Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu
My predilection for rice, I’m told, is most un-Punjabi-like. For spirits, on the other hand, it is consistent with the genetic coding that afflicts (some of) us. In recent times, I have seen the twain meet very invitingly for me in Arunachal Pradesh. Where, I will be traipsing about imbibing copious measures of it — apong — even as you read. This refreshing fermented rice beer is prepared by roasting rice husk till it turns black and is left to ferment with yeast for a few days. It is then mixed with water, brewed and distilled till it transforms into a delightful chemical-free drink designed to relax more than intoxicate. The taste and process varies tribe to tribe, as do food habits, there being 26 major ones and over a 100 sub-tribes. Stronger brews also exist and should be had with caution by the uninitiated.
Rice, to my immense pleasure, is also integral to the diet of Arunachal Pradesh, and many of the varieties consumed here are endemic. It is predominantly paired with meat and green vegetables and cooked in two ways. The dung po method requires rice to be wrapped in leaves and steamed in a double boiler. When packed into hollow bamboo shafts and cooked over coals, it is called kholam, and has a distinct flavour. Its roasted and powdered form adds a whole new dimension to wungwut ngam, an appetising chicken specialty. Alongside poultry, smoked pork, mutton and freshwater fish represent animal protein in the cuisine. The meat of a sacrificed mithun, the state animal and a bovine held sacred and dear by most tribes, is also widely relished. Lukter, dried meat replete with fiery chilli flakes, is a popular side dish eaten with rice.
Wild leafy vegetables dominate the vegetarian personality of the cuisine, lentils equally so. Laipatta, a type of mustard spinach, pairs well with pork and smoked chicken. The leaves of the pumpkin are a staple, to a lesser degree cabbage, and lettuce in soupy deliciousness. Bamboo shoots, a ubiquitous presence, can be found in boiled vegetables, meats, chutneys and pickles. I recall finding spicy stir-fried bamboo shoots particularly addictive on an earlier visit which was confined to Siang Valley. Another signature dish is the noodle soup, thukpa, and can be enjoyed in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian avatars. Chura sabzi, made with fermented yak cheese, laden with vegetables and fiery chilli flakes, is an acquired taste. And clearly, so is the crunchy burst of lightly seasoned boiled or steamed tio, or as we know it, silkworm pupae.
Like elsewhere in the Northeastern states, Arunachal Pradesh too employs a minimal use of oil and masalas. The simple and earthy cuisine places its flavouring faith in local herbs with time-tested medicinal properties. Yet, when it desires to spice things up, it does so in the fieriest way possible — with the bhut jolokia! Rated more than one million heat units on the Scoville scale, which measures pungency in chilli peppers, the ghost pepper, as it is also called, made it to the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s hottest chilli pepper in 2007. By some accounts, it was believed to be 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce, barely lit at 2500-5000 SHUs on the scale.
Other than the khapse, a fried biscuit that comes into its own during Losar, the people of Arunachal display no fondness for dessert. They, like me, manage just as well with the sweet, malty apong!