Aizwal Birds eye view
You really need to be adventurous to eat out in North east. If you are conservative in food habit, there is a possibility that you will starve at times in some of these places. If you are a vegetarian traveler in the remote north east, you should better be packing your lunch in a Tiffin Box. But how long can one survive eating out of a Tiffin Box especially when one has to constantly travel in interiors of Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram etc.? In my first visit to Kohima during the first Naga Festival (Later known as Hornbill festival), at 6.30 Pm my Naga friends had asked me if I had finished my dinner or not. I was surprised to learn that if I do not eat by 7pm I might end up eating nothing for supper. I rushed to the nearest place called Old NST bus stand on the main Road. I was lucky to find two eateries still open, serving out last few meals of the day. Out of The Raza hotel and Razhu Hotel , I randomly picked up Raza Hotel as both of them were same in character and look. I occupied a seat in the wooden table where few others were in the middle of their meal. The waiter (Boy) asked me with a straight face “ Guru Khabo na Gahori Khabo?” . Literal translation would be “would you like to eat cow or pig”. Further probing aled that they have finished chicken, and there is nothing called vegetarian in the menu and only one piece of boiled fish is left. While eating my meal I kept wishing that they did not use the same spoon for serving my fish. Next morning I met a south Indian vegetarian gentleman at the hotel where I stayed, who told that he had come for seven days tour but has to go back after three days of eating only biscuits and water. I had no suggestion for him at that time but now I know that all vegetarian businessmen travelling from Dimapur have an arrangement at the Kohima Jain Temple where a jain meal is served for a small price.
A typical Naga Meal
If you are a conservative eater and travelling to Mizoram by road you better be careful. Most of the eateries on the road side might be serving both pork and beef. Mizo style eateries have one more challenge. They have low height dining tables where plates with individual spoons are kept for guests. You have to share a table with your co passengers who would be mostly decent Mizo family groups. Food would be served in bowls placed in the centre for the entire table and it would be kept replenished frequently without asking. No issue till this point. Once your co-guests start eating you will notice that they are using their individual spoons and scooping out food from the bowls making your appetite vanish instantly. If you are as smart as I am, you would take the first moving advantage and breaking all etiquette barriers load your plate with a heap of boiled rice, topped with the meat of your choice. Then pick up two three varieties of boiled vegetable preparations and never keep any scope for a second serving. Food is invariably tasty if you have acquired a taste for boiled stuff of northeast by now. It is surprising, how these simple boiled vegetable have so much varied taste. But you have to ask someone, which one is the bitter curry. You might have to avoid it as it is cooked with neem leaves and pork fat. The green fern boiled and tossed with oil and crushed roasted peanut was my favourite. The meat preparation is same for all meat. It is pre grilled (smoked) before cooking. In many places the grilling process is done in the front room where customer can enjoy the view. After the initial grilling the meat is boiled in Pure H2O without even a single grain of salt. This pre grilled (smoked) boiled meat has a unique taste which goes very well with the accompaniment of the vegetable and chutneys.
Mizo food item
Smoked meat selling in the market
If you want to avert all these food and eating style related issues better influence or bribe the driver and make him stop in a Nepali joint instead of a Mizo one. There you will be served a simple and tasty meal of Daal , Bhat , Tarkari and kukuru ki Machu. Don’t get paranoid its chicken not dog meat. This will be accompanied by one of the thousands of chutneys that only Nepalis know how to make.
