We, who consider ourselves to be mainland Indians, tend to have many prejudices when it comes to Northeast Indian cuisine, even when we know very little about it. We either tend to exoticize it, or assume that the cuisine is similar across the seven sisters and even the little brother, Sikkim. What we conveniently forget is the fact that Northeast India is an incredibly diverse region with more than 220 indigenous tribes and communities, along with a significant number of migrants from rest of India as well as neighboring countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, and Myanmar. Northeast India’s food is indeed as diverse as the communities that inhabit it, and to generalize it across the region would be an act of unparalleled culinary faux pas.
The cuisine of Mizoram, or Lushai Hills, as it was known in the past, was quite distinct from Assamese, Sikkimese, Khasi and Jaintia food we had had so far on our travels across Northeast India. We were initiated into the mysteries of Mizo food by Fr. Thomas, the Keralite Catholic priest who had invited us to have breakfast with him the day after we arrived in Aizawl. We attended the early morning mass and stayed back for breakfast with Fr. Thomas and the assistant vicar, a priest from Shillong. The meal included rice, a North Indian style cauliflower bhaji, bai (a soupy preparation made with seasonal vegetables, flavored with wild herbs, and thickened into a frothy consistency using pork fat and baking soda), dal, and an omelette. While the flavors of the meal were an Indian hotchpotch, with the bai bestowing a touch of Mizo influence in an otherwise north Indian style meal, the conversation that accompanied the meal offered insights into Mizo food habits and cuisine. I remarked that the breakfast, while quite tasty, was too heavy a meal when compared to the generally lighter Indian idea of breakfast. Fr. Thomas clarified that in Mizo culture it is usual to have two rather heavy meals – breakfast, and an early dinner, consumed commonly between 5 PM and 6 PM. They skip lunch, and instead make do with tea and snacks in the afternoon. Fr. Thomas had adapted to the Mizo way of life to keep pace with his parishioners.
We had consumed some Mizo food the day before as well, and I remarked that the food reminded me of Filipino cuisine, with soupy preparations and a not so subtle stress on sourness as the leading taste profile. Fr. Thomas, while not very familiar with Filipino cuisine, had heard of one infamous dish consumed in the country, and asked if I had ever had Balut. As it turned out, I indeed had, and told Fr. Thomas that I ate it since it was something completely new and would not eat it again unless someone offered a significant sum of money for me to do it. For the uninitiated, Balut is a fertilized duck egg which has been incubated for a period ranging from 14 to 21 days. By this time, the embryo would be developed well enough for the diner to discern the features of the chick, including the feathers, head and the bones. It is consumed boiled and is popular as a street food snack in the Philippines. I explained all this to the assistant vicar, who had a stunned expression on his face. I took this opportunity to also gloat about my culinary adventures in Southeast Asia where I had consumed a bunch of stuff which would be considered rather exotic in most of the rest of the world. The assistant vicar was not to be outdone though, and told us about a tribe in Mizoram, where apparently the community relishes consuming the intestines and stomach of cows, with the undigested cud still inside.
After the meal, we said our goodbyes to the good priests, thanked them, and returned to the tourist lodge.
Restaurants in Aizawl
There are many restaurants in Aizawl which offer a variety of cuisines, ranging from the local Mizo, generic North Indian, Assamese, the Northeast Indian version of Chinese, and so on. There is even a KFC in town, which we barged into on the day of our departure. While wife dear and I love experimenting with local cuisine, sometimes nothing can take the place of a fried chicken!
On our first day in Aizawl, we went to the Red Pepper restaurant in the Chanmari area of Aizawl, only to be told that the restaurant was closed since it was a Sunday. We ended up having our first meal in Aizawl at the only open joint, the restaurant at Grand Hotel. The menu was primarily North Indian. However, there were a few Mizo dishes as well, and since we were particular on tasting Mizo food for our first meal in town, we ordered rice with a fish dish. The fish was cooked well, falling off the bones, and came with a slightly sour broth, flavored with tomatoes and unidentified herbs. Our meal came with a complementary chutney made with tomatoes, herbs and garlic, and spiced with an ungodly amount of chilies. Contrasted against the subtly flavored fish, the chutney was aggressive, and to this day, I believe that consuming it has resulted in my tongue losing half its taste buds.
