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Home > Food> Discover > Celebrating spring in the North-East

Celebrating spring in the North-East

Communities ring in the sowing season with fermented brews, indigenous rice varieties and meaty feasts

Khasi snacks for the festival Shad Suk Mynsiem. (Photo; Madeline Tham)
Khasi snacks for the festival Shad Suk Mynsiem. (Photo; Madeline Tham)

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The fields have been cleared, the seeds sown. For communities in the North-East, springtime is about honouring the land and praying for a bountiful harvest. The season of sowing is marked by feasting and merriment, with celebrations beginning late February and continuing until April.

Losar, Sikkim

Khapse, or khapsay, is a fried pastry prepared on Losar, or the Lunar New Year, by Tibetans. Its role in the spring festival is significant. “Khapse is treated as a sacred offering, apart from other items that are laid at the altar to ward off any negative energy,” says cookbook author Sonam Wangmo Ladakhi, from Gangtok. Losar cookies are usually made with all-purpose flour and sugar and deep-fried in refined oil. While these crunchy treats can be shaped like flowers, braids or rings, much like jalebi, the most common khapse seems to be the unusually long phubay namchu of the Bhutia community that resembles a donkey’s ears.

The other favourite is Guthuk, a chowder-like noodle soup. The ubiquitous millet beer, chhang, keeps the conversation flowing.

Shad Suk Mynsiem, Meghalaya

When spring arrives in the Khasi Hills, it is time for Shad Suk Mynsiem, usually held in April. Literally meaning “the dance of peaceful hearts”, the festival is a sign for the farming community to prepare the fields for sowing rice. Madeline Tham, the Shillong-based author of The Khasi Kitchen, says the occasion is a way to honour the land and its changing seasons. What makes it special is the undistilled brew, much like toddy, called iad um. Women stay busy shaping an array of rice-flour snacks, like the steamed rice cake putharo, and the deep-fried pukhlein sweetened with jaggery.

Tham has fond memories of the pop-up stalls in Weiking Jaiaw in Shillong that sell home-cooked treats during the festivities even today. “The steaming hot jadoh, wrapped in banana leaves, used to taste divine, especially after a biting cold winter,” she says. Her recipe for the signature Khasi rice pulao that is integral to feasting combines pork offal with fresh spices, bay leaves and black pepper.

Chapchar Kut, Mizoram

In the highlands of Mizoram, the beats of the khuang signal the arrival of spring in the form of Chapchar Kut. Once the locals finish clearing the fields, they gather to raise a toast with zufang, a fermented rice beverage native to these parts. “It is customary to pour the drink into each other’s mouths as a gesture to usher in the spirit of the festival,” says Josie Paris Renthlei, a Mumbai-based Mizo home chef. Pale yellow in colour and prepared with an indigenous brewer’s yeast called dawidim, zufang has a mild sweet flavour. In Aizawl, traditional song and dance programmes keep the young busy. Pork is the choice of meat, says Renthlei, and is cooked in multiple ways for community feasts. Sawhchiar, a risotto-like dish made of rice and meat, and vawksa rep chhum, smoked pork with mustard leaves or cabbage, are some of the signature dishes.

Ali Aye Ligang, Assam

An Ali Aye Ligang meal by Gitika Saikia
An Ali Aye Ligang meal by Gitika Saikia

The fields have been cleared, the seeds sown. For communities in the North-East, springtime is about honouring the land and praying for a bountiful harvest. The season of sowing is marked by feasting and merriment, with celebrations beginning late February and continuing until April.

Losar, Sikkim

Khapse, or khapsay, is a fried pastry prepared on Losar, or the Lunar New Year, by Tibetans. Its role in the spring festival is significant. “Khapse is treated as a sacred offering, apart from other items that are laid at the altar to ward off any negative energy,” says cookbook author Sonam Wangmo Ladakhi, from Gangtok. Losar cookies are usually made with all-purpose flour and sugar and deep-fried in refined oil. While these crunchy treats can be shaped like flowers, braids or rings, much like jalebi, the most common khapse seems to be the unusually long phubay namchu of the Bhutia community that resembles a donkey’s ears.

The other favourite is Guthuk, a chowder-like noodle soup. The ubiquitous millet beer, chhang, keeps the conversation flowing.

Shad Suk Mynsiem, Meghalaya

When spring arrives in the Khasi Hills, it is time for Shad Suk Mynsiem, usually held in April. Literally meaning “the dance of peaceful hearts”, the festival is a sign for the farming community to prepare the fields for sowing rice. Madeline Tham, the Shillong-based author of The Khasi Kitchen, says the occasion is a way to honour the land and its changing seasons. What makes it special is the undistilled brew, much like toddy, called iad um. Women stay busy shaping an array of rice-flour snacks, like the steamed rice cake putharo, and the deep-fried pukhlein sweetened with jaggery.

