From my home in east Bengaluru, it is 3,350km by road to Imphal. If you fly, it is 1,200km shorter. That is still quite a distance for a packet of chillies to travel. But that was only the last stage in an epic journey that the Sirarakhong chillies made from a village that lends its name to them, deep in Tangkhul Naga territory in Manipur, one of India’s most diverse states.
The spouse and I got a glimpse of the diversity when we crossed from Nagaland to Manipur on a motorcycle in 2017. Imphal is a vibrant, heaving hub of food, religions, tribes and cultures, featuring, among others, Kukis, Nagas, Pangals and the majority Meiteis: They are animistic, Christian, Muslim and Hindu—each with cuisines that are, to my mind, the best I have eaten in India. That is saying something because before setting foot in Manipur, I rated Naga food at the apex of my food preferences. The Ima Keithel, or Mother’s Market, where we had one memorable meal, was a smorgasbord of creatures, vegetables, herbs and spices, managed efficiently by its friendly, generous women. At the time, I was mainly familiar with the bhut jolokia, the king of chillies, also called the raja mircha.
In Bengaluru, thanks to a wonderful local aggregator (12/2 Kitchen), we have a pipeline of Naga food—smoked pork, smoked fish, even, er, smoked chicken—imbued with the bhut jolokia. The problem is, I am the main consumer. The wife is vegetarian, and while my mother and daughter love Naga food, they quail at dishes where the king chilli is used.
This month, a WhatsApp message addressed that chilli issue. Monalisa Arthur, an ex-colleague and friend who had moved to Imphal, declared that since I cooked so much, she was sending me a packet of the Sirarakhong, or hathei, chilli. It’s widely available in Manipur and even outside (indeed, the 12/2 Kitchen offers Sirarakhong chilli powder), but, as Monalisa pointed out, demand has grown with its spreading fame. That means it is often mixed with other varietals when sold.
So, Monalisa, a Tangkhul Naga, procured a packet from Sirarakhong in Manipur’s Ukhrul region (dominated by Tangkhul Nagas), where it is grown organically. The village is just 70km from Imphal but the roads are treacherous. Of the three vehicles that left, one with four-wheel drive got through, Monalisa said. The others turned back.
Also read | A tryst with the ginger flower from Manipur
In the event, the mission was successful, the original Sirarakhong chilli was delivered to her and couriered to me. There was much excitement when it arrived. I was unsure how to use it but Monalisa, who says she isn’t much of a cook, got me guidance from her sisters. Since that guidance came from Tangkhul kitchens, it obviously involved pork, although it can be used with most meats. It couldn’t have been simpler, as the recipe below indicates.
The Sirarakhong chilli has a unique, smoky flavour that is best on its own. We tried it once in our red peanut chutney, replacing our Byadgi chilli, but that was a failure: The Sirarakhong is too intense and its smokiness tends to overpower other flavours.
Left to myself, I could eat Manipuri food of all cultures for every meal but there are still some hurdles to procuring ingredients and understanding cooking styles. The 12/2 Kitchen is the lazy person’s method of accessing, for instance, the Tangkhul Naga kitchen, and it offers food from a home chef that goes exactly by that brand.
It was from the Tangkhul Naga Kitchen last week that I bought a Hoksa Makaokahai Han, a smoked fish stew, with Naga onion, Namra chives and the hathei chilli. As accompaniment, I requested a Galho, a staple of the Ao Naga tribe, a rice congee made with vegetables and axone or akhuni, fermented soya bean, accompanied by a spicy—very spicy!—fermented fish chutney called huten mari.
The Sirarakhong chilli is traditionally used with a local Manipuri ginger, called huira in Tangkhul. Since I did not have that, I used southern ginger. I hope Monalisa gets the hint.
THE ARTHUR SISTERS’ SIRARAKHONG HATHEI PORK
1kg pork with fat (I use less fat), cut into cubes
2 tsp sesame oil
10-12 whole Sirarakhong chillies
2 tbsp ginger (ideally huira from Manipur, if not whatever you have)
Salt to taste
Heat the oil gently in a heavy-bottomed vessel. Add the ginger and stir-fry for a minute. Add chillies and stir for another half-minute. Add the pork, salt and sear on high heat for 10 minutes. Pour water, enough to reach the top of the pork. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to sim and let cook for one hour. Uncover and continue cooking for 30 minutes to one hour more, till the pork starts to become tender. Transfer to an oven-proof dish.
Bake uncovered at 150 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes, increasing to 200 degrees Celsius for another 30 to allow gradual browning. Keep turning over frequently to prevent burning because the water will gradually evaporate.
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. @samar11