I’m here to dispel the myths that surround Northeast Indian food—the cuisines of the frontier states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura. So I’ll start with the very items that, for most of us, define Indian food: oil and masala. Northeastern food will have none of it. Bland, but also hot; pungent, but also aromatic; healthy, but also fatty—these antithetical adjectives can all be used to describe a meal from the Northeast, which is incomplete without a steaming platter of rice and various green vegetables. Poultry (duck, geese, chicken), beef, pork and freshwater fish provide the protein, but the most defining aspect of northeastern cuisine is the minimal use of spice. A chilli or two (enough to spark the fire), ginger, garlic, occasionally sesame and a few local herbs are all it takes to get that distinctive flavour.
What follows is an exploration of how each state measures up on the culinary scale, as well as the signature dishes you must try.
You will find dog meat and hornet larvae on sale in a section of Kohima’s Mao Market, but those are just a few of the ingredients that go into Naga cooking. The state is home to more than 15 tribes and each has its own style of cooking. Akhuni (fermented soy bean), for instance, is an important element for the Seema tribe, whereas the Lothas use bamboo shoot as an essential ingredient; and the Aos use anishi, made from dried yam leaves, to flavour their pork dishes.
In general, Nagas love poultry and fish—but they also relish their pork and beef. In fact, many Nagas rear animals to be slaughtered at feasts, and keep a stock of smoked and salted meat to be used through the year. The meat is first smoked over a large kitchen fire at home, and then it is fermented underground for longevity.
The simplicity of preparation and the use of freshly available herbs are what make Naga cooking very unique. Often, the meat is just cut into large chunks, with only the most basic of condiments, such as ginger, garlic, mejenga seeds (similar to Sichuan pepper) and onions, used to add a kick to it. As a matter of fact, sometimes all that are used to enhance the taste of the meat are salt and chillies.
Speaking of chillies, one can’t discuss Naga food without mentioning the very spicy raja mirchi. Widely acknowledged as one of the hottest chillies in the world, it’s used in generous quantities (and sometimes as the main ingredient) in the food here. The chillies provide heat without the heavy masalas used in the plains.
One of the popular assumptions about food from this part of the country is that it’s heavy on meat. In fact, some of the most delectable highlights of Sikkim are vegetable dishes made from fermented greens. The state’s cuisine is influenced by the dietary habits of its people—Lepchas, Bhutias and Nepalese—who are fond of vegetables. Gundruk, made from leafy greens such as rayo saag (a type of mustard), radish and cauliflower, and sinki, which is prepared from the taproot of radish, are fermented condiments that are dried and stored throughout the year. Kinema is another fermented soy bean preparation, with a chewy consistency and unique flavour. It is used as a side dish to curry and rice. And then there’s sel roti—a ring-shaped sweet bread made of rice batter—which is Nepal’s contribution to Sikkim’s culinary landscape.
In this ‘abode of the clouds’, the one meat that sends residents into raptures is pork. It is a staple in most meals of the three main tribes—the Khasis, Garos and Jaintias. One of their principal pork dishes is jadoh, an aromatic pulav, with pig liver, bay leaves and black pepper. But they also cook fish in some mouth-watering ways. They dry it, cook it in a hollow bamboo container or bake it in banana leaves over an open fire, processes that infuse the fish with delicate, smoky flavours. The Garos, who inhabit the western part of the state, use dried fish in a spicy soup called nakham bitchi, a hugely popular dish that is considered a classic example of the state’s food. Seasoning and animal fat are used sparingly in the cuisine of Meghalaya. Even today, much of what the tribes consume is based on ingredients that grow in the hills. For instance, during the monsoon, mushrooms sprout all across the Khasi and Jaintia hills and, therefore, find their way into many a dish.
Denizens of this state typically don’t cook food with much of a zing to it. But they do like colour on their plate, and use a lot of turmeric. Pork, mithun (a strain of bison) and fish are common sources of meat, but if there’s a particular ingredient that forms the leitmotif of Tripuran cooking, it’s shidal. Used either as a paste or in its dry form, this is made by adding salt and mustard oil to river fish and then keeping it in a clay pot for about a week, until it reaches a certain stage of pungency. Given its strong flavour, shidal is an acquired taste for the non-native. For a native, though, it is a vastly popular flavouring agent and—similar to the use of shrimp paste in the Far Eastis even added to a number of vegetarian dishes.
A meal isn’t complete without an array of greens. The Reangs, who populate the east of the state, bordering Bangladesh, cook their vegetables in hollow bamboo dishes, over a charcoal fire, much like the Khasis and Garos do in Meghalaya.
If there’s one hill state whose cuisine comes close to the way food is cooked in the plains of India, it is this. Manipur offers the greatest variety of dishes among the northeastern states, and its cuisine is spicier and more evolved, with elaborate cooking methods that use considerable oil. Another thing that sets Manipuri food apart is its sheer number of vegetarian options.
Related: Food habits of the Meitei tribe
A typical Manipuri thali can have as many as 30 items, served on a plate and in bowls fashioned out of banana leaves. Dishes consist of various salads, such as singju (made of unripe papaya, chickpeas and fermented fish), various kinds of dals and rice. Typical curries include ooti, made of bamboo shoot, yellow peas and chives, hawai-uri thongba, a bean stew and bawngsha, a beef curry.
Due to the remoteness of its location between Bangladesh and Burma, foraging for and cooking with jungle produce—leaves, roots, nuts and mushrooms—has given this state a unique culinary identity. In addition, many people grow edible plants in small kitchen gardens, giving the farm-to-table phenomenon a whole new meaning. Spices such as cardamom, clove, pepper and cinnamon are almost non-existent in Mizo cooking. Instead, leaves and roots provide the food with its characteristic flavouring.
Related: 5 Best Dishes You Must Know in Mizoram
Sa-um (fermented pork fat) is a frequent addition to vegetable dishes. Mizo people dry and smoke their meats (pork, chicken, mithun) and vegetable produce (bamboo shoot, yam leaves) to ensure their availability regardless of season.
One of the distinguishing facets of the cuisine of Arunachal Pradesh, which shares a border with China, is the use of local herbs with strong medicinal value. Pork, poultry and mithun are all consumed in sizeable quantities. And rice (of which some varieties are indigenous to this region) is steamed, baked and shallow-fried to accompany curries and provide texture to dishes. Wungwut ngam, for instance, is a chicken speciality in which powdered rice is used to create a delicate dish. In mylliem, native peppers are used to give chicken a distinct kick.
The state’s culinary tradition can be understood from the now rarely produced Bohag Bihu feast, which involved the use of 101 different types of greens. Herbs such as modhusaleng, pipoli and brahmi went into the making of the dishes either as flavouring agents or as main ingredients. But that doesn’t mean that Assamese cuisine is largely vegetarian—duck, goose and pigeon meat are very much a part of the state’s dietary vocabulary. Duck and goose are cooked with ash gourd and stuffed into plantain stalk, while pigeon meat with banana flowers and lots of black pepper is a delicious concoction that will leave you sweating. Masor tenga is a popular sour fish curry, which uses heritage tomatoes as a souring agent. And while Nagas have a taste for hornet larvae, the Assamese favour red ant eggs, which inhabit mango trees and absorb their unique flavour.