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North-East’s foods in focus at a festival in Shillong

The first ‘Hills On A Plate’ festival in Shillong celebrates the region’s legacy of fermentation and preserving food

(left) Chef Niyati Rao harvested silver berries; and traditional Khasi putharo (steamed rice cakes) by homecook Angela Muktieh.
(left) Chef Niyati Rao harvested silver berries; and traditional Khasi putharo (steamed rice cakes) by homecook Angela Muktieh.

The tiny pool barb or Puntius sophore is no ordinary fish. When fermented for three-five months, it transforms into a flavour-packed umami bomb. Known as tungtap in Meghalaya, the fermented fish is relished as a chutney, enhancing meals.

Also read | North-East goes big on millets

This, along with tungrymbai or fermented soybean, bitchi or smoked rice beer, and indigenous millets feature in the first edition of the Hills On A Plate (HOAP) festival (20-23 March), being held in Shillong. The last few days have seen a collaborative pop-up (by invite only) between chefs, followed by interactive discussions and workshops with fermentation experts. On Saturday, enthusiasts can enjoy the traditional flavours of the state at a food festival at Ward’s Lake.

Fermentation is a closely-guarded culinary practice in the North-East, where environmental factors such as weather and terrain put food preservation at the heart of the indigenous cuisines. The festival showcases this aspect of the region’s food tradition by celebrating the fermentation culture. It is the joint effort of the state tourism department, the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS), and Meghalayan Age, a government enterprise that promotes tourism, e-commerce and cultural experiences. Vijay Kumar D., commissioner and secretary, Meghalaya tourism department, says it is the ideal platform for a dialogue about indigenous foods like millets and fermented beans, and preservation techniques of the region.

“The world usually talks about Japan when they talk about fermentation but our focus is to acknowledge the preservation techniques of India, especially the North-East,” says Gayatri Desai, who was inspired to curate the festival from her own travels across the region since 2016. The chef behind the now-shuttered ingredient-driven restaurant Ground Up in Pune, Desai has been working for the past couple of months along with local chefs and community members. She has done recce trips to remote villages in the Khasi, Garo and Jaintia hills.

The collaborative pop-up saw chefs Niyati Rao from Mumbai’s Ekaa, Aketoli Zhimomi from Dimapur, Aditya Raghavan from Goa, and Kabyashree Borgohain from Project Otenga in Ahmedabad team up with Shillong-based chefs Ben Wankhar, Fufu Pamei Mawroh, Uttam Thangkhiew and Adonijah Lyngdoh for an eight-course meal.

“I was most excited to cook with the indigenous silver berries, smoked pork, tungrymbai, wild fern and GI-tagged pineapples,” says Rao.

There were product development workshops in association with IHM Shillong, and a talk on the cultural significance of fermentation by Prof. Jyoti Tamang, a food microbiologist from Sikkim University, as well as a public screening of a seven-episode competitive culinary show produced by Meghalaya tourism, and judged by celebrity chefs, including Sarah Todd of MasterChef Australia. The series, Hills On A Plate, will stream on JioCinema in April.

On Saturday, visitors can experience the local culture through various food and handicrafts stalls. There are fermented wines and alcohol, kombuchas, seasonal pickles prepared with native chillies, vanilla from the Garo Hills, and community stalls serving the foods of the indigenous communities like jadoh (meat and rice dish), putharo (steamed rice cakes), smoked pork and fish, and an assortment of snacks called jingbam dih sha.

The festival is open to public on 23 March at Ward’s Lake, Shillong.

Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based independent features writer.

Also read | A piece of cake for these home bakers from the North-East

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