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

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Yongchak: The Bio-Bomb of Manipuri Cuisine

(Itiriti: I had invited a dear friend who believes life is about flavours. By training, an anthropologist, and a photographer by passion, Rekha Konsam is a wide-eyed explorer of herbs, and plants. She introduces the readers to the bio-bomb of Manipuri cuisine. Happy reading!)

When I was invited to write a guest post on Manipuri food for itiriti, I wondered and wandered in my thoughts for long about a suitable topic that would have something to do with food. The only thing I was certain about was that it would not be a recipe for the simple reason that I myself never follow any recipe while preparing even the simplest item. But somehow we always seem to be assaulted by food. More so, in the world of the virtual where the displaced diasporic communities always seem to be hunting for the taste of home. Anything near to that is relished – in thought if not in taste, consumed by the eyes if not by the mouth. Come winter, and the latest pictures of the winter seasonal vegetables, made their photographic presence in the community portals. Inevitably, these are accompanied by groans and slurps. Making use of one of my favourite timepasses (hunting out of English names of herbs and vegetables that formed a part of the Manipuri cuisine), I decided that it would only be befitting to introduce the readers of itiriti to the favourite winter vegetable that holds pride of place in the Manipuri cuisine. This is the yongchak.

Figure 1: A Yongchak Tree. Photo Courtsey - Mayanglambam Merina

 The English name for this vegetable is tree beans, but it has been infamously nicknamed stinky beans. It is one vegetable that has been drawn out as a caricature as well – there actually seems to be an internet game modelled on it! Certainly, its fame spreads far and wide. The Wiki page entry on this item lists several names by which – petai in Thai, sutaw in Indonesia, ….  A blogger called it one of god’s strange creation – you either love it or hate it. http://www.thefoodrenegade.com/2011/02/sambal-petai-chilli-smelly-beans.html .

Another one humourously recommends it as the most appropriate food to be consumed (next only to garlic) for keeping away an undesirable date. It appears to be widely consumed in Southeast Asia and is often to be found in Thai restaurants as part of its ‘secret recipe’ . Known by various names (petai, sutaw, etc), the Southeast Asian palate distinguishes two varieties of the tree beans. It is the glossy green seeds that are consumed.

For the Manipuri palate, love for yongchak is trully blind! We make no such distinctions and we try to make the best use of every part of the vegetable. The manipuri cuisine offers recipes starting from the flowers and the tender beans to the dried mature beans. The mature seeds of the vegetable is nicknamed ‘bomb’. The two most reknowned dishes made from the vegetable is yongchak singju and yongchak iromba. These two are only the more reknowned ones. There is an array of possible ways of consuming it. Despite my reluctance to write a recipe, I figure it is better to give an insight into how the vegetable is consumed as a part of the Manipuri diet.

Yongchak Iromba: Iromba is a dish made of boiled vegetables mashed together in a sauce of chilly paste and ngari (fermented fish). It is then served with a combination of herbs as garnish – onion, spring onion, chameleon leaves, coriander, vietnamese coriander, etc. it can be prepared from various assortment of vegetables. The iromba of yongchak can very simply be made with yongchak and potato. It can also be made with the other seasonal vegetables as assortment. The best garnish for the yongchak iromba is with a herb locally known as lomba (scientific name, esholtzia blanda).

For those interested in the recipe, here is the link http://chakhum.e-pao.org/ . The recipe is obviously written for people familiar with the Meitei cuisines. Just to add my own note to those unfamiliar with our cuisine, the thin skin of the whole bean is scrapped out. The Meiteis have a special instrument for it that looks pretty much like a tongue-cleaner, but a scrapper can well substitute for it, I guess (or may be try out with a tongue-cleaner :D). Post boiling, the bean would still have another film of skin. Remove this skin also and you would find the pulp and the seed – both of these would be used for the dish.

Figure 2: Boiled stage – potato, chillies, yongchak and fava beans. Photo courtsey - Sapam Shyamananda

 

Figure3 : Yongchak Iromba. Photo Courtsey- sapam shyamananda

Yongchak Shingju: Shingju is again a preparation made with the same base – a thick sauce made from red chillies and ngari (fermented fish). Here, the vegetables are added mostly in raw form. A shingju is the equivalent of a spicy salad in the Manipuri cuisine. For the yongchak shingju preparation, it is the tender ones that are often used while for the iromba, it is the more mature ones that are prefered, although there is no restriction as such. The only link of shingju I was able to find was http://www.gomanipur.com/your-story/item/206-yongchak-singju . For those unfamiliar with Manipuri cuisine, once again let me add a few lines of my own. Scrap off the thin green skin from the yongchak. Then remove the thick sides of the beans. Now, shred the beans into thin pieces.

Personally my preference for the base sauce is to roast the red chillies and the ngari. Then mash them with salt properly. Avoid putting more than a little water – the less watery the sauce, the better the dish. Toss the shredded beans with the sauce and mix it up properly. Add garnish of spring onion, lomba leaves/flowers. My mom adds her own touch to it. Along with the herbs, she garnishes it with slightly crushed roasted shrimps.  

Besides these preparations, it is used in several other dishes. The less cited delicacy from the same vegetable is the shingju prepared from its flower. Because it was less cited and less talked about as compared to the beans and its bombs, I thought it was less sought-after. I wondered perhaps that this was not less available in the market but I stand corrected. It is apparently very much available in the markets also but unlike the other two popular parts of the same vegetable, it travels less. I have not seen it arriving much in Delhi, at least.For a clearer picture of the yongchak and of the iromba dish, check out http://www.mbobo.net/food-vegetable-manipur.html

As winter closes in, the yongchak season also gets over. By the time of Cheiraoba feast in March/April, the ‘bombs’ makes their appearance drapped in ‘overcoats’. The Manipuris have a simple way of preserving their favourite winter vegetable. They select the mature beans and simply hang it up to let it dry. The deep green beans are allowed to turn black. Either they continue to hang like so or they may be taken down to be de-seeded. The seeds are then stored. As and when they are needed, they are taken out and soaked to be used for cooking. The seeds are black on the outside but it is the inner kernel of deep green that is eaten. It is this black covering that is nicknamed ‘overcoat’.

Keep reading more stories about yongchak  www.ingallei.wordpress.com.

© itiriti