-Thongba (sweetened cottage cheese cooked in milk and sugar), Chahao Kheer, Sweet Pakora, Hei-Thongba (cooked seasonal fruits) are just some of the sweets they indulge in & the ones you should try too!!