Exploring the local cuisine is a very important part of my travels, it takes me close to the culture of the land. While traveling to Manipur, I did not know what to expect from the food except that it is centered around fish (Nga) and will probably be close to Bengali and Assamese cuisines. During my 4 day trip I had ample opportunity to dig into local Manipur cuisine. All over Imphal, you have these small shack like places with boards saying Chak (Rice) Hotel, Rice Hotel, Meat Hotel and some of them offer really good authentic stuff. Manipuri Cuisine which is Meitei cuisine is simple and tasty, centred around fish and sticky rice, seasonal vegetables and of course amply spiced with the local U Morok (Chilly). While we traveled down the hill side, I also sampled the boiled sweet potato and of course the uber juicy pineapple sold off the fields.
While chatting with my guide Yaiphaba of Imphal Walks, I realised that most households have a kitchen garden for seasonal vegetables. The fish is from local ponds or the Loktak Lake but of recent some varieties were coming in from Bengal and down south. The use of Garam Masala which is a common ingredient in other parts of India is relatively absent in the cooking and maybe because the Mughals could not claw into the Meitei bastion and leave their trademark imprint.
Over a 4 day trip, I had the real authentic Manipur on my plate; courtesy Lakshmi my hostess and her mother-in-law who dished out some lip smacking stuff which wins hands down over the New Luxmi Hotel near Polo Ground and the newly opened Luxmi Kitchen close to Khwairamband Bazaar. It may not be a mere co-incidence that all are name sakes of the Goddess of Wealth !! universe was conspiring I think 🙂
The Singju or Salad was a bunch of finely chopped cabbage, local green leaves and roots, lotus stems and nicely mixed with roasted chick pea powder and some red chilly flakes. As I munched through it, the raw taste of it seemed to open up my taste buds for more.
The fish (Nga) dishes are generally Eromba, Thongba, Atoiba, Ataoba and some exotic ones like the Ngahei Nganam. The Eromba is a mash up of seasonal vegetables largely potato and squash, stink beans and fermented fish (Ngari) tempered with chilly and then garnished with spring onions. I had the vegetarian one without fish in Hotel Classic which was utterly bland and and a home cooked with fermented fish at Lakshmi’s and needless to say the latter wins my heart mind and soul.
Thongba is a gravy curry which can be cooked with Sana (Paneer); Vegetables or Fish. The fish is fried and added to the gravy which is simply made with turmeric, ginger paste and cumin and coriander and optionally onion cooked in mustard oil. The best part is the absence of tomato in the gravy. The Thongba in all 3 places was good, but since I am not a Rohu fan, I loved the one at Lakshmi’s prepared with Tilapia and of course oodles of love. Ataoba is fried fish and often a large fish is sliced into smaller pieces and then cooked with beans, green leaves and herbs and lo turns into Nga Atoiba Thongba.
I also sampled the Ngahei Nganam from Hotel Classic which was very close to the Bengali Paturi. A thick fish fillet was marinated in mint and coriander paste and wrapped in turmeric leaves and then further wrapped in banana leaves before being steamed. It appeared exotic when served with a bowl of dal (lentil) and rice and the taste okay!!
Luxmi Kitchen is run by an all women team and is a neat place tucked away in a basement in the busy market area. The thali (Rs 120) came with 10 dishes served in bowls. The servings are unlimited and they are in no hurry to ask you leave. It seemed to be a hot favourite with locals. Apart from the Fish, I also got to taste Ooty (Peas Curry); Hawai (Lentil); Kangsoi (Veg Stew); Boiled Chamfut (Root); Maroi (Green Vegs-Saag); and a very liquid preparation Hei Thongba made of a local fruit. Every dish had its unique taste and flavour and for a change it was not all onion and tomato mash ups. New Luxmi Hotel was nearly similar except that the food was served on a banana leaf and the seating was basic, and the taste a little more rustic and basic. I watched them cook in large pots on a country oven. Most of their patrons seem to be students and people who work around the area. I took generous helpings of shrimps fried with a local herb. It was an excellent accompaniment with the rice and dal and I could see everyone turn away and smile in their language while I gorged into the herbed shrimp. I wanted to taste the popular Aloo Kangmet vegetarian dish but sadly it was not available at either joint that day.
The love for betel leaves was apparent specially by the older generation. What caught my eye, were the ones that were filled with boiled chopped gooseberry with a sprinkling of chilly powder. Chilly, Chilly every where !! now I know where the fiery courage of the women of the land come from 🙂
With so much chilly on my plate, the dessert had to be special and unique. I am grateful to Yaiphaba’s mother who prepared some excellent Chak Hao kheer in a jiffy !! The antioxidant rich black rice (Chak Hao) which was reserved for Chinese Royalty once upon a time was right there in front of me in a beautiful purple hue, sweetened with Milk and Sugar and of course generously laced with cardamom powder. Slurp Slurp !!