Feasting during Sajibu Cheiraoba

( Itiriti : Soibam Haripriya is pursuing her doctoral studies in Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics. She is a poet and recently published her poems in a collection Tattoed with Taboos. She blogs on Ibnlive.com (http://ibnlive.in.com/group-blog/The-North-East-Blog/soibamharipriya/3355.html). She brings to Itiriti readers the feasting delights of Sajibu Cheiraoba celebrations from her mother’s kitchen at Imphal.

Happy reading and  if you want to share your  New Year Feast with itiriti do drop in a line …)

Like most calendar of events and celebrations in Manipur, the Sajibu (the lunar month which falls this year in April-May) Cheiraoba (the Meitei New Year festival) too is observed on two different days either on the first day after the new moon or falls alternatively on the 13th or the 14th of April depending on the religious affiliation –either Meitei Sanamahi or Hindus (mostly Vaishnavs). Sajibu heralds the coming of summer, mild sun or pleasant rains. A few days prior to Cheiraoba, the Khwairamband Keithel  –the popular and much romanticised Ema market on either side of the tasteless Bir Tikendrajit road flyover (a flyover that perhaps is sign of ‘modernity’ more than having any role in easing traffic, one road leading to a dead end i.e. straight to the Kangla gate) that cuts the market sharply like the equator, could be seen teeming with people –mostly women buying gifts for members of their natal home. There is no idea of festival discounts in the valley –‘Make hay while the sun shines’ is an apt maxim.

As is with most celebrations of this kind the day begins early for the womenfolk even though the assortment that would comprise the meal would have been thought of the previous day. The number of dishes should be in odd numbers, my family settled for five dishes –three seem slightly meagre for such a day while seven seem slightly extravagant for a family of small eaters, a condition necessitated by health reasons. Uti, Yongchak aloo eromba, nga thongba, bora and chakhao is what we settled for.

Uti has now become a marker of Manipuri cuisine and every place that claims to stock authentic Manipuri food has to have Uti in the menu. It is a dish consisting which could either be uti ashangba (green uti) which could be made with green peas and sometimes added with a bit of broken rice or the classic Uti, the trick of enhancing the flavour of the latter is to add a wee bit of milk at the end.

Yengchak aloo eromba taste best with small red potatoes and yongchak with fermented fish. Nga thonga (fish curry) could be cooked in a variety of manner, either deep fried fish, lightly fried ones or not fried at all or more popularly the stirred nga thongba which would be rather difficult for a non fish eater to negotiate considering that all the fishes are broken and one needs to navigate an array of bones. Chakhao is simply the deep purple scented rice which is slightly sweet and is either cooked with water or cooked as a kheer with milk, camphor, slices of coconut, bay leaves and dry fruit.

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The dishes are first to be offered to propitiate the spirits, believed to be evil   –a space is mud plastered in the front gate of the house and the back gate –the dishes are offered with rice and three variety of flowers – kusumlei, kombirei, leiri and seasonal fruits of one’s choice and offering of money along with the food. One assumes this to be an innocuous offering; however the function of this offering is to satiate the spirits so that no harm befalls the family. In fact the name of the last demised person of the locality is invoked in order to appeal the former’s longer stay in the crematorium so that no one else gets claimed by the insatiable land of the death. The mud-plastered place of the offering is decorated with flowers.

In our fondest memories of childhood we vied with each other to claim the offering of money when elders disappear for an afternoon siesta or go about presenting New Year gifts to elders and relatives.

Photo : Soibam Haripriya

©itiriti

Tasting cultures along the Indian coastline

K and I on our way back from a play on a bright Saturday afternoon stumbled into a bookshop. As soon as I entered the bookshop I quietly escaped into the travelogue section and started flipping through the pages of “Following Fish”. True to the title, the author Samanth Subramanian follows the fish across the Indian coast and takes you on a tour from Bengal to Gujarat.  Each chapter is devoted to the ways in which fish is much more about gastronomic delight. While it is as much about taste of fish, it is also about tasting cultures. This is why I would recommend this book to every readers of this blog. You don’t have to eat fish to love this book; you have to be curious about tasting cultures that dot the Indian coastline to enjoy this book.

