Kolkata has brought me up from the li’l girl who crinkled her nose when fed uuche bhaja to the grown woman who cannot recall what the fuss was all about. So, forgive me my bias but when I am talking Kolkata, I am talking ‘home.’ To me, Kolkata means everything from the bitter karela-tinged shukto that starts a meal to the sweetness of a melt-in-the-mouth notungurersandesh; from Ilish served steamed in neat wraps of banana leaf to a hot and sour loukighantoflavored with ginger and chili; from a deceptively simple looking machherjhol with shredded veggies to the creamy rosomalai and Banglargourab, rossogollas. Expand the geographic spread and my taste buds shall be hard-pressed to pick a favorite. For a region that not only includes the distinctive flavors of Orissa, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim but also sweeps up the rich culinary knowledge emanating from the borders of Andhra all the way to the edges of China and Tibet, this dilemma is but the tip of the iceberg. Reams could be written about the scrumptious wealth of finger-licking delicacies that populate the Eastern food map and still, fall short of doing justice to the flavorful feast of experiences the East serves up on a plate.
Take Bengal, for example. From the ever-popular phuchka served up in almost every serpentine lane of the state to the always-appetizing aalubhajas, begun bhajasand uuchebhajas, Bengali cuisine and its delicate balance of flavors receives an enthusiastic nod from gourmets, all over the world. The Bengali truly know the art of deploying the spices for producing a harmony so subtle and savory that you’d take no time in joining in on the ‘always-hungry’ mantra a true-blue Bong lives by. From the sweet and sour begunerdorma that can make all brinjal haters rethink their commitment to the vegetable to the delectable delights Bengalis call mishti; from the rich and exquisite shorshemaach that brings incredible flavors to life to the spicy shout for ‘more’ when deemerdalna is served red hot, Bengali food spreads itself across the piquant food terrain of the East like an indolent tiger, breathtaking in its royal splendor.
Move to Orissa and you can almost feel the shift in cuisine lock you in a tender, yet delish embrace. It is, most certainly, the holy presence at Purithat dictate the state’s braziers to send up sapid wisps of smoke to tempt the celestial appetite. No wonder then, that us, lesser mortals, seem to be more than happy to partake of the specially prepared rice, dal and textured vegetables generously seasoned with the five spices, better known as panchphoran. Apart from the strictly Brahmin platters, the state that enjoys the sea’s bounty can also dish out a striking assortment of freshly grilled crabs, prawns and fish for those who have sworn their undying allegiance to meat. Add to that the delectable gojas that sprout at the tick of dawn and the porpitha, with its rich creamy center and you’d have no reason to deny ‘life’s sweet!’
Advance further and you’d know why you begin to notice ‘rabri’ as a staple! 😉 Jokes aside, Bihar and Jharkhand share the same food habits- because, of course, they were once the same state- and one can see a predominantly vegetarian fare ruling the twin states, with a dollop of Mauryan influence, a dash of Afghan touches and a pinch of Moghul spices clawing their way into the cuisine. Sattuparanthas, littichokha, piping hot phulkas, sattu (the sweet) and rabri make their appearance on the Bihari thali which plays host to a variety of dishes that vary with seasons. Throw in the heady liquor ‘mahua,’ a popular tipple with the locals, and you’d find yourself dancing to Bhojpuri tracks with mouthfuls of sattu in no time!
Climb upward to enter the Seven Sisters and your taste buds shall be further spoilt for choice. From the clone-like cuisine of Assam that largely mimics Bengali and Oriya flavors to a plate of steaming hot momos perfect for a nippy morning in Sikkim, the food lover has an endless variety of delicacies to choose from. A quintessential Assamese meal serves khar made of plaintain ash and vegetables with a raw papaya base, a kharisa of bamboo shoots, lentils, pitikas, meat, tenga and pithas, alongside finger-licking chutneys such as kharoliand kahudi. Food in the rest of the northeast terrain is fairly simple and plain- boiled or steamed, cooked with restricted amounts of dried spices. However, the northeastern platters are splattered with a generous amount of chili. Sikkim evinces the same by adorning its food plates with steaming hot momos alongside spicy soup such as gyako and spicier snacks like khapseny. The cuisines in Tripura and Nagaland are dominated by meat, fish and pork being the most popular items on the menu. Mizoram, however, lags behind in the food race with its unappetizing assortment of meat and you can never be sure if the meat on your plate is a part of a boar, a bear, an owl or a rat!
Nonetheless, if you are journeying through the East, a tour vis-à-vis your taste buds shall take you up along the hills of piquancy- and no matter whether the tracks are smooth or rugged- your taste buds shall be delighted by the firework of flavors set off on the trek! It’s a celebration worth every mouthful!