For a vegetarian diet, all the Northeast Indian states visited were a tremendous disillusionment, capable even of taking out the appetite. With the exception of the state of Assam, whose population is mostly Hindu, meat consumption is a constant presence in the states of Nagaland and Meghalaya, which dominates Christianity.
So this text is only a pale sample of the Northeast States cuisine, but it serves as a guide to those who choose not to eat meat or fish and planning to travel in these remote places.
In the states of Nagaland and Meghalaya is clear the influence of Asian cuisine, often coming up the noodles and chowming, while in Assam is clear the influence of Indian cuisine, specifically from the Punjab region. But the more than 2300 kilometers that separate the two regions, cause a diminish in the intensity of the flavours and reduced the range of ingredients.
Assam and the parathas
In Assamese cities are easy to find the classic Indian dishes, such as the dal (lentil curry) as the vegetable and beans curries. The samosas are also very popular as also some other deep fry stuff as the puris. Being a state crossed by the gigantic Brahmaputra River, which floods the plains and creates an ideal place for planting rice, a cereal essential in any Indian meal.
What stood out in Assam were the parathas, a flatbread made from wheat flour that can be found almost in any part of the country, but in Assam have a kind of twist: are thicker and more oily, pale and without the toasted look, resulting in a compact and undercooked dough. These parathas can be stuffed with potato masala, or more often plain, served with simple curries, usually made from potatoes and yellow-peas. The parathas can be found in most of the restaurants and dhabas but are often available in street stalls, being a popular street food in Assam.
The classic Indian thali, a meal based on rice, dal and vegetables, is also a bit different in Assam, with a very watery dal, a tasteless curry and over the rice a piece of steamed cabbage… yes! just a plain steamed cabbage without any seasoning. Very healthy, fills the stomach but don’t leave a good memory.
Nagaland and the “puris”
If at Assam the cuisine proved uninspired, at least in what concern vegetarian option, at Nagaland state every meal was a challenge for a vegetarian traveler. At mountain areas dominates the meat, present in all markets at Nagaland, as also smoked and dry fish.
At the entrance of small towns, there’s always an area where animals are gathered waiting to be slaughtered, while other pieces of meat are sold to those arriving by motorbike or car or to the ones that are traveling by bus, and use the stops for pick passengers to do the shopping. At the cities, the slaughter of animals, mostly turkey and chicken, is made at the markets, where birds wait in cages. Though the air spreads the smell of blood and animal shit that create a sad and heavy atmosphere.
In Nagaland cities, you can find some vegetarian options such as the so-called “rice”: a rice-based dish, with dal and vegetables, or noodles soup or stir-fry noodles. But in the small villages or in more remote areas as Mon, there is not much more to eat than rice and some boiled greens, seasoned with a fermented and spicy vegetables.
An option that can be found a bit everywhere, and along the day, are the puris, a small flatbread, fried in oil and served with a potato and a small bowl of yellow-peas curry. The puris are excessively oily, here more than usual, soaking the newspaper where they are served, and the curry is spicy but watery. This results in a highly caloric but little nutritious meal, yet quite popular among the local population at Mon, Kohima and Mokochung.
Meghalaya and the Asian influence
Despite the proximity to Bangladesh, the state of Meghalaya is visible the influence from the Asian cuisine by the noodles (rice flour pasta) served in soups or stir-fry. From Tibet came the momos, a small bun stuffed with meat or vegetables.
Shillong, the capital of this state is very modern and cosmopolitan, so it’s easy to find restaurants of the international chains of fast-food, but due to a large number of Indian tourists, there is a wide range of restaurants with traditional Indian dishes.
A breakfast at Northeast India
As this is a region with little international tourism that make almost impossible to find the so-called “continental breakfast” outside the more fancy hotels.
But breakfast usually is not a problem, as the local options reveal almost always a good choice, but in Northeast India this option proved daunting. At Assam was a paratha, served with potato curry and accompanied by a jam. At Meghalaya, in the village of Sohra, the only option available, without meat, was a plate of rice with chickpeas and mint sauce with chili… by chance a simple but tasty combination. At Nagaland, along one of the long bus trip, was time for a chai and a samosa… very tasty and popular combination. At Mon, before starting a journey of 8 hours by sumo (shared taxi), there was an opportunity to taste a very popular breakfast among the local population: deep-fried dough served with a potato curry… a very oily option to start the day!
The only experience with sweets along this trip through Northeastern Indian states was been in Assam, where beyond the classic Indian sweets, there was something new for me: a kind of puff dough, deep-fried and drizzled with a thick sugar syrup that after cool down become solid. This syrup results in a yellow-brown color with a bright and appealing look, sold in different shapes, but with a monotonous and boring taste of sugar.
Markets are always a place that awakens the senses, sharpens the curiosity and stimulates the imagination to try to identify the products sold and their use in the gastronomy of each region.
Kohima, in Nagaland, definitely stood out by the markets, where the exotic and diverse food supply reflects the originality of Nagaland cuisine that includes a lot of meat, eggs, dried fish, eels, snails, worms, mice, frogs… and wasp larvae, still sold in the hive.
Regarding vegetables, these markets show a mix of tropical and mountain products. From the warm plains of Assam come the papaya, and the banana. But, as also in Burma, beyond the fruit, the trunk and the flower of the banana tree are also used for cooking. From the cool mountain air of Nagaland arrive a wide variety of mushrooms and bamboo that are eaten in sprouts. There’s also a big range of veggies, many of them totally unknown to the European taste.