In Tripura there are no issues for outsiders as the food business is totally dominated by Bengali. The food even in common eateries are so tasty that it would put the so called up market Bengali food brands of Calcutta to shame. Sankar hotel is the most celebrated name in Agartala but all other eateries in that category are more of less of same quality. Their main items are Lotpoti an Eelish preparation. Prime pieces of Eelish Boiled in creamy Mustard sauce ( Other pieces go to the fish curry which is little cheaper than Lotpoti), Chicken Roast which is Bengali Pot Roast of whole chicken cut into four and slow cooked in Onion gravy. Rui Kalia is prime piece of Rohu fish in a thick gravy with raisin , cardamom and cinnamon to give a distinct flavour. Sankar hotel scored above others with space, well painted and turtle meat which was available in some specific season. Turtle would probably have survived few more years from extinction if Shankar hotel was not there. I tried it once or twice long long ago but shall not encourage anyone to try it now. It’s because, I am more concerned about the saving turtle from extinction and secondly the taste of the meat is not such that you will miss anything if you do not eat it. When you travel from Agartala to Dharma nagar by road you have many option to stop for lunch . I would recommend a place called Panisagar. A nondescript location with two eating place on the road side. Both serve same kind of meal. The shop front is not very wide but several times longer than the width, something like a cigarette . There were two rows of narrow table with chairs on one side keeping the other side open for serving. There will be a steel platter with a steel tumbler upside down against each chair. The waiter will pour lukewarm water to the plate for you to wash it again to ensure its totally clean. Then you pour the water to the bucket carried by the waiter. Then the waiter will make a small mountain of rice on the plate. You are now expected to make a crater on top of the mountain to make room for the small amount of daal poured to the rice ritually. Now comes the best part the waiter brings a big platter of non veg item to choose from. Go with the flow and order your mutton curry. Small pieces of goat meat cooked in onion gravy spiced with red chilly paste dominating all the other spices. It is so good that I rank them second
only to Mutton Curry made by my Brother in law Devajeet Khaund. In Tripura if you want to taste tribal food you have to be lucky enough to be a guest to some tribal families . There is no option where you can go to a restaurant and order for it. However If you are desperate you may go for a evening walk in some locality with few tribal household selling Bangoi wraped in some green leaf. Bangoi is sticky rice with a piece of meat packed in green leaves and steamed. My friend Sib Sundar Rana once treated me with a pack of Bangoi taste of which I steel remember.
Mother of all Thali: a festival time feast of Manipur
Again on my first visit to Imphal in my early working days the bus stopped in a small colorful hamlet called “Mao” on the Kohima Imphal Highway. I call it colorful because of the beautiful jean clad Naga girls walking on the street along with those wearing traditional colorful dresses , colorful flowers, fruits ( Plums , Peach, pear etc) and Local vegetables (like, Cabage, squash, mustard greens , red chilies etc) were on display for sale, small shops with glass window displaying cheap Burmese and Chinese ware , all these gave the town a bright morning look. Ironically the place where we were stopped to eat our Brunch “Sharma Manipuri Chuk (means Rice) Hotel” is a totally color less place. It’s a Black and white Assam Type two storied building where ground floor is the dining area with long dark wooden benches, They are kept very clean by dhoti clad “Meitei” boys, who would also enthusiastically serve you a warm Manipuri Meal on clean steel platters. The simple meal is very tasty where you get two knobs of sticky Manipuri boiled rice, with a daal tempered with green chives, mashed vegetable, Singju a Manipuri salad, Boiled peas in alkaline soup called “uti” and option of a Fish cooked in a thin soup (Equivalent of Assamese Masor anja) or “Atoiba” a preparation of Fish lightly mashed with herbs,. I was enjoying every bit of this meal until I put a small dollop of something gray, creamy, tasty but horribly stinky stuff in my mouth which almost made me puke. Later I came to Know that this is “The Iromba” which Makes Manipuris “The Manipuri.” The stink comes from the “Ngari” a fermented fish preserves also known as Hidol in many place in Assam and shidol in Tripura , Silchar and Sylhet district of Bangladesh. They make chutney out of it mixing with Garlic. It stinks like hell but tastes the Heaven. They also make ash gourd leaves rolls filled with these stuff and deep fry them .
variety of vegetables in manipur
Other sticky but tasty stuff from North East are the “ Akhoni “ the fermented soya bean chutney of the Sema tribe ( Now renamed as asumi) Nagas, now popular across entire Nagaland. Tungthap and Turumabai of the Khasis are one made from fermented bean other from dried fish.
A frugal meal from a road side eatery in Khasi Hills. Photo, courtesy my friend Sourav Baruah.
