For Zeinorin Stephen, who grew up in Ukhrul in Manipur, Christmas feasts are imbued with memories of the fireplace. Stephen, who is from the Tangkhul Naga community, runs Hill Wild, which works with farmers to showcase artisanal products. “The fireplace is always special, as it is around here we sit and relish the most out-of-the-world tender pork,” she says.
This is the season for feasting on the much loved raphei hoksa, which sees a whole pig, including the head and intestines, being braised overnight with either ground Sirarakhong or hau chillies in the traditional Longpi pot, handcrafted black stone pottery ideal for slow-cooking meats and lentils. The villagers unwind with red tea and sweet hau khamui, a deep-fried sticky rice cake.
Christmas is celebrated in several parts of the North-East with carols, dances, bonfires and potlucks. A nip in the air brings young and old together, often around the hearth, to sing, pray and prepare special treats. Family as well as community feasts, hosted by local churches or residents, mark the calendar. Pork tends to be the meat of choice, apart from rice cakes washed down with tea.
In the towns and villages of Nagaland, the morning mass on Christmas Day is followed by a traditional meal of pork and fermented bamboo shoot, seasonal greens and chutney. Feasts such as these, organised by the congregation, are usually served as part of a buffet or distributed in banana-leaf parcels.
This year, celebrations may be muted, drawing on the warmth of tradition as people mourn the death of 14 civilians in firing by security forces in Mon district early this month. For as my friend Maongkala Longchar, a member of the faculty at Dimapur Government College, says, there’s outrage and a huge sense of loss. “Organisations have demanded an apology. In Mon, protests are still on, and this is where celebrations will be impacted the most.”
For Atula, a Dimapur-based academic, the familiar smell of doughnuts evokes cherished memories. A crunchy snack made with all-purpose flour, butter, baking powder, sugar and eggs, deep-fried in ghee, it is a Christmas favourite of the Ao community. Traditionally these would be prepared over a wood fire, and be accompanied by rounds of piping hot tea. Today, the tradition is played out in modern kitchens.
The Christmas doughnut is one of the best-kept secrets of Naga cuisine. It is dark brown in colour, with a sweet powdery bite, unlike the pillowy-soft doughnuts most of us are used to. Atula, who takes orders for doughnuts during Christmas, perfected her mother’s recipe after many a trial. The 50-year-old says the recipe is probably three generations old, with the practice having been introduced by Christian missionaries during British rule. Christmas keeps her busy with steady orders from friends and family. “We have made over 90kg of doughnuts in the last couple of years,” she says.
In Upper Rangsa, a village of 48 families tucked away in the west Khasi Hills of Meghalaya, locals are assigned a special task days before the big potluck: foraging for an indigenous plant, reru or Phrynium pubinerve, in the adjoining forests. Its broad leaves are ideal for packing food; families clean the leaves and deliver them to the team that oversees the distribution of meal packets on Christmas Day. Nambie Jessica Marak from the Garo community, who lives there, says households are also tasked with collecting firewood for cooking the feast.
It’s the men who prepare the feast. “From slaughtering the pig to cleaning it, and then stirring the pot for several hours, it means serious labour,” says Marak, who hosts the popular YouTube channel Eat Your Kappa. Lunch is pura, a pork stew thickened with pounded rice and winter greens like mustard or taro leaves. There’s also kappa, a light meaty stew cooked with an alkaline solution called kharchi. Families bring their own rice and pickles. The food, always packed in reru leaves, is unwrapped and eaten in a pandal specifically constructed for the purpose, says Marak. The holidays are also a good excuse to make batch after batch of sakin, a savoury, steamed rice cake layered with ground black sesame.
The highlands of Mizoram reverberate with the beats of the khuang, a drum that is an intrinsic part of local celebrations. Apart from church services, Mizos indulge in a lavish ruai, or community feast, a day after Christmas. Josie Paris Renthlei, who grew up in Aizawl, talks about fatu, a local chef of sorts appointed by the church, who is assigned with chopping the vegetables or slicing the meat and cooking the feast. This division of work is typical to community feasting, where a fatu’s role is critical.
The grand feast features sawhchiar, a congee-like dish cooked with rice and meat, usually pork, beef or chicken. Vawksa chhum, a delicacy combining pork and mustard leaves, is a big favourite. Renthlei, who runs Josie’s Kitchen in Mumbai, talks fondly of vawksa thi thun, a speciality dish made of blood sausages, typically consisting of offals, including pig blood. Homespun chutneys made with everyday ingredients like wild coriander, tomatoes, onions and smoked chillies, pounded in a wooden mortar and pestle, are part of the celebratory meal.
The holiday mood sets in with chhangban, a type of steamed rice cake that is served with kurtai, or jaggery, and enjoyed with tea. It’s the recipe for a merry Christmas, she says. And a promise of good times.
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.