Recipes from the kitchens of northeast India

Feb 23, 2015, 08:01 IST | Soma Das

The award-winning title, The Seven Sisters — Kitchen Tales from the North East, offers ample insight into the culinary traditions of this region, using recipes, anecdotes and much more

The book The Seven Sisters — Kitchen Tales from the North East was born when the authors, Purabi Shridhar and Sanghita Singh, were at an event in Delhi, where European cuisine was served. The manager claimed that India didn’t have ‘such wholesome, tasty and healthy cuisine’. Spurred by that incident and with an intent to dispel misconceptions about North Eastern food, Shridhar and Singh (both journalists) decided to write a book that would transport readers to the North Eastern kitchen via recipes from locals, anecdotes and socio-cultural facts.

Loktak Lake, Moriang, Manipur.
Loktak Lake, Moriang, Manipur. pic courtesy/ The Seven Sisters — Kitchen Tales from the North East

What’s cooking?
In all, there are 53 recipes in the book (six from Arunachal Pradesh, nine from Assam, eight from Manipur, nine from Meghalaya, six from Mizoram, nine from Nagaland and six from Tripura). There are separate sections titled Something Spicy, that incorporate recipes for pickles, chutneys and relishes, while Something Sweet lists popular sweet dishes.

Ujjayanta Palace at Tripura

It took the duo over a year and a half to put the book together. While Shridhar hails from Shillong in Meghalaya, Singh is from Bihar (her mother hails from West Bengal and grandmother from Orissa).

“The toughest task was to reach out to people in all the seven states, explain the concept, source recipes and stories. Organising food shoots was a hurdle as was ferreting out alternatives to herbs and ingredients predominantly native to the North East,” admits Shridhar.

The Seven Sisters - Kitchen Tales from the North East, Purabi Shridhar and Sanghita Singh, Westland, Rs 495. Available at leading bookstores.
The Seven Sisters - Kitchen Tales from the North East, Purabi Shridhar and Sanghita Singh, Westland, Rs 495. Available at leading bookstores.

Singh adds that they had to ensure a fair representation of all seven states and their people: “The idea was also to bring recipes from a cross-section of people in various age groups, sects and ethnic identities. We have tried to bring as much variety as we could, but the North East is diverse and has so many tribal representations that it was tough to choose from.”
The book also features recipes from North Easterners who live outside the region, for a contemporary take on traditional recipes. “We sourced recipes from a housewife in Calgary, a student in New York, and a fashion designer in Delhi, among others,” adds Singh.

Sanghita Singh
Sanghita Singh

Spread the aroma
With an increase in culinary pop-ups and cultural festivals centered on the North Eastern region, the duo is optimistic of the regional cuisine becoming more accessible and popular. “To some extent, there is a greater awareness as we found out at the last North East Festival in New Delhi.

Purabi Shridhar
Purabi Shridhar

There were plenty of takers for the cuisine and the diners were a majority of non-North Easteners. In the popular category, Naga cuisine was tops of the pops, especially the Smoked Roast Pork Ribs and Raja Mirchi!” informs Shridhar. Singh adds that since the book was published, many have approached them to organise food festivals and hold talks. “Suddenly, there’s a buzz about the region, which wasn’t there earlier. It’s a great step in the direction of knowing more about a beautiful part of our country, which has not been explored widely. Few know aspects such as the fact that Rabindranath Tagore was patronised by the Maharaja of Tripura or that Arunachal Pradesh was actually a name given to the state by former PM Indira Gandhi,” reminds Singh, while signing off.

What's cooking in this pot?

“It is very natural and seasonal. There are no attempts at being clever; you take what is locally available and turn them into simple and tasty meals. There is no overabundant use of oils and spices. In some states, like Mizoram and to some extent Nagaland, the use of oil is almost non-existent as also that of salt. Also they preserve what they can,” explains Purabi Shridhar.

On the other hand, Singh stresses that states like Assam, Manipur and Tripura do use mustard oil and spices: “Most tribals enjoy pork made in different ways. But there are unique aspects to each region. For example, the Mithun (an animal akin to the wild buffalo) is a delicacy enjoyed by Arunachalis. There are some similarities as well. For instance, the Khar of Assam appears as Pila in Arunachal Pradesh. The flavours are subtle and enhanced with the use of chillies – of which the killer Raja Mirchi of Nagaland is the essential ingredient most people swear by!”