There is endless list exotic food and beverage from north east but some of these needs acquired taste to appreciate it fully. Some of these need a stronger heart and more adventurous outlook towards food. But many of you who has been travelling north east for long time and travelling in remotest parts too , you had resisted these food for some time then gradually gave in to whatever was served in front of you. To your surprise you started liking it too.
Upmarket Naga restaurant
The good news is that now you don’t need to go deep in North east to taste this food. Now many of these ethnic food available in Guwahti, giving a great opportunity to food lovers . There is not so famous Naga eatery in Simon House , Nepali Mandir serving authentic Naga meal for more than twenty years but multiple outlet of Naga Kitchen has taken Naga food to a new high. Nagamese another non Naga owned Naga restaurant serves reasonable good Naga food. Manipuri Basti is dotted with Chuk Luk ( rice hotel) serving pure Metei food. Though few of them have installed AC in their dining room yet cannot be counted as up market eatery. They mostly cater to transit travelers from Manipur and few non Manipuris like me. I don’t know if there is any Manipuri restaurant offering fine dining experience in Guwahati. Mising food has made great impact in ethnic food scene in Guwahati. Gam’s Delicacy , Mising kitchen, Chang ghar are nice places to appreciate Mising food. The pride of Guwahti “The Al fresco” cruise vessel has started a Lunch cruise where they serve “up market Ethnic Lunch” with Mising influence which I am yet to try.
Thali from Paradise
The Pioneer in Ethnic food in the north east is The Paradise of the Bezbaruah family. They showcased Assamese staple “Mass bhat” ( Fish and Rice) in Thali form and started serving it since last seven decades (if I m not mistaken). Once I was a regular visitor to the Guwahati Paradise. They offered a basic fish and meat thali, with khaar ( assmese style vegetable or Daal preparation with alkaline solution extracted from burnt banana tree), two daal, vegetales, kharoli, panitenga, mahor guri etc. at a very reasonable price. I heard that now they are repositioning themselves and targeting the up market clientele. But the Jorhat Paradise do not have the fame that of the yester years. Food is ok but a bit over priced for that ambiance. There was a Paradise in Dolor Mukh Chariali in Sibasagar where I had my first eating out experience with my father, Mother , Mama and Mahi. I clearly remember them serving a very tasty Mutton chop with tomato ketchup and onion on a white plate along with knife and fork . When I grew up I tried to locate that restaurant but found one Paradise on the ground floor of the same building whereas the one I was looking for was on the 1st floor. The food served in that paradise does not fit the name and style of any of the paradise I mentioned earlier. I do not know if it belongs to the same Bezbaruah family or not.
For a fine dining experience of authentic Assamese cuisine “Bhat Ban” of “Iora resort” in Kaziranga is highly recommended.
The spread at Bhat Baan
I must mention one mediocre eatery Named “Tsngpo” catering to office goers around Christian basti which serves reasonably good ethnic thali. On the second floor in the lane near the church this eatery surprised me with a Tai Khamti ( A tribe from Arunachal)Thali which is cooked in almost zero oil except for one vegetable fry to suit the palate of Guwahatians. They served rice (Topola Bhat) wrapped in green leaves ( Kou Paat) . The rice was steamed not boiled and came with Two different pain boiled daal, Mashed potato, and two green leafy veg , spine gourd ( Bhat kerela) fry ,Boiled Taro (Kosu ) with tender shoot of an wild plant ( Torar Gaaj) and some gourd and crab chutney all for Rs.110/- Non veg items are extra. On that particular day they were celebrating their anniversary so they offered a glass of clear amber coloured local brew named “apong.”on the house. All these restaurants source their ingredients from remote places and try to keep it as authentic as possible.
Tai Khamti Thali
Most of these ethnic restaurants serve pork which is not acceptable to many of us and for vegetarians the choice is even more limited. Mising restaurants have good variety of fishes, In Manipuri hotels too main stay is fish. Chicken is available in all of these eateries. But the conservative hearts will keep wishing that they would not mix up the serving spoons.