Someone recently asked me a question I had never seriously considered: What were my favourite cities in which to eat out? In no order—Dimapur, Madurai, Imphal, Guwahati and Panaji.
My predilection for North-Eastern food in general is well known to family and friends. My favourite has got to be Naga food, in particular Angami and Tangkhul cuisines. There is very little frying in Naga food and it tends to be sublime: stewed, braised, boiled, or otherwise cooked with very little or no oil.
There are lots of herbs and greens and by its preference for natural ingredients, it is organic in the truest sense. And it can be fiery. Tangkhul Nagas (their traditional homeland in neighbouring Manipur) use the smoky Sirarakhong chilli, others use the King chilli, the world’s fieriest. The Tanghkhul Raphei Hoksa, or pork stewed for a couple of hours or more in Sirarakhong chilli, water, salt and perhaps dry, local basil, is one of India’s lesser-known culinary wonders.
The Angamis, from whom originates Nagaland’s famous Zutho or rice beer, use greens, squashes, and other local produce in their pork, often smoked. In case you think Naga food is all about pork, you may be right to a great extent, but their smoked and other fish, their chutneys made with dried prawns or local herbs and their “side dishes”—vegetarian but never described as such—can be sublime.
Dimapur is also home to some of the politest people I have encountered. When we were there once, I asked for an entrée on the menu of a small, local restaurant. The cashier, the only visible employee, was apologetic that they did not have it that day. She grabbed her handbag, asked us to watch the store and said I’ll get it—from a competitor nearby. I also have a soft corner for the Angamis because it is from them that a rousing, soaring Naga anthem originates, A Ra Kezivi, or “My beautiful homeland”. Listen to it.
Since Manipur is such a melange—and now clash—of cultures, its food is incredibly diverse. Some of the best meals, either simple rice and fish or expansive thalis with meats and many unfamiliar vegetables can be had around Imphal’s Ema Keithal market, run entirely by women. It pains me to think of what has now become of a state of such diversity and promise, destroyed by its worst instincts and venal leaders.
Guwahati, like Imphal, is a meeting point of cultures, and its restaurants serving traditional food offer a similar variety of meats and vegetables. The defining characteristic is largely the same across the North-East: low or no oil, fresh, healthy, and local ingredients. I have also had some memorable meals in Meghalaya but mainly in unnamed eating dives, offering a piece of beef, pork, or fish with vegetables and local rice for less than ₹150.
Swing to the south and you will find extraordinary Madurai. Yes, a temple town that takes its food ever so seriously and offers a variety of goat cuts and innards in myriad iconic restaurants where most patrons are locals, seriously chomping their way through such local exotica as dosa-and-kidney breakfasts. From meatballs to spleen to biryani, you are spoilt for choice, and not just if you are a meat-eater. There are several vegetarian options, as my wife realised when we dropped by at the local Madurai Pandi Mess in Kamanahalli, Bengaluru last week. She came along with some scepticism, believing the Pandi in the title stood for pandi or pork, as the Coorgis call it. She was ecstatic in the end about the spinach-dal, rice and tangy, tamarind-infused vegetables served on a banana leaf. We are going again this weekend, which is when they get fish fresh from Rameswaram, trucked in overnight from Tamil Nadu.
Panaji is on my list mainly for parochial reasons, I admit, but I also happen to really like my native food, limited though it can be in variety. Panaji itself has some marvellous restaurants that interpret or protect culinary tradition, and a trawl through them is always satisfying. Of all the fish I have eaten nationwide and across the world, few things are as satisfying to me as a traditional Goan fish curry. I have a weakness for Goan sausages as well, but I eat them sparingly, given their unhealthy nature. I had a packet lying in my freezer and mitigated their spice and oil by making a stew, as you can see below. If you want to reduce the fieriness of the sausage, reduce their quantity. We had it with bread from our local bakery. It was the ideal accompaniment to a cool monsoon day.
Chicken and choris stew
500g chicken, small pieces
3 choris or Goa sausages, sliced
1 tsp Kashmiri red chilli powder
8 pieces of garlic, smashed
1 onion, sliced
1 tomato, chopped
1 tbsp tomato puree
2 small potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 large carrot, sliced
1 tsp fresh thyme
1 tsp fresh oregano
1 tbsp fresh cilantro, for garnish
Salt to taste
2 tsp oil
In a pan, gently heat the oil. Add garlic and onions and saute until the onions are translucent. Add the chicken and saute till brown or golden. Add the chilli powder and saute for a minute, ensuring the powder is fried well. Add the chopped tomato, potato and carrot and mix well. Add salt and tomato puree. Mix again and saute for two minutes. Add thyme and oregano. Add water, enough to just cover everything. Cover and simmer till the chicken, carrot and potato are cooked. Open cover and reduce the stew if you want. Garnish with cilantro and serve with bread.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. He posts @samar11 on Twitter.