A Bodo woman making a traditional bodo pitha made with ground rice, sesame seeds, or ground coconut and sugar Ujjayanta Palace at Tripura
A Bodo woman making a traditional bodo pitha made with ground rice, sesame seeds, or ground coconut and sugar
Ujjayanta Palace at Tripura

Myths and facts
>> Dogs do not feature regularly in the menu of every North Eastern state. The cuisine and the ingredients used are not extraordinarily exotic.
>> They do feature more non-vegetarian fare, especially in the tribal states, but most of them are the regular meat/fish preparations consumed elsewhere in the country too.
>> There are also certain unusual ingredients used like the Mithun (a kind of wild buffalo) in Arunachal Pradesh.
>> There are some foods that many will find a total surprise in a NE kitchen. For example, you find the ubiquitous Khichdi and Aloo Badi in Manipur, which are known as Khechdi and Bodi Thongba locally.
>> Though North Eastern food is not too high on sweets and desserts, paan is common to all the NE states and is enjoyed after meals.

Sariyah Diya Masor Tenga Assamese fish curry with mustard (Assam)
>> 500 gm freshwater fish (rohu or rawas), cut into medium-sized pieces
>> 1 tsp turmeric powder
>> 2 tbsp mustard oil for frying the fish + 1 tbsp for the curry
>> ½ tsp mustard seeds
>> 6 ripe tomatoes, finely chopped
>> 1 medium-sized potato, boiled, mashed
>> 1 tbsp mustard seeds, ground to a paste
>> 1 tbsp sugar
>> Juice of 1 lemon
>> 2 green chillies, slit at the tip
>> 2 tbsp fresh coriander leaves, chopped
>> Salt to taste

Sariyah Diya Masor Tenga

>> Wash the fish and pat dry. Marinate it with a pinch of salt and a pinch of turmeric powder for about 10 minutes.
>> Heat 2 tbsp of mustard oil in a non-stick frying pan and fry the fish for about 2-3 minutes on each side, taking care not to break the pieces. Remove from the pan and set aside.
>> Put a kadhai on moderate heat and add 1 tbsp of mustard oil. When the oil is smoking hot, add the mustard seeds.
>> When the seeds start spluttering, stir in the finely chopped tomatoes and mashed potato.
>> Add the remaining turmeric powder and salt, stirring continuously. Fry the mixture for about 10 minutes or till it begins to dry up.
>> Pour in 2 cups of water, stir once and bring to a boil. Gently add the fried fish pieces.
>> Mix the mustard paste with the sugar and add it to the curry.
>> Sprinkle in the lemon juice, stir and let it boil for about 30 seconds.
>> Remove from heat and mix in the green chillies and coriander leaves.
>> Serve hot with steamed rice.

Soya Bean Bhaja Crisp fried soya bean (Tripura)
>> 500 gm soya bean (split or whole), soaked for 7-8 hours, till slightly tender
>> ½ tsp turmeric powder
>> Mustard oil to fry
>> 2 medium-sized onions, finely sliced
>> Salt to taste

Soya Bean Bhaja

>> Put the soya beans in a pan and pour enough water to come 1” over the beans. Boil the beans on high heat, till tender. Add more water, if required. Drain out any excess water.
>> Add the turmeric powder and salt to the beans.
>> Heat the mustard oil in another pan. Add the beans and fry them on low-moderate heat, till golden brown. They should be crisp when done. Drain on kitchen paper to remove excess oil and arrange on a plate.
>> Add the finely sliced onions to the same pan and fry, till golden brown. Drain.
>> Garnish the beans with the fried onions.
>> Serve hot.

Mary's Chicken Soup for the Soul
Serves 4
1 kg chicken, cut into small pieces
2 tbsp slivered ginger
10 cloves garlic, minced
1 green chilli, kept whole (optional)
1 tsp turmeric powder
Salt to taste

To Garnish
A few sprigs of fresh coriander (optional)

>> Wash the chicken and set aside.
>> Pour enough water into a pan to cover the chicken and bring to a boil on high heat.
>> Put in the chicken pieces, ginger, garlic and green chilli.
>> Add the turmeric powder and salt and cook on low heat, stirring occasionally, till the chicken is tender and the soup is slightly thick.
>> Add a few fresh coriander sprigs as garnish (optional).
>> Serve hot by itself or with steamed rice.

1 large potato, cut into cubes
100 gm cabbage leaves, shredded
100 gm French beans, trimmed, cut into 1” pieces
50 gm oyster mushrooms (optional)
1 tbsp + 1 tbsp mustard oil
50 gm dried prawns or dried fish
3-4 dried red chillies
1 large onion, minced
Salt to taste


To garnish
A few fresh coriander sprigs, chopped
1 small onion, cut into rings

>> Put the potato, cabbage leaves, French beans and mushrooms in a pan. Pour in just enough water to cover the vegetables and bring to a boil on high heat. Continue to boil, till the vegetables are cooked. Remove from heat and drain. Set aside.• Heat 1 tbsp of mustard oil in a small pan and gently fry the dried seafood. Remove from heat and set aside.
>> Roast the red chillies in a dry tava or griddle on low-moderate heat, till fragrant.
>> Grind the chillies with the salt to make a fine powder.
>> Heat 1 tbsp of mustard oil in another pan. Sauté the minced onion on moderate heat, till crisp and brown.
>> Crush the onion and add it to the chilli-salt mix with a little water. Add this to the vegetables with the fried seafood.
>> Mix gently and heat through.
>> Garnish with the coriander sprigs and onion rings.
>> Serve hot with steamed rice.

