In Manipur, little tea and food stalls dot the roads, markets and villages. Whether grouped together on the periphery of the markets, a small shop on the highway or the only store that serves an entire village, they’re ubiquitous. Locally called 'hotels', a lot of the Milaap borrowers I meet take loans for their ‘hotels’.
A loan helps them expand the business by buying materials in bulk and renovations. These ‘hotels’ are also the best place to delve into the local cuisine. Depending on their size and location, the dishes range from just chai and salad to a smorgasbord of dishes.
One of these hotels in the Thoubal region here is owned by Akoijam Jagdish. Their hotel (named Eikhoigee Hotel) has been in his family for over 20 years. Jagdish, 27, has worked here since he was young, fully taking over at 15.
Jagdish outside his 'hotel'
Eikhoigee Hotel serves a variety of food, but they’re most consistently stocked with the staple Manipuri offering of rice, fish and the many varieties of leafy vegetables like Nungshi hidak (mint), nappakpi (chives), toning-khoh (chameleon plant), chantruk (pepper cress). Manipur also has a number of vegetables that are unique to this region, such as yonder (a type of taro), hangam pere (mustard leaf), hangam angora (lettuce), kolamni (water spinach), uyen (similar to shiitake mushroom) and sebum (fermented bamboo shoot).
The staple fish dishes are steamed or stewed with several vegetables and spices. Oil is rarely used. Even the rice in Manipur is unique: thicker, takes less time to cook and, in my opinion, tastier.
Rice and fish are the staples. It is consumed with a healthy dash of fresh vegetables. With the abundance of rice fields, locals who can afford nothing else will have it for breakfast with milk. Fish is reared in small ponds across Manipur, and the more remote you get, the more common it is to find these ponds next to a home.
Jagdish in his vegetable garden
Across the different dishes, the ingredients are fresh and healthy. With fruits and vegetables coming directly from farms, they’re the definition of organic. Most people, Jagdish is no exception, grow their own vegetables in a small garden. The cuisine is very seasonal and the produce is crisp and fresh. Oil is used sparingly. Most items are steamed or boiled rather than fried, giving that item its own unique aromatic smell incomparable to anything else.
Aromatic herbs in Jagdish's garden
What really sets apart Manipuri food from the rest of India is the use of various aromatic herbs, spices and roots. A lot of the vegetation that grows here is distinctive to Manipur, ensuring that the dishes retain a sense of uniqueness. Jagdish thinks it is the ingredients. “We have ingredients that you can only get in Manipur. An example is the dry fish. They're so local there are no names for them in English,” he says.
Manipuri’s absolutely love their spices. Umorok chilli (king chilli) is, by far, the most piquant chilli I’ve ever eaten. But Jagdish is unperturbed. “Umorok is also called giant chilli and it’s very popular. People love it because of its strong smell. We have more piquant variants in Manipur, but umorok is most popular because of its fragrance,” he says.
The piquant Umorok or King Chilly fresh in the market
Jagdish dares me to try one. I nibbled on a raw chilli and my oesophagus was in instant torture, especially since there was no milk nearby. I’m in awe when I watch colleagues eat whole chilli’s raw with their chai as if they were harmless sweet biscuits. Umorok is included in almost every dish but features most prominently in the staple fish curry which is cooked with potatoes.
But at the Eikoighee, though, this is not the most popular dish. Ooti is a Manipuri heavy curry that Jagdish makes with peas, beans, vegetables, oil and baking soda. Ngri is another favourite and is made of dry, fermented fish. It is cooked with a tangy Morok Metpa – a dry chutney made with green chilly.
Ngri can be accompanied with Singju, the Manipuri take on a salad. As ubiquitous as rice in this region, Singju is made from finely chopped banana stem, banana flower, onions, cabbage leaves, ginger, coriander, and various other seasonal vegetables. The optional boiled kidney beans give it that added bit of flavour. Though it took some getting used to, it has now become of my favourite snacks.
Singju, the Manipuri take on salad. Photo credits: Ashish Chopra
Jagdish and I share the same favourite Manipuri food: Eromba. “The main ingredients of eromba are chilli, bamboo shoots and dry fish,” he says as we share a plate. Select boiled mashed vegetables are added to it making it a complete meal. At lunchtime or dinner, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a gathering of people not eating eromba.
Perhaps as a result of the seasonality of the available ingredients, each season has its own preparations. During Durga Puja, for example, only fish is consumed. Especially the elders in a family tend to not stray from fish. Eating any meat apart from fish is considered disrespectful to one’s forefathers and ancestors.
These days, chicken is almost as regular a staple as fish. “In the hotel, chicken is almost as popular as Ooti. But we have a very different way of cooking it. We cook the chicken with its skin and lots of chillies. And it is not usually fried, only boiled or steamed,” he says.
Amongst the youth, dog and snake are considered delicacies. Cobras are the hardest to catch and are therefore the crowning point of delicacies for most.
The lovely, short evenings are invariably accompanied by bora. Like rice and singju, they’re a staple part of the Manipuri lifestyle. Bora is essentially deep-fried anything. Depending on what the hotel has in stock, it’s usually shallots, chives or potato. Okra, cucumber and eggplant are also used. Each plate costs only Rs 5, and it is customary to have one plate with chai.
Fresh Bora with tea at the Eikhoigee Hotel
But the there is one dish that Jagdish's favourite. Not to eat or make, but the one he’s proudest of as a Manipuri. “It’s a dish called Chagem Pomba. It is cooked with fermented soya bean with lots of various vegetables and ingredients added in,” he explains.
It is vegetarian and because it is very heavy, it is only eaten at lunch. As Jagdish explains, you can get the fermented soya bean in neighbouring northeastern states like Meghalaya, but what you can't get are the vegetables that set it apart.
The vegetable market filled with fresh, organic produce
With its fresh foods, and vivid spices and fragrances, Manipuri cuisine is a reflection of the state's uniqueness within India.
The author is a Milaap Fellow bringing on-ground stories of hope, resilience and change from Manipur.