Rice that binds

By Hoihnu Hauzel
Published: Wednesday 21 March 2012

Hoihnu Hauzel finds out the different ways people of northeast savour sticky rice

If there is one thing that binds the people of Northeast, it is perhaps the sticky rice. This glutinous rice is the invisible common thread that runs through region and connects them. Except Sikkim, which surprisingly does not cultivate or eat sticky rice, this gummy rice is part of the regions vast culinary repertoire. Sticky rice is usually short grain rice that comes in shades: brown, black and red. It can be boiled or steamed like any normal rice and can be eaten as staple. It can also be pounded into powder to prepare snacks.

I grew up eating sticky rice and discovered the secret flavour long ago. Now it is difficult to resist or live without it. So I keep both the powdered form and grain in my kitchen. The powdered form can be used to make puri-like snacks adding a pinch of salt, sugar and cinnamon. Another option is to mix a handful of the grain with normal rice while preparing it. I usually follow this trick and trust me, it’s a lethal combination.

Different ways to cook sticky rice

Different tribes across the region have distinct patterns to prepare sticky rice. However, the basic process is by and large the same for all the tribes: they first pound it and make a coarse powder and then use it for preparing a variety of snacks by adding different condiments. Though the more common method is to simply boil or steam it like normal rice, what is added to sets the dish apart from one another. Pounding is usually done manually as it adds gives extra flavour. But then, it is a tedious process involving days depending on the quality. The rice is first soaked in water for hours, and sometimes overnight. It is then drained and sundried. Once it is dry, it is pounded manually and stored.

Sticky rice as such has no common name it is called differently by different tribes. The Mizo call it buh ban (buh means rice and ban means sticky) and some tribes of Tripura call it Auwan or Gurian Maira.

Also, for some tribes in the region, sticky rice is more than just a grain. There are symbolic connotations of the time and event it is served. Among the Paite tribes of Manipur, sticky rice, called buh man, was served during funerals. Households, in order to thank those who came forth to share their grief, would cook in huge pots brown grain of sticky rice mixed with sesame seeds and kidney bean. This is served on big plates. Of course, the practice is long abandoned but sticky rice continues to be served during Christmas and New Year. Sometimes, on occasions like marriages, a special snack called tanghou, which is made from powder rice is served. For it, first soft dough is prepared in small sizes and wrapped in banana or turmeric leaf and steamed. Sometimes it is sweetened and sometimes salted. The use of turmeric leaves for steaming is a traditional practice as it lends a special flavour to the preparation. Even the Tangkhuls use this leaf. In fact, for the Tangkhuls of Manipur who call manui chat (sticky rice), they sweeten the rice powder and make puris. Sometimes they also use tender bamboo hollow and stuff rice into it with water and close the lid with leaves and roast it on fire. It’s eaten like snacks round the year. There is also another custom practice that the Tangkhuls follow that involves the sticky rice. During marriage ceremonies, a sack of sticky rice is given to the bride’s family by the groom. This sack of rice is shared among the bride’s fathers and sisters.

Cultural symbolism of sticky rice

Sticky rice is also a symbol of celebration. The Meitei Brahmins who are known for their cooking skill often prepare kheer with sticky rice for any special occasion.
I am told by the young Maharaja of Tripura that sticky rice is the most important item in every kitchen in the region. From the kitchen of the humble indigenous tribes to the palace kitchen, there will be a stock of sticky rice. In fact, the young Maharaja who’s a food freak loves to have sticky rice in different forms for breakfast or teatime. There is an interesting method of preparation where the grain is washed and wrapped in banana leave and steamed. It comes out like a cake and then it is taken with a traditional dish called chakwi which is a bamboo shoot-base dish.

The Assamese too love it especially as they prepare Bora Saul or pitha during Bihu or other occasions. The sticky rice is boiled and taken as a snack (jolpan) with milk, jaggery and curd. Putharo, a special kind of snack, is also made from sticky rice flour, the Khasis and Jaintias of Meghalaya have this with tea. Sticky rice is also cooked in an earthen pot without any condiments over slow wood fire in many homes. Pusyet is another snack made from the rice and resembles an idly.

My friends from Arunachal Pradesh are as crazy about this sticky rice as anyone else. The Adi tribes, in fact, use it to make their traditional fermented rice beer. The Tai Khamti tribes from the eastern part of the state do not use sticky rice every day but reserve it for religious or special occasions like marriages. And they tell you the best time to have sticky rice is immediately after harvest when it’s freshly out of the granary. Khaw-laam is one popular item which is prepared with rice first soaked in water for the whole night. The next day it is kept inside a special hollow bamboo. There is a special bamboo found only in the jungles of Arunachal Pradesh and it has thick membrane. The bamboo is roasted over a fire till it is partially burned. Once it is done, carefully the bamboo is scrapped and eaten.
Hawpuk is another item which requires a special layered container for preparation. The bottom most has water which is separated by a net and on which rice is placed and cooked. Once done, the rice is taken out, sprinkled with roasted grey sesame seeds and made into balls. Khaw Mon Tong Tep is made from pounded rice powder to which cashew nuts, coconut or jaggeryare added to make dough. A special kind of leave, specific to the area is used to wrap the dough and the steamed and cut into pieces.
Nagas also have different versions of sticky rice preparations. The Ao tribe call sticky rice Mabuk chang. Sometimes the grain is cooked or steamed like any normal rice and eaten with ghee. They also make roti from the powdered form in which they stuff sugar. It is then folded in cylindrical shape and roasted over a tawa. I am quite intrigued by what the Konyak tribes make out of it. Called Konyak Nuk-Nge, the sticky rice is prepared by mixing water and rice in a special earthen pot called the Nuk-nge tuk and left over slow fire. The nuk-nge tuk has holes at the bottom and works as a steamer.




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