In Mizoram, a unique custom marks the arrival of spring that is nurtured by folklore. The people of this idyllic north-eastern state stuff each other’s mouths with eggs, and wash them down with rice beer. Just how their forefathers did.
Chapchar Kut is an annual festival celebrated by the Mizo community, and is believed to have existed since the 15th century. The celebrations take place in spring, typically in March when the locals complete their task of clearing the fields or jhum cultivation, a process where crops are grown by cutting the trees and burning them thereafter. It is practised even today in the highlands, and is considered a way of life in the culture of the land. In the state capital of Aizawl, Chapchar Kut is a mass affair that lasts for a day, and is complete with traditional song, dance and food.
In the book Culture and Folklore of Mizoram, author B. Lalthangliana vividly captures the folklore of Chapchar Kut. The story goes like this: it was spring, and once the clansmen had finished clearing the land for jhum, they set out on a hunting expedition. Unfortunately when they could not kill any animals, they returned home embarrassed.
Lalthangliana writes in continuation, “Whereupon their leader exclaimed. “Oh, my young brothers, don’t be ashamed. We’ll shoot large animals and those with long horns and antlers. Tomorrow, we must make merry and drink ‘hah zu’”. The following day when the men came back, they drank zu, an intoxicating fermented beer, and felt better. The drums started beating, and everyone came out in the village square to dance and make merry with huge pots of rice beer. The practice continued next spring, and the chieftain killed a mithun or gayal for the feast. And, the tradition of drinking rice beer became integral to the harvest festival.
“In fact, zu holds a prominent place in Mizo culture, be it in celebrations, after any kind of hard work or even death. There are various kinds of zu that follow different preparation techniques, which also impact their potency,” points out Kawl Thanzami, a culinary researcher from Aizawl. Zu is a fermented rice-based beverage that is prepared with a traditional brewer’s yeast called dawidim. The most-potent zu is called zupui, is whitish or pale yellow in colour, and is the liquor of choice on Chapchar Kut. It is usually consumed through a syphon or pipe immersed into the pot. She suggests it is no longer traditionally made, but may be available in remote villages. A mild, sweet version called zufang is also widely consumed during the occasion, adds Thanzami, who has co-authored a chapter in the book Ethnic Fermented Foods and Beverages of India: Science History and Culture. In recent times, a special permit is required to prepare and sell rice beer during the festival.
Hunting may have formed the basis of Chapchar Kut, and therefore even today, it is incomplete without feasting on various kinds of meats. The main meat cooked for the occasion is smoked pork. In the dish vawksa rep chhum, the pork is typically boiled with green leafy vegetables such as mustard leaves or cabbage. Thanzami also mentions a dish called sawhchiar, which is prepared with rice and meat, and is like a porridge that resembles risotto. Fresh seasonal vegetables like tumbu or banana flower, brinjal, native herbs like bahkhawr or cilantro are also used to cook up a variety of accompaniments.
The fervour and spirit continues in the form of Chhawnghnawh, a custom where mothers and children offer cooked food that includes meat and boiled eggs to the passersby. The eggs in particular are stuffed into their mouths, a tradition that dates back to the ancient times. Thanzami says, “I think it is practised so that even the poorest of the poor are able to enjoy the festival.”
Chapchar Kut will be low key this year owing to the pandemic. The promise of a good feast will keep the Mizos going.
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.