The Manipur advantage

By Hoihnu Hauzel
Published: Thursday 17 February 2011

Hoihnu Hauzel on how bamons, people specially designated to cook, add taste to Manipuri cuisine

Hoihnu Hauzel It was only after I left Manipur, my home state, in pursuit of higher education, that I began to look at the place with a sense of awe. And over the years, I have explored and discovered interesting facts about this place that was once a princely state.

For one, this is where polo, the game of the high and mighty, was born decades ago. The Britishers took the game to England, modified it, and then popularised it in the rest of the world.

Manipur is a lush green virgin territory. Imphal, the capital city, is surrounded by beautiful hills that appear to be guarding the valley. The local people lovingly call the place, Sana-leibak, meaning the land of the gold. This reference has nothing to do with the yellow metal. It signifies the high fertility of the land. The vegetable markets in the region are a visual treat with local women selling freshly-plucked vegetables and fruits from their gardens.

In fact, the beauty of the place is something even Pandit Nehru endorsed when he first visited the state and described it as “The Jewel of India.” My attachment and appreciation for the place and everything about it developed gradually as I grew up. Be it the food, culture or the natural beauty, they all grew on me slowly and steadily.

For instance, it was only after I visited the other states of the Northeast that I began to notice the gastronomic wealth of Manipur. No other state in the entire region, be it Assam, Arunachal Pradesh or Tripura gives so much importance to its culinary culture as Manipur, the Meiteis in particular.

Manipur is a pluralistic society with 33 different tribes co-existing in harmony with the Meiteis in the majority. Though I have relished and enjoyed all the delicacies of many tribes including mine (Paite), nothing quite compares to that of the Meiteis’ who have a different approach to food altogether.

Food is like art to them. They are particular about how they chop the vegetables and how they cook. They follow a ritual of bathing before they enter their kitchens showing respect for the food they are about to cook.. Of course, modern Meiteis may not follow this rigidly now.

Manipur is the only state that has professional cooks or people specially designated in society to cook. These are the bamons (Manipuri brahmins). They are gifted with magic hands and can turn even a dull vegetable like pumpkin into a delicacy.

Usually, bamons are hired to cook for any special occasion. They come with their pots and pans to cook in private homes. They carry no secret spices but invariabily their food will always be so full of flavour. People often wonder if they have secret ingredients. They make do with locally available spices like jeera (cumin), heeng (asafoetida), chili powder, onion, ginger and garlic. But as I watched them cook on many occasions, whenever we hired them, I realised they do have methods and little tricks here and there.

• 3 big Potatoes
• Handful of French beans
• 3 medium sized fermented
  dry fish or any dry fish
  (In delhi, it is available in INA   market)
• 4 red or green chilies
• Salt to taste
• 1 Spring onion
• Half cup water
• 5 coriander leaf stems
Take the vegetables (potato, French beans, and chilies) and pressure cook it. Once these are cooked, peel the potato and mash it with the French beans and chilies in a bowl. Over a hot tawa, roast the dry fish. Then take it out and mix it into the mixture of potato and beans. Add half cup of water and stir to see the consistency. Add salt to taste. Garnish with chopped coriander and spring onion. Serve with rice.

For instance, when cooking pakoras or rather frying them, they do not fill the pan with oil which is usually the case as pakoras are to be deep fried. They use oil that is barely enough to drown a pakora.

After putting a pakora into the hot oil, they will take it out immediately for second or two and drop it back in the hot oil. Then they sprinkle water on the oil. This way, they say, the pakora turns crisp and has a consistent texture.

It also adds to the flavour. The bamons insist lentils should be cooked on low flame. Another thing, they cook on firewood which does add to the flavour of food.

My parents would always turn my occasional visits into grand occasions. That’s when the best of the bamons would be hired to cook a wonderful meal. This time round though, I sprang a surprise and landed just in time for their 40 th wedding anniversary.

My siblings and I planned an impromptu dinner for 40 people. The drill, usually, for such a special occasion was to hire a bamon to come and prepare a feast. But having them home to do the cooking would have let the cat out of the bag.

I had heard that the bamons have become very enterprising and now accept catering orders for private parties. This was news to me because in a small town like Imphal where people hardly eat out, food catering sounded unreal.

But when I landed in Singamei, a colony in the heart of Imphal which houses many bamon families, I could see the hoardings stuck on their gates. The first two houses turned me down because of their commitments. Finally, it was at the third house that I was able to place my order. Ideally, it is wise to book them in advance of say, about a week.

They have a professional way of going about their affair. First they will recite their long menu and suggest items depending on the occasion and budget. And if budget is not a constraint, the menu can be lengthy and impressive.

We settled for over ten dishes along with some choice of desserts. Three items were fish preparations: marinated in masala and deep fried; second dish was fish intestines and fish egg fried with sun-dried chillies, chopped fresh garlic leaves, ginger and onion; the third fish item came with a thick gravy.

The food was bought to my home piping hot. The bamons dressed in their starched white kurtas and dhotis served each guest. On a huge steel platter, each guest was served small helpings of almost all the dishes with a mound of steamed rice.

There was Otti thongba, a popular Manipuri green lentil (peas) preparation that’s cooked over low flame with various herbs, Pakora Thongba (a delicate Manipuri version of the popular North Indian curry that’s prepared in gram flour, chives and has thick gravy), Kangngou (crispy eggplant fried with ground nuts is a popular dry item), Sana thongba (spicy cottage cheese preparation), champhut or antui (boiled vegetables without salt), ironba (mashed potatoes with peas or okra, chilly and fermented fish), followed by different lentils and the fish preparations. We also had dishes that are slightly bitter in taste to ease digestion.

Like suktani which is an interesting vegetarian dish made of assorted vegetables with a sprinkling of neem leaves. And there was the inevitable singzu (salad) made of finely chopped raw papaya, mixed with roasted and grounded sesame seeds and roasted gram flour.

We rounded off the meal with a choice of sweet dishes. Yes, Manipuris have a sweet tooth and they do not compromise. So there was Kheer prepared with sticky rice, milk and sugar; Hei thongba, an assortment of seasonal fruits cooked in milk and sugar; and of course,the specially ordered tan angangba, a fennel-flavored flatbread made of molasses and flour somewhat like sheermal. The difference is in the colour as the Manipuri version is dark brown because of the molasses.

Through my years of interaction with these bamons, I have gathered quite a handful of cooking tips from them. This time round, I learnt many more tricks even though they did not cook the dishes in my presence. These tips always come handy especially when one is far, far away from home.



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