What The Fish – Food Obsession In Manipur

by | Feb 22, 2018

We all have met many foodies. The new generation seems to be over enthusiastic about food. It has become the latest fad where everyone is putting up pictures of what they eat or taste. My Instagram feed is filled with friends uploading such attractive food pictures that I haven’t seen for real. It’s mouth-watering. The way cheese drips down that double patty steak burger. The chocolate chips stuffed in chocolate pastry. Oh! My eyes melt as I control my urge to eat something similar. Undoubtedly, food is as soothing as sex, or even more.

You may ask how does it feel to stay away from all the delicacies and still keep myself sane while working in a remote village of Manipur, where I get 4G network to scroll down my Instagram feed but no fancy food to taste. I’m not even sure if all that good-looking food always tastes great. But, that’s how we analyse pretty things.

It has been 7 months now, since I am working here. The village has a beautiful landscape and lovely women. People are obsessed with their food, which is drastically different from what I would imagine good food to be.

They are crazy about NGA (fish) and NGARI (fermented fish). They would eat, drink, smell and lick it whenever possible. Yes, I’m exaggerating! But, they certainly buy and eat fish every day. It has been an integral part of their cuisine since centuries. A traditional Meitei family, which has 2-3 kids, eats four bowls of fermented fish for a meal. Staying with them, I have started to believe that fish would be swimming in their blood for generations. They own and nurture their cuisine like any other culture around the world. They carry it everywhere possible, even while travelling, because they can’t seem to live without it.

Meiteis started praticing Sanamahism even before the advent of Hinduism. The traditional food of Sanamahis was rice and fish, because of it’s availability in abundance. Each house still owns a kitchen garden and a pond to tend fish. They grow vegetables and squash it all in their kitchen to smack it into their mouths. Initially, their culture allowed them to eat only fish and vegetables, and no other kind of meat. Times have changed now. You can smell meat cooking once in a while. They use minimum amount of oil and most of their dishes are either boiled or stewed. A variety of seasonal vegetables are grown in their backyard which taste heavenly. Typically, in Meitei community, they eat twice a day, once in morning and then in the evening. They consume a lot of rice at once which keeps them full for the next 10-12 hours. They may have changed what they eat but haven’t changed the way they eat. The cooking style also remains same.

The food habits largely depend on the availability of items in large quantities. Manipur receives about 1000 mm rainfall in a year, which is much more than most of other Indian states. Because of heavy rainfall and an efficient water harvesting system being followed since ages, the land is fertile. The major crop is paddy. Every household is involved in fishery and  get a variety of fish. It’s hard to find their names in other languages. Evening local markets are usually owned by women and lined with rows of raw, dried, burnt, sun burnt, charcoal burnt, small and extra small fish, among others. These are bred in local fresh water ponds and lakes, which enhances the taste, and we love to savor them all.

Before coming here, I was never a big fan of sea food or fish, to be specific. It would stink so much that when my mother used to cook fermented fish or dry fish, I would run away. In the beginning, I struggled with food here. I wasn’t ready for it at all. Everything tasted and smelled of fish, something I have been irritated with, but I realized I’ll have to make peace with my past, calm my senses for a while and concentrate solely on hunger. Slowly, it started tasting better. It only took me a couple of weeks to avoid the smell and relish what was provided. Eventually, I began to feel incomplete without fish as a part of my meals. Now, after seven months of eating fish more than I ate in my whole life, it is cheese, chocolate, and everything else I don’t find here. Hope this love stays with me throughout.

Here are some of the other special Meitei cuisines I eat on a regular basis:

Iromba: An all-time favorite dish, made out of seasonal vegetables that are boiled together and then crushed with the bottom of a steel glass. Three to four type of veggies are used with a pinch of Umorok (red chili) to spices it up. Some varieties of the dish are Yongchak iromba and Bamboo Shoot iromba.

Uti: A thick paste of vegetables or peas, usually served with rice

Shingzu: A traditional Meitei salad eaten with dry fish

Kangshoi: Vegetable soup with a variety of fish served with rice

Cha: Red tea

Bora: Fried leafy vegetables in oil, or veg fritters

I might be missing on a few special delicacies but these are the usual ones on what I survive. Manipur is a unique place with special food, which will remain with me forever.

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1 Comment

  1. saumyadebdasgupta

    This hits right in the feels bro! Thanks for this gastronomic article!


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