We did manage to find our way to Red Pepper later. I ordered a Mizo platter which offered a number of side dishes in tiny quantities prepared with a variety of vegetables cooked in myriad ways, with different spices, herbs and other ingredients; along with rice, Bai, dal, and a few complementary chutneys. I also ordered some boiled pork served in broth to round off the meal. Wife dear ordered some rice with a fish preparation. We shared our meals so that we, the unrepentant gluttons that we are, could get a taste of everything. The pork was succulent, the fat glistening in the clear broth, which we scooped up and consumed with relish. The fish was subtle, yet flavorsome. By the end of the meal, our taste buds were singing, having been exposed to a bouquet of different tastes – sour, sweet, astringent, and so on, all at once.
We also ordered some zufang, the Mizo rice beer, to wash down our meal. I was reminded to order it, when on my way back to our table from the washroom, a waitress crashed into me with a tray full of the brew. The intoxicating aroma filled my nostrils, and my pair of jeans had their fill of the ambrosial liquid. The waitress apologized profusely, but I put her mind to rest, and immediately ordered a glass of the stuff. The zufang was yellowish in color, and had a more coherent texture when compared to the cloudy Kiad Khaw in Meghalaya. It also was also sweeter and more potent, which resulted in us experiencing a stronger buzz when compared to the milder Khasi brew.
The third and final restaurant we tried in Aizawl was David’s Kitchen, recommended to us by the inimitable Mr. Blowhard, on our way back from our sightseeing trip around Aizawl. We ordered rice along with fish in broth, and some smoked pork. The fish in broth had a twist at David’s Kitchen, the familiar subtlety of the dish changed by the addition of ginger, the heat from the aromat enhancing and providing a more complex dimension to the broth. The smoked pork came with a broth as well, with mustard leaves, and I suspect, ground mustard, combining with the smoky flavor from the pork to imbibe it with a robustness which we thoroughly enjoyed.
Food of the Markets
While we explored the markets in Aizawl thoroughly, we did not really have an opportunity to experience the food there. Somehow, the timing was always off. We had an opportunity to properly experience the food of the Mizo markets when we went to Champhai. Walking up a hilly incline along the road, either side of which was occupied by vendors selling vegetables, fish, meat, Myanmarese knockoff goods, and whatnot, we were confronted abruptly with what seemed like an under-construction building. The building turned out to be the official vegetable market of Champhai. Along the edge, on one of the sides, were a row of women vendors offering interesting looking food to the tired, and presumably hungry shoppers.
We spotted one vendor who seemed to be offering a couple of dishes we had not eaten before. While there were a few customers around, her table was not as crowded as the vendor in the corner offering rice, bai, and pork dishes. A child played around the rickety wooden table set up by the vendor, which doubled as the kitchen counter and the dining table. We first sampled the congee-like Sanpiau, made with rice porridge, thickened with rice flour, and flavored with local herbs and spices. The vendor had a variety of condiments; including chili oil, bamboo shoot pickle, fermented fish paste, and a pickle made of tiny fish heads; which the diners could add to the Sanpiau to customize it to their palate. Yours truly and wife dear tried one condiment after other to obtain truly unique flavor combinations. The taste of the end product was, if such a thing can be imagined, halfway between a congee and a ramen. As many modern chefs might call it, a true umami bomb.
Since we wanted to try another vendor, we moved to the lady nearby, only to have a rather underwhelming pork chow, a stir-fried noodle served with boiled potatoes and chopped coriander leaves. We moved back to the first vendor’s table and had a soup chow, a noodle soup with a thicker-than-usual noodle served with local herbs and other unidentified ingredients. We added the aforementioned bouquet of condiments to enhance the taste. I swear we would have licked the bowl clean if we were not out in public. It was just that good.
Many Mizos told us that the best Mizo food outside Mizo homes were to be had at the unnamed wayside restaurants at villages along the major roads in Mizoram. We found this assertion to be entirely accurate. While we, as outsiders, might not entirely understand what Mizo food is supposed to be, we found the food at wayside restaurants to be uniformly delicious, and a welcome break from the tediousness of Sumo journeys in the hills.
The tastiest Mizo food we had on our trip across Mizoram was breakfast at a small, unnamed, restaurant in a village whose name we never found out, on the way from Champhai to Thenzawl. The restaurant had just three rickety tables with unstable benches. The lack of space encouraged what many modern-day hippie restaurants call communal eating.
