Born and brought up in South India, I know very little about the Northeast. Not that I’m ignorant, it’s just the lack of first hand experience when it comes to their traditions and culture. From exotic foods to handmade shawls, they use the natural resources around them for day to day life.
The people of the Northeast use natural produce and most of their creations don’t see the inside of a machine. Modernization has not ruined their humble beauty. In fact, Sikkim, has been declared as a completely ‘Organic State’. Isn’t that an inspiration?
Tradition in the Northeast is considered with high regard. They have so much to teach the world, if the world would only listen. Some of the traditional methods used in the Northeast are terribly fascinating, among them would be their method of preservation.
(An inside story: When the CEO, Meghanath was sharing the story of preserving fish, he was so excited that his face lit-up. He had every reason, you’ll see why as you read on.)
Gundruk is, in simple terms, fermented vegetable food of the Nepali’s. This particular method of natural preservation is focused during the winters when there are large quantities of mustard leaves, rayo-sag (a local mustard variety), radish and other vegetables pile up. Leaves of rayo-sag, mustard or cauliflower are wilted, shredded, mildly crushed and pressed into an air-tight earthen jar or container. It is fermented naturally for about 7-10 days. After 7-10 days, a mild acidic tastes confirms the fermentation. The gundruk is then removed from the jar and sun dried for 3-4 days to make it dry. The gundruk is eaten as soup or pickled.
Funky in taste and flavour, Kinema is popularly loved by the people of the Northeast. Kinema is basically sticky fermented soybean with an ammonia-cal flavour produced by the Nepali women. Yellow varieties of soybean are soaked over night and then boiled till they become soft. The excess water is drained and the seeds are slightly cracked by a wooden pestle (muslo) in a wooden mortar (okhli) to split the cotyledons. About 1% of firewood ash is added to the cooked soybeans to maintain its alkaline condition. Soybean grits are placed in a basket which is lined with a locally grown fern. This is covered in a jute bag and allowed to ferment naturally for 1-2 days above an earthen oven kitchen. A white viscous mass confirms the fermentation process.
Fermented fish foods are deeply associated with food culture of the Meitei in Manipur, which are prepared and eaten in every festival and occasion. Hentak is made from the fish (Esomus danricus) after drying in the sun and crushed to powder in a Sumban (a traditional pounding tool made of wood). The stalk of Alocasia macrorhiza are then cut into pieces washed with water and exposed to sunlight for an hour. An equal weight of the cut pieces are then crushed along with fish powder to make a paste. Small balls are prepared and put in earthen pots and stored. After two weeks of fermentation, it is ready to use. These balls start to harden after few months, which are then propounded to create a paste with a little water and stored as balls for reserve food. It is said that the fish is bitter and the plant itchy, however when the are mixed together these characters become neutralised. Isn’t that something?
A favourite among the Ao of Nagaland. Anishi is an ethnic fermented vegetable product made from yam leaves. Fresh edible yam (Colocasia sp) leaves are collected, washed, piled up, wrapped in banana leaves and kept aside for a period of 6-7 days. The leaves turn yellow and are then mixed with chili, salt and ginger and ground to a paste. Finally, the paste is moulded into cakes and placed above an earthen oven for 2-3 days. Anishi is used as a condiment and is cooked with dry meat like pork.
Sinki, a fermented radish tap root which is fermented by using the ‘pit fermentation’method. About 1 m pit of the same diameter is dug in a dry place which is then cleaned, plastered by mud and warmed by burning. After carefully removing the ashes, the pit is lined with Bamboo Sheaths and Paddy Straw. The Radish tap roots are wilted for 2-3 days, crushed, dipped in lukewarm water, squeezed and tightly pressed into the pit. Stones or planks are used to apply weight while the top of the pit is plastered with mud to let the root ferment naturally for 22-30 days. After complete fermentation the sinki is removed and sun dried for 3-5 days. The dry sinki can be kept at room temperature for over 2 years.
Goang is an ethnic fermented acidic vegetable food of Sherpa of Darjeeling Hills & Sikkim. It is prepared during the rainy season when the leaves of the wild plant magane-saag (Cardamine Mycrophylla) are plenty. Leaves of this plant are collected, washed, cut into pieces, sqeezed to drain water and are tightly pressed into bamboo baskets with 2-3 layers of fig leaves which are also used to cover the top of the baskets. After a month, the fresh Goyang is transferred into an air-tight container where it can be stored for 2-3 months. Goyang can be kept longer by making them into balls and sun-drying them.
Ziansang bears a huge resemblance to gundruk. Though similar they do in vary in flavour and texture. Popular in Nagaland and Manipur, mustard leaves are crushed and soaked in warm water. The leaves are then squeezed to remove excess water and then is placed in an air-tight container where it is left to ferment for 7-10 days. Like gundruk, the leaves are dried for a period of 4-5 days and stored in a container for a year or so. Freshly fermented inziangsang juice is extracted by squeezing the leaves and concentrated boiling. The liquid form of fermented extract is called ziang dui, which is stored in a traditional bamboo container for over a year.
Born from the hills of Darjeeling, Mesu is a fermented bamboo shoot pickle that introduces a sour-acidic taste to your palette. Locally grown young edible shoots choya bans, karati bans and bhalu bans are defoliated, finelly chopped and pressed into a hollow green bamboo stem. The ends of the shoot are covered with bamboo leaves or other wild leaves and left to ferment under natural anaerobic conditions for 7-15 days. Completion of the fermentation is indicated by the typical mesu flavour and taste. Mesu is eaten as a pickle and preserved for months.
There are various other methods used to ferment Bamboo. Soibum & Soidon in Manipur, Ekung, Eup & Hirring in Arunachal Pradesh, Lung- Siej in Meghalaya are among the many variations of preserving bamboo.
We can say without hesitation that the Northeast earns it’s credit in fermentation. The methods mentioned are a just a few of their various methods. From small tribes to bigger villages and cities, these methods of preservation are practiced today! Natural and healthy, they should definitely go on your food list.