The trail of fish begins with Bengal – and its most prized fish – Hilsa with a subtle indication of how this fish is much more than food. It is also about identity of East Bengal and West Bengal. Samanth Subramanian takes us through a whirlwind tour of the various fish markets of Kolkata before stopping and stumbling on the Ganga Hilsa. The author’s self reflexive account makes the book an interesting read. This is particularly so in the second chapter that documents the Bathini Goud’s festivities on thrusting live fish with secret medicine – a treatment for asthma that has become part of the state calendar in Hyderabad as it attracts thousands of people who come for this treatment.The chapter documents the medical treatment that is offered to thousands for free amidst belief and scepticism.  Each of the chapter seamlessly weaves in local history, politics into the making and survival of cuisine. Samanth Subramaniam takes us through the world of Tuticorn to discuss in detail the history of conversion, the tension between the church and chieftain to tell us how Tuticorn, despite being the strong Portuguese stronghold  retained their distinct cuisine.  The gem dish of the region is Fish Podi- dried fish powder which is eaten with rice and dollops of ghee. The spicy trail of fish has just begin as  the author takes us through the  Kerala’s toddy shops and their treatment of fish and I already have my eyes set on the Alleppey shop mentioned in the book in my next visit to Kerala, followed by the stunning revelation of the President of the Managlore Fishermen’s Cooperative,  Secretary of National Fish Workers Federation and of the Coastal Karnataka Fishermen Action Committee that he does not eat fish as the author is treated to the Mangalore fish curry in his house. The author then winds off his fishing trail through his accounts on angling, and his accounts of fishermen in Goa who has taken to other professions because of depleting fishes in Goa’s coastline due to overfishing. The author then takes us to the hustle bustle of the Sassoon Dock in Bombay with his guide Yeshi followed by a stopover at the shrine of Mumbadevi Temple in Zaveri Bazaar to a nice hot meal of fish curry at Anantashram ( one of the remaining khanawals) , a peep into the culinary affair in a Koli household and finally taking us through the markers of Gomanatak and Malvani cuisine. The final chapter stops with the crafting of fishing boats in Gujarat- which supplies much of the fish that finds its way to fish markets across India and in our kitchens and is also renowned for crafting fishing boats.

The book manages to unravel the history, geography of “fish” beyond its gastronomic qualities which makes it an interesting read.

Book Review: Subramaniam, Samanth. 2010. Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast. New Delhi: Penguin Books.

©itiriti

What’s cooking? “Fish”-y Feast

Last Saturday I could not resist my temptation to gorge on one of my favourite fish, Parshe. My prayers were answered when I discovered to my relief that the last batch of Parshe was peeping happily from the cane basket. While I was buying Parshe, I could not resist the temptation of Bhetki. While the fisherman was cleaning my purchases I also gaped at the Katla fish head and was wondering if one could get hold of some Moong Dal and cook Machcher Matha diye Dal. While he cleaned and packed my fish into two separate bags I bought one Gandharaj Lebu.

Gandharaj Lebu ( a variety of scented lime) is used as an accompaniment while eating dal and rice. And of course for all those who love Bhetki will remember its smell from Oh! Calcutta’s famous dish Gondhoraaj Bhetki. While I was all mentally prepared to dish out Gandharaj Bhetki when I was almost in the midst of my preparations on Sunday afternoon I realised that the jar for my mustard had few mustard seeds.

So I had to rely on my senses for a steamed Bhetki- which was a truly hybrid dish of Pasta Herbs, and cheese. Before I go on to share the secrets of  “Tomato- Cheese Bhetki” let me take you through my “Parshe Kalia”.

Parshe Kalia

Marinate the Parshe in salt and turmeric and leave it aside.

Add oil and a little bit of ghee and lightly fry the fish and keep it aside. Parshe is a delicate fish like Pabda so be careful while frying. Take a medium sized onion and make a coarse paste. Add oil and fry the onion paste, one tea spoon of ginger garlic paste and 1 medium sized chopped tomatoes. Fry till the oil separates. Add salt and sugar for taste. I will insist that you add sugar because it will caramelise and blend well with the tomatoes Add the fried fish and garnish it with slit green chillies (4-5). Remember to slit the chillies else it will be bland. Let it simmer for some time and serve it with steamed rice.

Tomato Cheese Bhetki

You can use Bhetki Fillet if you like for this. Marinate the Bhetki pieces or fillet in salt and turmeric. Take a shallow container/ a roast tray would be good. Add two tablespoon of oil and add garlic cloves till it turns golden and releases a pungent smell. Take two tomatoes and slice it in equal sized rings. Place the rings neatly in the pan and add the fillets. In a similar fashion chop some onions ( in ring shapes) and cover the fish fillets with onions. Though I used Pasta seasoning for this you could use oregano and thyme for this as well. Sprinkly generous amounts of pasta seasoning and close the lid.

Check after 10 min and turn the fish fillets carefully so that it does not break. Take a slice of cheese and slice it into equal portions and spread it evenly on the fish. Cover the lid and let it cook for another 10 min and it is ready to serve.

© itiriti