The food was a veritable smorgasbord of Mizo dishes with a variety of smells, ingredients, tastes, colors and textures. The mainstay of the meal was sticky rice, which was served with an assortment of side-dishes. The side-dishes included a mildly sweet preparation of ash gourd and mustard leaves in a watery sauce, bai, stir-fried unopened buds of a locally found flower, chicken in a turmeric flavored sauce, potatoes in a white sauce, boiled vegetables, a chutney made with bamboo shoots, boiled pork, and pork rind which had been boiled and then stir fried. All this, for a princely sum of Rs.130. The stir-fry made of the buds of the local flower, with a few chilies thrown in for effect, was unique and tasted spicy without being ‘chili hot’. It reminded me of cardamom and the fruit of the nutmeg tree. The pork rind was tasty, and the act of cooking them twice, first by boiling and then by stir frying, made it soft enough to melt like butter while being consumed. My favorite side dish, however, was the chicken. The turmeric imparted an earthy flavor to the chicken. The dish incorporated chicken feet as well (or Adidas, as they call them in the Philippines), the feet seemingly clawing at the air in an act of final protest.
Jena, the soldier from Odisha did not take part in the meal citing dietary restrictions. Rest of us passengers and the driver descended on the place with gusto and proceeded to eat our fill till our bellies were visibly distended. The tasty, but heavy, food induced a bout of non-stop belching among the passengers and crew, in a variety of sounds and often distinguishable accents.
The restaurant’s resident cat darted between the legs of passengers and crew, hopeful of scavenging some bits and pieces from the masterful performance in gluttony which was in progress. Wife dear, who has a Napoleonic phobia of cats, jumped up with a high-pitched scream and ran outside the restaurant to the collective amusement of other diners, when the furry creature brushed her ankle, in an apparent bid to get near our co-passengers who were spilling food off their plates on to the floor below. The food was too tasty to abandon, however, and after persuasion by yours truly and others, wife dear returned to the table, only to be driven off it twice again by the remarkably persistent cat.
Another memorable meal we had was while waiting for our onward transport at the Sumo counter in Thenzawl, which doubled up as a restaurant. As we waited for our transport to arrive, we ordered Sawhchiar and soup. Sawhchiar is a Mizo dish made by cooking rice and meat together along with spices and herbs to create a semi-mashed consistency, quite reminiscent on the North Indian Khichdi, but served with some broth leftover from the cooking process. The soup was an unremarkable Chinese style egg drop soup, served with beef. While the soup was nothing to write home about, the beef pieces served in the soup were remarkably tender and flavorsome, quite unlike anything else we had had in India so far. Upon inquiry, we were told that the beef came from Myanmarese cattle which is commonly sold across the border.
While we were staying at the tourist resort in Hmuifang, the staff there had directed us to a restaurant located bang opposite the resort’s gates for dinner. We informed the restaurant in advance of our presence for dinner to ensure that we did not go to bed hungry and were told to return to the place by 6 PM. The family which ran the restaurant started preparing the dishes when we reached. The staff of the tourist resort also joined us for dinner at the restaurant. The restaurant was candle lit, not out of choice, but compulsion, since the place had no electricity connection. The heat of a charcoal stove warmed us and protected us from the chilly air of Mizo nights.
The food, when it arrived, was plentiful in variety and quantity, and consisted of rice, bai, dal, a vegetable salad, boiled pork in broth, and a stir-fried spinach like leafy plant which apparently grows wild on the hills. The tasty meal cost us Rs.130, which seemed to be the standard price for a rice meal at the wayside restaurants regardless of the accouterments served alongside the meal.
Food of the Tourist Lodges
Owing to lack of alternatives, we always stayed in the state government run tourist lodges during our travels across Mizoram. Inevitably, we also ended up having the food from these tourist lodges during our stays there. The experiences varied from lodge to lodge, and there was no real standard tourist lodge food experience.