Hot Chicken and Mushroom Steamed with Bamboo Shoot
5-6 dried red chillies
1 kg chicken, cut into small pieces
3 tbsp bamboo shoot (fresh or dried)
½ tsp North Eastern or Szechuan pepper, crushed
1 tsp red chilli powder
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
½ tsp ajinomoto (optional)
250 gm green beans, trimmed (optional), cut into 2” pieces
200 gm mushrooms, sliced
2 bunches bok choy, washed, leaves separated (optional)
Salt to taste

Hot Chicken and Mushroom Steamed with Bamboo Shoot

>> Boil the red chillies in 1 cup of water in a small pan on high heat, till they are soft. Drain the excess water and crush the boiled chillies in a mortar and pestle. Set aside.
>> Put the chicken in another pan and pour in just enough water to cover. Boil the chicken on high heat, till tender.
>> Add the bamboo shoot, pepper, chilli powder, garlic and the reserved red chilli paste and cook on low heat, till all the ingredients are well mixed.
>> Stir in the salt and add ajinomoto for that extra dash of flavour.
>> Next, add the beans, mushrooms and bok choy and cook, till the vegetables are tender, but crisp. Keep adding a little water intermittently so that the mixture is not completely dry.
>> The chicken should have a fiery red colour. Serve hot.

Spicy Ginger Chicken
Serves 4-5
1 kg chicken, boned, roughly shredded
1½” piece ginger, roughly chopped
8 green chillies, roughly chopped
Salt to taste
1 tbsp fresh coriander leaves, chopped (optional)

>> Put the shredded chicken in a large wok on low heat. Let the chicken cook in its natural juices. Cover the wok periodically to let enough steam generate so that the chicken is cooked evenly. Stir occasionally.
>> Add salt and let the excess water dry out.
>> Meanwhile, pound the ginger and green chillies in a mortar and pestle till the ginger fibres separate. The mixture should be somewhat coarse.
>> Add the ginger-chilli mix to the chicken and cook for 5 minutes or so.
>> Garnish with chopped fresh coriander leaves (optional).
>> Serve hot or cold.

Brenga Chicken steamed in Bamboo
Serves 4-5
1 kg chicken (or 4 small chicks)
2 large onions, finely minced
2” piece ginger, finely shredded
5-6 green chillies (preferably aaba chillies from Meghalaya), minced
1 tbsp mustard oil
1 fresh bamboo tube, about 10” long, 3” in diameter
Wholewheat dough, for sealing
Salt to taste

Brenga Chicken steamed in Bamboo

>> Clean the chicken and remove the bones. Cut the flesh into very small pieces and smash with a fork to make a coarse mince.
>> Add the onions, ginger and green chillies to the chicken. Mix in the salt.
>> Pour the mustard oil all over the mix and knead thoroughly with your hand.
>> Stuff the chicken mix into the bamboo tube and seal the opening with the dough. Put the bamboo tube on a gentle wood or coal fire and roast for about 30 minutes.
>> Serve hot.

Arsa Beipenek Spicy Chicken Stew from the Hmar Tribe
Serves 4-5
1” piece ginger, finely minced
1 clove garlic, finely minced
4 medium-sized onions, finely minced
2 tsp turmeric powder
1 kg chicken, cut into small pieces
10 dried red chillies, kept whole (bird’s eye chilli is used in Mizoram)
4 tbsp mustard oil
3 heaped tbsp wholewheat flour
A few leaves of bahkhawr (wild cilantro/fit-weed), optional
Salt to taste

Arsa Beipenek Spicy Chicken Stew from the Hmar Tribe

>> Mix the ginger, garlic, onions, turmeric powder and salt in a bowl and rub it into the chicken. Mix in the red chillies.
>> Heat the mustard oil in a heavy-bottomed pan, put in the marinated chicken and fry on moderate heat till brown.
>> Pour in enough water to cover the chicken and cook, till the chicken is tender.
>> Next, make a thick paste of wholewheat flour and a little water and stir it into the chicken, ensuring that no lumps are formed.
>> Add the bakhor leaves (optional) or fresh coriander and cook for a few minutes.
>> Serve hot with steamed rice or toasted garlic bread.

Note: You can add a fistful of shredded mustard leaves/ string beans when the stew starts to boilMizoramBakhorBakhor or fit-weed, also known as spirit weed, as the name suggests is used to calm a person’s spirit. Its regular usage is said to counter epileptic fits.

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