"You eat beef?” My friend and I nod in unison. Our driver, Richard, is surprised. He has been ferrying us around for two days and taking us to places where we can sample local food. “I wish I had known earlier. We could have eaten beef for lunch at the tea stall.”
The tea stall is a small structure outside Arwah Cave in Sohra, Meghalaya. Here, tea stalls double up as lunch spots. Ours has four narrow tables, some of them long, benches and a glass front stacked with steel containers of food. Beef isn’t on display and we don’t ask for it. It turns out some places in Meghalaya are erring on the side of caution when it comes to the meat. “The beef was hidden,” says Richard. “They only serve it if you ask for it.”
Lesson learnt; we make sure we ask for beef wherever we eat.
Except at Trattoria. The restaurant in the heart of Shillong’s Police Bazaar features in every tourist guide. There’s a cross on the ceiling lit up with lights, a massive painting of the owner and his parents enjoying a meal, pictures of the dishes offered, and a prominent “No Beef” sign. The reason for this is that some tourists had an issue with beef being cooked in the same kitchen, so Trattoria serves pork, chicken, fish and mutton. My friend asks for pork, I choose mutton. Our meals are a thali with a big pound of rice, meat, radish salad with perilla seeds, mashed potato, mixed vegetables, three kinds of spicy chutneys. The star is the mutton, tender, fatty and delicious. The pork too is succulent and well-cooked.
Meghalaya is a good place for those who enjoy their meat. Especially for me, a Goan who got afflicted with an adult allergy to pig’s meat. On our 10-day trip, we discover different non-pork sides to the state’s cuisine, from the meats—beef, mutton (rare), chicken (generally chewy and overcooked) and river fish—to vegetables.
For me, beef was the highlight. In Shillong, we eat chewy beef intestines made with sesame seeds at a jadoh (a Khasi meat dish, usually pork and rice) stall and find comfort in a bowl of beef thukpa at the popular Cafe Shillong. At the quaint little home-stay in Nowhet in East Khasi Hills, our home-stay owner and guide, Hali Khongsdam, cooks us fresh beef in a thick turmeric-heavy curry.
Mylliem, a small town in the East Khasi Hills, is known for its food. We visit on a Sunday, and, though it’s a proper day of rest, there are shops open. We go restaurant-hopping. Our first place has white lacy curtains and a blackened fireplace holding kettles; above these are stacks of beef, kept to dry. Here, we eat fish balls, crumbly and dry, and dohkhlieh—a beef salad with fatty pieces of meat mixed with onions and chillies—with rice and dal. At the next place, chosen because it has the largest crowd, we choose a tangy tamarind pickle and eat it with putharo (steamed rice pancakes), juicy beef meatballs, a chunky bit of roast beef, and roast pork. Our greatest find is outside a shop with no name. An aluminium container opens to release vapour and the sight of chunky momos, as big as a hand. They are the best momos we have eaten: pillowy soft, with a filling of beef and onions.
Much like Goa, Meghalayans also eat dried fish. In the markets, we find stalls selling heaps of dried fish, even bombil. At the Arwah tea stall, when I ask for fish, I am given a whole one that’s dried till absolutely crisp. Elsewhere, turmeric-heavy fish curries feature chunks of different river fish.
Incidentally, our most delicious meals aren’t at the myriad ja and sha stalls (tea stalls) but in people’s homes. There, we taste the variety of vegetables that are a common fixture at meals. Khongsdam cooks us banana flower curry, lightly braised bamboo shoot, and a dish made of a citrus fruit, which is spongy and bitter. After a walk through the magnificent Mawphlang Sacred Groves, we have an extravagant lunch courtesy Wansilian Wankher, who runs the small teashop in the parking lot. Our feast includes a tomato salad, cabbage (another popular vegetable), tungrymbai (fermented soybean), wild greens and radish. There is pork, lightly stewed with mustard leaves, and a smoked beef curry but the vegetables steal the show—lightly braised, minus heavy masalas, and fragrant with turmeric. At the Orchidale Homestay in Shillong, the cook, Meena, serves us braised spring onions, a mixed vegetable dish with potato, carrots and French beans, and a tomato salad with onions and cucumber.
As part of a food walk conducted by the local tour company Go Somewhere, we discover a diversity of plants, vegetables and herbs in the Police Bazaar and Iewduh markets: Indian pennywort or Centella (used in salads), banana stem heart, bamboo shoot, local mushrooms, jamyrdoh (fishwort, used in salad), tree tomatoes, red beans, flat green beans and squash.
Greens are the star of the signature dish at You & I—Arts Café. Situated on the outskirts of Shillong, at Mawroh, the restaurant also works as a small museum showcasing local instruments, a traditional kitchen, and cloth. Besides an impressive selection of teas—over 130—they serve Khasi food, juices and ice cream made with local fruits like sohiong (Meghalayan blackberry).
Their signature dish, Phan Saw and Tungtap, is rarely found outside homes. It features a basket of steamed red potatoes, four types of leafy greens and herbs, and a generous heap of that spicy fermented dried fish chutney, tungtap. The way to eat it is simple: Peel the potatoes, add a dab of the tungtap, take a bite, and then use the greens to ease the burn. We remember Richard’s advice and ask for a side of Doh Thad Masi (smoked beef).
It’s a lesson for life too: If you want something, ask for it. In Meghalaya, ask and you will receive (beef).
Joanna Lobo is a Goa-based journalist.
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