Manipur is one of the Seven sister states in the North-east region of India. It shares international border with Myanmar. The birthplace of modern game of Polo and Ras Leela, Manipur is also equally esteemed for its natural beauty and hidden splendor. The name Manipur literally translates to ‘Land of hidden Jewels’. If this does not seem the reason to beckon a traveler, then its unique cuisine will definitely draw attention.
Being home to tribes of Meiteis (the ethnic majority here) along with the Hamr, Kuki, Loi and Nagas, Manipur is a melting pot of Sino-Tibetan cultures and traditions. Being influenced by different countries and communities, the traditional food of Manipur is said to be similar to the cuisine of South-east and Central Asia like that of the Thais and Vietnamese. The staples here are rice, local vegetables and leaves, fish and meats, and last but not the least, lots of herbs like mint, coriander, chives, pepper and basil, that grow in abundance in Manipur.
A typical meal at a home in Manipur will consist of steamed white rice accompanied by ensaang or athongba (which is a vegetable stew often flavored with fried or dry fish) or eromba (similar to athongba, only in this the vegetables are mashed and the flavor is imparted by chillies and fermented fish ngari), morok metpa (a spicy chutney/ paste made of umrok or king chillies, garlic, salt and ngari) and singju (a piquant salad made primarily of singju paan or giant colocasia leaves, lotus root, banana flowers along with other herbs). Vegetarians should not be disheartened when travelling to Manipur. There are a lot of yummy vegetarian preparations too like Kangsoi or Chamthong which is like athongba but sans the fish. Ooti is another star food preparation of Manipur for veggie lovers. It consists of green/yellow peas that are cooked ill they are absolutely tender and become a creamy mash. And for hardcore meat eaters, there is not just fish on the menu but also chicken, beef, pork, lamb and mutton are found in plenty. Favourite meat dishes of Manipur are Oak soibum thongba (pork cooked with fermented bamboo shoot) which is inspired by the Nagas and yen thongba (chicken curry).
A few of the ubiquitous ingredients that you will find in every home in Manipur is ngari or fermented fish and umorok or the king chillies (one of the hottest peppers in the world; even hotter than habenero!). They form the basis of almost all vegetarian and non-vegetarian preparations. Other unusual ingredients that form the bedrock of Manipuri cuisine are dry and fermented bamboo shoots, fermented pig fat, and fermented soya beans. When in season, sougri (Roselle leaves) and yongchaak (Parkia javanica or stink bean) are local favourites. The Roselle flowers are also used as a souring agent in many dishes and also dried and turned into a special tea with amazing health benefits. The people of Manipur are also fond of using fresh herbs in their daily food. Not just the regular coriander and mint, but some special herbs used here naakuppi (Chinese chives), awaa phadigom (Mexican coriander), toning-khot (chameleon plant), phakpai (Vietnamese coriander)which show you the influence of Southeast Asia in the cuisine of Manipur. Other not so wonderful ingredients are a plethora of worms, including bamboo worms, palm worms, grubs and silk worms that are consumed both, as medicine and also an enjoyable snack by most Manipuris along with local brews such as apong which is made from fermented rice.
The method of preparing the traditional foods has not changed in centuries. A lot of the food cooked daily involves boiling, steaming inside hollow bamboo trunks, broiling and roasting with very little use of oil. The traditional food of Manipur may appear simple, but the flavours are unmistakably complex and tasty. The farm to table methods practiced in practically all households, meaning growing of vegetables, breeding of fish and rearing of poultry and meat ensure all preparations being organic and super-nutritious. Given the fondness for fish and fresh herbs in the food of Manipur, both of which are used in everyday cooking, every traditional house in Manipur has its own backyard and a pond. So there is plenty to eat and enjoy everywhere you go. Your next visit to Manipur should be for food and all things of gastronomical proportions.