Our introduction to tourist lodges and their food was at the Chaltlang Tourist Lodge in Aizawl. The food in the tourist lodge was of a reasonably high standard. The place offered primarily the Northeast Indian version of Chinese dishes, but also had a few North Indian and Mizo dishes on the menu. During our stay there, we often had breakfasts of Poori Sabzi, which was familiar and tasty. Wife dear was almost addicted to the stuff ever since we entered the Northeast and ordered it almost on a daily basis. We also ordered a few Chinese dishes during our stay there, including chicken chow, mixed fried rice and chili chicken, which were quite tasty. The day before we were leaving Aizawl, we had a scrumptious dinner of Arsa Sawhchiar and soup, finally tasting all three cuisines on offer at the tourist lodge. While the food was reasonably good, the room service at the tourist lodge could, at times be a bit bureaucratic. Once we requested them to send someone to clear the plates after we had finished with the meal, only to be officiously instructed to leave the dirty plates outside our door. The plates were cleared from outside our door in time though.
The service at the tourist lodge in Champhai was perhaps the most officious we encountered on our travels across Northeast India. The day after we arrived, we requested for breakfast, and received an imperious reply that the time for breakfast was over. It was 9 AM! However, wife dear was not easily dissuaded, and she did manage to persuade the staff to cook a couple of omelettes for us and to serve them along with some bread. The same day, we checked at the reception regarding the possibility of getting dinner, only to be told that the cook, along with all the kitchen staff, were not found anywhere on the premises and that we would have to wait for one of them to arrive to be sure. The cook did arrive after a while, to tell us that we could indeed have dinner, but the only item on offer was dal bhat. Since we were not so keen on the dish, we declined, and had a dinner of raw Wai Wai instant noodles along with its condiments.
We reached the tourist lodge in Thenzawl in the late evening. When we asked about the possibility of obtaining dinner, we were informed by the receptionist that the restaurant at the tourist lodge served food only from 9 AM to 4 Pm and so we would not be able to have food from the place. We were instead directed to the restaurant next door, run by an old Assamese Muslim man and his family. We had pleasant conversation with the owner about Indian politics and watched the news of recently concluded assembly elections in a few states while we waited for the food to be prepared. We had a hearty dinner of chicken curry with roti and dal. The food was tasty mainland Indian fare, a change after days of Mizo cuisine. The charge of Rs.120 was quite reasonable, but we couldn’t help feeling a little ripped off after the incredibly cheap and lavish spread included in the rice meals at wayside restaurants on our travels across Mizoram.
On our way back to our rooms, we stopped by the reception to check about the possibility for breakfast the day after. While the staff was initially reluctant, they finally acquiesced and instructed us to be ready for breakfast at 8 AM sharp. We met Old Loner (I will divulge rationale behind the nickname in a follow up post), the Nepali origin caretaker of the tourist lodge, in the midst of a hearty breakfast of Poori Sabzi, perhaps the tastiest Poori Sabzi we had in Mizoram.
Old Loner asked us if we would be staying for dinner, and we replied in the affirmative. He wanted to know our meal preferences and so we requested for beef, a meat we had not had so far in Mizoram. Old Loner looked horrified at the idea of us mainland Indians eating beef. To clear any suspicions that we might be testing him, we informed him that we were Keralites known across the country for our obsession with the bovine, and that we just wanted to taste the meat in Mizoram. Old Loner averred that he was a religious and devout Hindu and would not be able to prepare beef just to satisfy the gluttonous desires of us strayed sheep. He went on to emphasize that in spite of living in the midst of the Christian Mizos, the one thing he was proud of was having held on strongly to his traditions and religious beliefs. While being inconsiderate epicures who love all of God’s beautiful creatures as long as they came with a side of mashed potatoes, or in our case, a plate of fluffy fat-grained Matta rice, yours truly and wife dear are quite respectful of other people’s right not to love all animals equally, and did not press the matter any further. We asked for a Mizo style pork curry instead.
The dinner, when we had it, consisted of rice, pork curry, and aloo bhaji. The pork, while distinctly non-Mizo, was still quite tasty, the spicy preparation warming our insides in the cold of a rainy night. There were a few Russian builders staying at the lodge (more on them later). Old Loner also let us have a taste of the food specially prepared for them, Chicken cooked along with rice with a little bit of vinegar and salt, sans masala. While Old Loner shuddered at the thought of not using spices in food, we found the food to be quite flavorsome.
The tourist resort at Hmuifang did not offer dinner or lunch to its guests at the time we visited, citing paucity of staff. We did manage to get some tea from them the day we arrived and a breakfast of the by-now-standard Poori sabzi on the day we were leaving. The poori sabzi was quite bad and left us feeling bloated for the rest of the day. We could hear loud rumbling noises coming out of our tummies at regular intervals, thanks to our grudgingly provided breakfast.