Northeast has been the home to a wide range of ethnic tribes and communities and each tribe boasts of its own unique culture, customs and cuisines. When it comes to food, the tribes of Northeast have acquired a very rich melange of traditional knowledge as they have always had the exposure and accessibilty to forests, plants and plant products. These food habits are then passed on from generations to generations which changed along with time depending on the availability of resources.
One such common food habit that still exits since millenia and is found in almost all the tribes is the process of food Fermentation.
Fermentation is one of the archaic and economical methods of preserving food as well as enhancing its taste & nutritional qualities. It is basically a metabolical process in which microorganisms like yeasts or bacteria, convert carbohydrates into alcohol or organic acids.
Scientifically, fermentation promotes growth of beneficial bacteria known as probiotics. According to studies, supplementation of probiotics to food provides health benefits like improving digestion, boosting immune system etc.
Fermented food of northeast have unique flavour, texture, appearances and funtionalities based on the substrates and raw material. Considering these aspects, the fermented foods of Northeast can be categorized in many different categories like Fermented Vegetables, fish, meat, alcohol beverage, soyabean, bamboo shoot, dairy products etc. Let’s discuss few of the categories.
- Fermented Vegetables
Sinki: Consumed in Sikkim, Sinki is a form of fermented radish tap root. The vegetable is abundantly available in winter season, hence Sinki is mostly prepared in less humid atmosphere. After the process of fermentation, the food comes out as a mass which is then cut into small pieces and sun-dried for 3-5 days. It can be stored for 2 or more years at room temperature giving it periodical exposure to sunlight.
Ziang sang: Although produced dominantly in Nagaland, this fermented leafy vegetable is commonly used in both Nagaland and Manipur. It is prepared from withered leaves of ‘hangam’ crushed and soaked in warm water. After keeping the liquid in a container for 7-10 days, the consistency of the content becomes semi- solid. Water is extracted and the paste is sun- dried for 4-5 days. The product lasts for around a year and can be consumed as a soup with rice.
Anishi: It is one of the most popular Naga delicacies prepared mainly by the Ao Tribe. It is made from the leaves of edible Yams. After collecting and properly washing, the leaves are piled upon one another and wrapped in banana leaves. The leaves are left to turn yellow which takes around a week. Once it’s dine, the leaves are grounded into a paste after mixing with salt, chili and ginger which is then made into cakes. The cakes are then dried over fireplace or under sun. After it has dried, it can be used as a condiment or cooked with meat especially pork.
- Fermented Fish Food
Ngari: Ngari holds an important part in Manipuri cuisine. A local fish species is used for making Ngari which is coated with salt and then sun-dried. A layer of mustard oil is applied to the inner wall of an earthen pot which is then filled with the fish, pressed tightly an sealed. It’s stored in room temperature for 4-6 months. It has a shelf life for about a year and is consumed as a side dish with rice.
Hentak: It is a traditonally fermented paste prepared by using a local species of fish in Manipur. The fish is sundried and then crushed into powder. Slices of petioles of wild Alocasia Ncrorrhiza (Honga in Manipuri) crushed together with fish powder to form a paste. The paste is formed into earthen pots and left to ferment at room temperature for two weeks. It can be consumed as a curry.
Tungtap: It is indegenious delicacy of the Khasi tribe of Meghalaya. Local species of fish are used to prepare Tungtap. The fish is sundried and mixed with salt. It is then put in earthen pots, kept airtight and left to ferment for about a week. It’s usualy consumed as a pickle or curry.
- Fermented Alcohol Beverages
Apong: This rice beer is prepared by the Mishing tribe in Assam and in the state of Arunachal Pradesh. First yeast cakes are prepared which are called ‘Ipoh’. To prepare Apong, rice is washed and boiled in a large aluminnium vessel then Ipoh is added and mixed thouroughly. The mixture is transfered to another vessel and water is added to it. The vessel is covered with a lid and left to ferment for 3-5 days till it is ready for consumption.