Tham has fond memories of the pop-up stalls in Weiking Jaiaw in Shillong that sell home-cooked treats during the festivities even today. “The steaming hot jadoh, wrapped in banana leaves, used to taste divine, especially after a biting cold winter,” she says. Her recipe for the signature Khasi rice pulao that is integral to feasting combines pork offal with fresh spices, bay leaves and black pepper.

Chapchar Kut, Mizoram

In the highlands of Mizoram, the beats of the khuang signal the arrival of spring in the form of Chapchar Kut. Once the locals finish clearing the fields, they gather to raise a toast with zufang, a fermented rice beverage native to these parts. “It is customary to pour the drink into each other’s mouths as a gesture to usher in the spirit of the festival,” says Josie Paris Renthlei, a Mumbai-based Mizo home chef. Pale yellow in colour and prepared with an indigenous brewer’s yeast called dawidim, zufang has a mild sweet flavour. In Aizawl, traditional song and dance programmes keep the young busy. Pork is the choice of meat, says Renthlei, and is cooked in multiple ways for community feasts. Sawhchiar, a risotto-like dish made of rice and meat, and vawksa rep chhum, smoked pork with mustard leaves or cabbage, are some of the signature dishes.

Ali Aye Ligang, Assam

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On the banks of the Brahmaputra live the Mishing, who welcome spring with Ali Aye Ligang, typically towards the end of February. The weather is just right for sowing ahu dhaan, a heritage variety of rice grown in these parts. Gitika Saikia, who showcases the micro cuisines of Assam and works with hyperlocal produce for her delivery kitchen in Mumbai, recently curated a meal featuring a few delicacies. She talks about community feasting that features a variety of pork dishes, either cooked with greens or mati daal. There’s also lasor, or boiled greens, and namsing, a fermented fish chutney. The food is washed down with poro apong, home-made rice wine. The long tora leaves of the alpina plant, which grows during the sowing season, are used for aromatic rice-leaf parcels called purang apin. “The leaves are integral to the festivities and therefore I had to get them flown down from home,” she says.

Aoleang, Nagaland

Aoleang is the biggest festival of the Konyaks, the “last headhunters” of Nagaland. Women start by foraging for T. Daniellii, a leaf used to wrap food during festivities. After the slaughter, the meat—usually pork—and other items are cooked and wrapped in the leaves and distributed to relatives and friends. “The choice of meat depends on what one can afford and also what is available,” says Shuiching Konyak, an academic based in Dimapur. Nük nge, a speciality dish prepared with sticky rice, is a must. The process involves placing an earthen pot with perforation on top of a vessel that has boiling water. The soaked rice is spread evenly in the pot lined with banana leaves. The steam cooks the rice, which is eaten with aan hoi, a curry prepared with meat and vegetables. The meal may also include aanshi, a dish where pork fats are combined with rice flour and fresh spices in leaf parcels and steamed.

Nyokum, Arunachal Pradesh

For the Nyishi community in Arunachal, Nyokum is a time to display the abundance of the land. The traditional millet seed beer opo kick-starts celebrations. Animal sacrifices are common, practised to please the spirits, says Honiya Dakpe, a travel vlogger based in Itanagar. The tribesmen sacrifice mithun, a bovine species valued by the community. “It is considered to be a sacred animal and its ownership is a sign of the social status of an individual,” she says. The meat, job adin, is usually shared by the village, cooked with fermented bamboo shoots or made into a soupy curry with fresh spices. Some portions are preserved by smoking over the kitchen fire for days.

Yaoshang, Manipur

Yaoshang, the equivalent of Holi, is celebrated typically by Hindu Meiteis. As Vaishnavites, the community makes food offerings to Radha-Krishna during the five-day celebrations. While the fare is standard, comprising a selection of vegetarian dishes prepared without onion and garlic, community feasting relies heavily on fish, says Pushpita Aheibam, who runs a condiments brand in Pune, Maharashtra. It is also the time to savour the season’s last yongchak, a local variety of bitter beans “much favoured for its strong aroma”. It is a critical ingredient in singju, a piquant salad often relished as an evening snack. Singju has many variations and the one made with ngari, or fermented fish, remains everyone’s favourite, says Aheibam.

Feast from the East is a series that celebrates the culinary heritage of eastern and north-eastern India. Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based writer.

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