We’ve stopped at the Ram Mandir outside the snaking by-lanes of Khar Danda, close to Carter Road. It’s Ram Navami, and the blaring bhajans follow us everywhere. Despite the fact that I stay in Khar, these pockets of Danda are alien to me. I’ve spotted at least three stores selling snacks like dried prawn chutney, a kind of chicken sukha, groundnuts, corn and beans. I pass this way several times every week, but I’ve never really looked.
My friend Zan is Naga and he insists we let go of our rickshaw and walk from here. He knows his way around the area where every second building looks the same. At one point, it feels like I’m so deep inside, I’ll probably come out at the beach. Side-stepping the muck and grime in narrow by-lanes that smell of dried fish, we’re making our way to the few well-hidden grocery stores in Danda that sell produce brought down by the Naga Tankhul tribe for the Naga, Mizo and Tripura communities that have made this area their home. We cross the fish market, take a turn and reach our first stop. A girl in her twenties is packing bright green leaves with thin tendrils. She greets us and explains that these are Passionfruit leaves. Zan is quick to point out that they’re quite bitter and must be boiled in order to be made edible. I’m quite against boiling greens, but I decide to hold on to them anyway.
By the time I’m done pointing at things and quizzing both Zan and the exasperated young girl, I’ve already run up a bill of a few hundreds. I’m advised against picking up the yongchak or stinkbeans, but I’ve bought Raja chillies, candied plums, shredded beef, fragrant ngayung or lizard’s tail, culantro or Naga dhaniya, and dried Lomba or lemongrass-scented spikes that make up a flower.
At store number two, I find a kind of spring garlic that I know will sizzle splendidly in a hot wok when stir-fried. The cheery manager at the store guides me towards a different bottle of shrimp paste when I reach for a much smaller green packet. The shrimp paste, he says, is mixed with some raja chilli and hangs beside packets of dried anchovies that are ready to be fried in oil, or added to boiling stews. He assures me that if I come back in a few days, he’ll have tons of new things for me. I’m excited as a schoolgirl! Just when I’m about to go, I grab a packet of soft mushroom-like fermented bamboo shoots. Big mistake.
Back home, week 1 was spent trying to put these ingredients to the test in both contemporary as well as traditional dishes and I decided to get down with the ngayung roots. A bit of it was chopped and added to water with mutton, garlic and salt to both cook the mutton, and make a very flavourful stock, while some of it was sautéed with onions, ginger, garlic, pumpkin and chillies to turn it into a pumpkin soup. The mutton was then stir-fried with some of the shrimp paste I bought earlier, while the stock was added to the soft pumpkin when blending it into soup. The ngayung or lizard’s tail roots imparts a fresh, herby, almost grassy flavour and is great as a garnish for salads that need that little extra texture. Ngayung gets pickled too, I’m told. Instead of using spice powders or an excess of garam masala, North-East cuisines depend on a more natural form of spice, and add herbs, leaves and flowers to their dishes to flavour them. I finish with the jagged-edged culantro or Burmese coriander and move on to my next dish- a Tripuri vegetable stew called Godok.
The Godok recipe comes from Purabi Sridhar and Sanghita Singh’s cookbook ‘Seven Sisters’, and uses bamboo shoot. I snip open the packet of fermented bamboo shoots I’ve bought and add it to my saucepan that boasts French beans, yellow-hued potatoes, mushrooms and some dried fish. A strong and rather unpleasant smell rises from the pan and travels into the living room, settles on the walls, sits on the furniture and refuses to leave. We air the room, perfume the air, light incense sticks, but the smell stays for three whole days. The stew tastes delicious but dad is furious with my experiment. It was a rather funky umami bomb that takes some getting used to, but if you’re up to the challenge, make this one.
Raja chilli or U-morok is Bhut Jolokia, one of the world’s hottest chilli peppers. The fumes from it are so powerful, I actually encourage you to invest in protective gear when prepping it and step away if you’re going to be frying it. I sautéed one chilli with chicken livers, onion, tomato and the chillies. Simple and so so delicious, but mouth-numbingly spicy.
By the time my second visit rolled in, I had a fair idea what to look out for, or at least that’s what I thought. This Wednesday, there were small packets of snails, ayang thei or small green to yellow bitter brinjals, veined cabbage leaves with little yellow blossoms, dried beef gizzards with chilli, dark green and bitter amphui leaves that I’m told are good for people with low blood pressure and thick stems of thingtupi that smell of Tulsi and resemble stalks of mayalu, which Vikram Doctor refers to as alien tentacles in an old ET article.
I buy one of each, as well as a packet of tiny red seeds/beans (I’m still not sure which of the two they are) called Khamkhui Thei which are boiled in water for 5-10 minutes to make a drink. Some salt and sugar is added, and it’s served either hot or cold. Its tangy taste is supposed to cure stomach-related problems and is actually quite delicious.
The bitter baby brinjals I cooked with potatoes, onions, ginger-garlic paste and some more shrimp paste. The brinjals stayed bitter, but went very well with the sweet onion gravy. The cabbage leaves on the other hand, were dropped into a hot stock flavoured with ginger, chilli, thick blades of chive, dried fish and onion. This stew is indicative of the simple food of the north-east; not a lot of work goes into making this one pot meal but it is almost always bursting with umami because of either a fermented fish or a smelly bean. These are served with rice and provide nutrition for the whole day.
The thingtupi or mayalu stem-lookalike was a challenge to cook with. I separated the tender stalks, chopped it into 1 inch-pieces and stir-fried it in mustard oil with one raja chilli and turmeric. The taste of it was acrid and left a burnt incense flavour on my tongue. My experience with passionfruit leaves was similar- too bitter to go down, even when boiled. The thambou singju salad I made during week 1 with juliennes of lotus stem, sesame and roasted gram flour was at best palatable, but I think I need a better recipe. As a Sindhi, I’m no stranger to lotus stem, but I am apprehensive about eating it raw.
In an attempt to understand the seasonal flavours of the North-East, I will continue to visit this market and cook its offerings. People know so little about it, and I think this opens up a whole new world of ingredients for chefs and home cooks like me who draw inspiration from what’s made available to them, and while this market may not be hyper local, it’s still Indian food in a way I’ve never cooked it before.