When Kristi Kikon Murry left Dimapur and moved to the Capital for work, she missed cooking with an ingredient integral to Naga cuisine. The pungent yet familiar taste of bamboo shoot would often make the food blogger homesick. Today, a visit home is incomplete till she packs a share of her family’s bastenga, or fermented bamboo shoot, for her Delhi kitchen.
“Bamboo shoot is like dal-chawal for us. We cannot imagine running out of it,” says Kikon Murry, who is from the Lotha community. It forms the backbone of the cuisine and is cooked by all the 16 recognised ethnic tribes of Nagaland.
Bamboo is inextricably linked to the North-East’s sociocultural milieu. But its consumption is not limited to food. Parts of the plant are used as fuel, for construction, household items, medicinal purposes and agricultural implements. In the culinary world, the edible young shoots abundantly available during the monsoon tie the eight states. The shoots are used in various forms—fresh, dried, fermented and extract—in meats, fish, pickles, salads, broths and stir-fries.
When the monsoon arrives, tender shoots, or the aerial stem of the plant, sprout from the underground rhizome. Most of it is harvested from forests and home gardens for domestic consumption. People throng the local markets for it. Kitchens get busy with the prized seasonal produce.
Fresh bamboo shoot is sought out for its crunchy texture and woody flavour with bitter undertones, due to the presence of natural toxins. This is why most recipes mandate boiling the shoots before cooking.
The shoots of various edible species of bamboo lend themselves to a plethora of dishes. In Mizoram, mautak tuai (Melocanna baccifera) is the most treasured variety. It is boiled and eaten as is, or turned into a chutney with salt and hmarchamuh, a coarse chilli powder prepared with sun-dried Mizo bird’s-eye chillies. For a leisurely meal, mautak tuai may be shredded by hand and fried, or prepared as a stew. Kawl Thanzami, a food researcher from Aizawl, refers to other sought-after species, such as rawnal tuai (Dendrocalamus longispathus). It is common to pressure-cook them since they take time. Locals also steam them in wood fire, wrapping them in banana leaves.
The monsoon kitchen in Upper Assam is incomplete without haahe-bahe, a duck-meat dish cooked with tender shoots sans spices. Mitali Dutta, who runs a culinary tourism business from Guwahati, talks of a heritage recipe of the Karbi community—pork and sour bamboo shoots cooked without spices or oil.
Pushpita Aheibam, who belongs to Manipur’s Meitei community, retails bamboo shoot pickle as part of her home-grown food brand Pushpita’s Artisanal. Settled in Pune, Maharashtra, she often prepares a rustic salad, ushoi kangshu, by boiling the shoots and mashing them with boiled yellow peas, pan-roasted ngari, or fermented fish, and green chillies, with a garnish of native herbs. Having grown up in Agartala, she also rustles up the Tripuri delicacy muya awandru, a no-oil, rice-flour based gravy cooked with ngari and local vegetables.
Processed and preserved
Fermentation is a way of life in the North-East, a preservation hack prevalent since ancient times. Kikon Murry maintains that although the tender shoots are delicious, and lend an earthiness to salads and mashes, they are best enjoyed fermented.
Nagaland’s Lotha community uses bastenga to make meats, pickles and chutneys. “Families back home make bastenga in large quantities, anything between 25-30kg to last up to two years depending on how it is stored and consumed,” she says. Airtight containers are a must and should be stored away from sunlight to prevent fungal growth. If it’s exposed, the bastenga will oxidise and discolour.
The fermentation process also results in the formation of a liquid extract that is stored separately and used as a souring agent in place of tomatoes. It is typically added to hansuli, a stew-like dish made with vegetables.
Tuai um, or fermented bamboo shoot, forms the basis of the cuisine in Mizoram too. The process involves grinding the shoots and wrapping them in banana leaves. This is followed by leaving the parcels over a kiln for three nights. Thanzami says it can be further dried in the sun to prolong the shelf life. “Nowadays many freeze the tender shoots but the final product loses its texture,” she adds.
Similarly, khorisa, or fermented bamboo shoot, is used to make pitika, or mash, and the household favourite masor tenga, or sour fish curries, in Assam. Pickling is common, with fresh shoots combined with salt, turmeric and oil, says Dutta. In Manipur, the most popular form is soibum. The incubation period is around five-six years—for the best quality. Locals cannot imagine cooking eromba, a frugal dish prepared with boiled and mashed vegetables and fermented fish, without it.
Aheibam says there is one other variety, soidon, that requires only 10 days of incubation. It stands out for its addition of the liquid stock from the previous batch along with the leaves of the bor thekera, an indigenous fruit. “The flavour is unmatched,” she says.
Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based writer.