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Regional Easter menus of the North-East

Hot cross buns, meat roasts and rice cakes are integral to the region’s family-centric Easter celebrations

Painted hard-boiled eggs are a must during Easter celebrations across the North-East.
Painted hard-boiled eggs are a must during Easter celebrations across the North-East. (Istockphoto)

Jean Manar released an Easter menu last weekend, for delivery in the evening before Easter, which falls on Sunday. “So that people can have something special for breakfast before church service,” says the Shillong-based baker, who runs the artisanal bakery Ïngshet. Her menu had just three items: hot cross buns, blueberry muffins and cake slices topped with lemon curd—old-school, hearty festive treats.

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In most Christian communities across the North-East, the festival is an intimate affair of close family and friends. It is in stark contrast to Christmas, when the dining table is heaving with food and a steady stream of guests drop by through the day. There are two food practices common to all: one is observing a fast on Good Friday, and the second is eating painted hard-boiled eggs on Sunday. There are regional specialities—Khasis cook different kinds of jadoh (a rice preparation with meat), Assamese Christians could have a masor tenga (sour fish curry), and Ao Nagas are likely to serve a pork dish with bamboo shoots. In Mizoram’s capital city of Aizawl, Easter is one of the busiest seasons for bakeries selling cakes, puffs and breads. The Garos of Meghalaya celebrate the festival as a community affair, with an elaborate feast of meats, rice and spicy chutneys.

“We need the chutneys to cut through the fat in pork,” says Nambie Jessica Marak, a MasterChef participant who runs the YouTube recipe channel, Eat Your Kappa. She is from a close-knit Garo community in the West Khasi Hills, and they collect funds to organise the feast. While women cook rice and pack them in parcels wrapped in leaves, the men prepare meat-laden gravies. Festive dishes like kappa (meat dishes cooked with a tenderising alkaline named khalchi), phura (rice gruel) and pithas (rice cakes) are integral. “We can’t have a celebration without phura,” says Marak. It is a gruel-style dish made with meat and thickened with pounded rice. “The rice needs to be hand-pounded to get a texture that is somewhere between a coarse powder and fine flour. The experienced cooks in my community say that pounding rice is like cooking it,” she explains. The phura is a celebration of seasonality. In winter and spring, it is enlivened with mustard greens and in summer, it is flavoured with sour roselle powder, an essential ingredient in Garo kitchens. She says, “It’s the beginning of spring, and this Easter my phura will be green with mustard leaves; just the way I like it.”

Manar lives in Shillong; her father is Khasi and mother is from the Jaintia community in Meghalaya. Her mother is a skilled baker, and a warm chocolate cake or apple pie is part of their family’s Easter tradition. Manar thinks deeply while answering the question about regional Easter specialities. “Before we used to come together and eat traditional foods,” she says. Times and food practices have changed with family members moving to different cities and cuisines adopting a convenient homogenised approach.

“Hot cross buns are a big thing here. They are eaten for breakfast with tea,” she points out. In keeping with the times, her bakery offers multigrain options, and no refined flour or refined sugar is used; only jaggery or honey. On Sunday, after church service, some families go out to eat, while others come home for a traditional meal of jadoh dohkha (rice cooked in fish broth), jadoh dohkhleh (rice with pork) paired with dohsniang neiong (pork cooked in a paste of perilla seeds). There’s a rice snack stuffed with meat, named tudoh, similar to a Mexican tamale, she says.

Chef Salang Jamir from the Ao community of Nagaland speaks of Sunday school where children paint Easter eggs. Just like Manar, he speaks of changing food traditions as families become smaller. In his community—apart from the hard-boiled eggs—there are no Easter-specific dishes, rather food items that are served on other special occasions too. His family might not cook an elaborate meal for Easter, but if a guest were to visit, the food plans change. “The menu will have some of the best dishes that we can make, like chicken roast, whole steamed fish, pork in bamboo shoot along with rice and king chilli chutney. We will pack some food for you to take home too,” he says. Pork is integral to the cuisine of Ao Nagas and they believe in head-to-tail eating. The head is eaten in a chutney, while the innards are made into a dish flavoured with sumac. “It is the Middle-Eastern spice. The Naga sumac has a darker colour. We believe it kills germs in food and aids digestion,” he explains.

Fasting is a form of cleansing, and Good Friday is reserved for this age-old tradition. Among Assamese Christians, bitter and bland meals, like bitter gourd, dal and rice, are part of the frugal Friday menu. The Easter meal on Sunday is a special affair with close family and friends, notes Guwahati-based musician David Goldsmith. He points out that the menu varies in each family. “While some make an excellent masor tenga, my mother does a good roast with pork, chicken or duck,” he shares. One would assume that the duck is cooked in an oven, but Goldsmith speaks of roasting the butter-marinated bird in ghee in a large iron wok. It is left to slow cook on a flame for an hour until it’s tender. Home baking isn’t their forte, and they serve a chilled fruit custard for dessert.

In Jamir’s Ao home, there is no such thing as a sweet dish. They have tea with a little jaggery after meals. On the other hand, Marak of Meghalaya’s Garo community deep dives into pithas (rice cakes). There are two types—jakhep and sakin—made with sticky rice powder, sesame and some jaggery. Jakhep is like a thin dosa with sesame stuffing, and sakin is a large, layered cake that is steamed in a vessel. The recipe of the three-ingredient sakin is on her YouTube channel. Although sakin might come across as a complicated recipe for beginners, it will bring a little bit of the North-East into your kitchen, and reflect the wholesomeness of the region’s cuisine. 

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