Ennog: It’s traditional black rice beer prepared by the Adi Galo tribe of Arunachal Pradesh. To prepare Ennog, rice is cooked with burnt paddy husk. The mixture is again mixed with powdered Ipoh cakes. The mixture is then taken out in conical bamboo basket sealed with Phrylum Capitalum wild and left to ferment for there days. It is again transfered to another U-shaped basket and more leaves are added to make it airtight and left for 10 days to ferment. Once it’s done, the fermented mass is filtered.
Zutho: Zutho is prepared by the Angami tribe of Nagaland. It’s basically a rice beer made from sprouted rice grain. To prepare Zutho unhulled glutinous rice grains soaked in for a few days and then rice is allowed to germinated after draining off the water. The Zeme Naga tribe of Cachar hills of Assam also prepares their local beverages in a similar way known as ‘dekuijau’.
4. Fermented Soyabean Food
Hawaijar: It’s a fermented Soyabean product. It is a popular delicacy of the Metei community of Manipur. However, it has a short shelf-life of 3-4 days. It is usually eaten as paste mixed with salt and chili.
Tungrumbai: It is prepared by the Khasi tribe of Meghalaya. It’s one the most common source of protein in the diet of the khasi people. It’s usually consumed as a side dish with rice.
Akhuni: It’s a popular delicacy in Nagaland. It is prepared by boiling beans and then it wrapped in banana leaves and kept over fire place. It takes about a week to ferment and then it’s ready to be consumed as a chutney used along with meat while cooking meat.These were just a few examples from the big basket of fermented products in the Northeast.
Most of the time fermentation is often mistaken with the process of canning as both the processes lead to long shelf-life of food. According to writer Aaron Vansintjan, “fermentation is diplomacy and canning is a massacre”. Technically, canning focuses on killing any microorganisms exposure to spoilage shereas fermentation focuses on suppressing bad bacteria and encouraging good good bacteria.
For the people of Northeast fermentation is not just a method of preserving from. It hasa cultural value and sentiment attached to it. Although archaic, fermentation makes a lot if sense even now as modern food system is wasteful. If we learn to ferment food at home, we’ll be saving a lot.
To keep the traditions alive and also adding some innovative touch some people and organizations from Northeast have been taking the process of fermentation to a different level. Among the list, Monimala Borah from Jorhat is worth mentioning. She is considered to be the first winemaker from Jorhat. Monimala combines Phalap tea from Singpho land in Assam and strawberries from Meghalaya along with solid wood apple and lavander taken all the way from Kashmir, to create an extraordinary and wide range of wines. She didn’t have any kind of professional training and everything started as a trial and error. Now, Monimala sells her creations under the brand name ‘Mons’.
Another name worth mentioning is of Arunachal’s Tage Rita whose efforts led to the all organic kiwi winery in India and also the first wine to be launched in the country on a commercial scale. It was named ‘Naara aaba’ and the winery is located at Arunachal’s lower Subhansiri district.
Tage Rita initiated the idea of wine making because of her love for different kinds of wine, exotic fruit and to preserve the fruit in its best form and taste. Also, Rita, as a farmer’s daughter, felt that kiwi farmers were not finding a market for their produce and also her own fruits would rot and had to ne fed to the cattle and pigs. Her winery has the capacity of 40,000 litres, enough to accomodate all the kiwis grown in the entire state in a single batch.
Many other commercial sites from Northeast like Emacart, Ilandlo, Gisika are selling also selling packaged fermented products to make it available to the masses.
These traditional methods prepared by the people of the Northeastern region are intimately connected to the socio-cultural, ecological and spiritiual life. These processes demonstrate the creativity and richness of food heritage of Northeast. The major share of the Northeastern stayes is agrarian and covered with forests. The abundance of resources and climatic conditions set the perfect backdrop for a strong symbiosis of tradition and science as seen in the processes of fermentation. Most of these products are prepared for local consumption. If more efforts are put into proper marketing of the products, it would lead to a great upliftment of the regional economy.