Saturday, April 25, 2015

Snacking on Shingju in Manipur

When the keekar trees began to give way to the date palm and the banana groves, I knew we were heading East. This was my first-ever 34-hour-long train journey - from Delhi to Guwahati, where I had planned to spend a night at M's, and then fly onwards to Imphal for a holiday. When I finally reached Guwahati, I was whisked away by my lovely hosts M and R. Needless to say, after a night in the train at the mercy of the Indian Railways' service, I was in much need of a shower and a drink. Luckily, I got both! We then headed out to Khorikha, an excellent, excellent, must-go-to restaurant right in the heart of the city. I wish I had photographed the lavish spread we had ordered, but I was much too engrossed in catching up with M and the others! Anyhow, we tucked in crispy fried fish and chicken in sesame sauce, along with rice and an assortment of delicious local vegetarian dishes. 

The next morning, and a short flight onwards, I was finally at Imphal: for my second visit to the beautiful state of Manipur. For a lot of people, Imphal is a vague far off hill station in the Northeast of India - disturbed and unsafe. But, for a second time visitor, I can firmly state that it is none of the above. While it is true that bad governance and insurgency has changed it for the worse, but despite the inconveniences, it is certainly worth a visit or more. Luckily for me, this trip turned out to be pretty unique – no overlaps whatsoever with my last visit to the state, except of course multiple visits to the local bazaar! 

For a city girl like me, my most intimate connections to rural India had been confined to the sights of the countryside while travelling on train or on long-distance buses. They had never been the final stop. March 2015 changed all that. L and I visited Siden village, and spend three glorious days soaking in all its rustic charm. As I write today, I am running out of words to describe the warm-hearted people of modest means whom I met, and their spotlessly clean mud huts and paddy fields. I am reminded of the lazy afternoon that L and I spent lying on a patch of dry hay watching the cows graze while we snacked on salted sunflower seeds. The cattle all had wooden bells round their necks that make a sort of woody clickety-clack sound as they moved about. There was a very young, but inquisitive calf that made its way close to us, peering at us in a rather incredulous manner. I tried reaching out, but mommy-cow didn’t quite appreciate my rather forward gesture. I quietly backed out fearing being butted out of the field! 

Then, there were those adorable puppies, Bobby’s pups, as we found out later. They would come out to play and when tired promptly run back to the cowshed where amidst the hay, wood, and old knick-knacks, they had made a seemingly comfortable home for themselves. They were all white and fluffy like little panda bear cubs.

Bobby's pups

Kelkot: a Thadou term for a gate

For our meals we had fish or country chicken, along with sticky rice and very spicy chutneys. I had to give up on the chutney, owing to my limited capacity for very hot food, but L relished every last morsel, dipping his finger in the red-hot goodness with every bite. Life was slow and easy (at least for us). It started early with the rising of the sun and ended with round of chit-chat after dinner. The ten odd days we were in Manipur, L and I visited a number of beautiful spots around the city (my favourite being Loktak Lake and Khuga Dam). Needless to say, while on the road, I tried out the robust local cuisines as much as I could. Ima Keithel, the bustling women's market in Imphal is a food paradise: a must-visit for anyone who is interested in local produce. We tried out a range of traditional Meitei sweets made using jaggery, rice puffs, sesame, and so on. On one end were the fish mongers selling all kinds of fish - fermented, dried, fresh, or alive (!) and at the other there were exotic fruits and fresh greens of all shapes and sizes. The city of Imphal is home to large number of people belonging to different ethnic sensibilities, each offering a slice of their gastronomic cultures. A little away from Paona Bazaar that hosts Ima Keithel was the Tribal Market, where we found a host of ingredients used by the Kuki and Naga tribes of the state. Here, I found the most exciting range of dried mushrooms, which I purchased in hoards! 

L's granny
Kids playing

But in all our travels across the state, in 2010 and 2015, there is one local preparation I found all over the state. This is the omnipresent Shingju! But each time I tried it, it tasted different, it is like one of those eternally malleable recipes - prepared a little differently by every cook and at every household or corner stall. My favourite version was the one L and I tried outside the Imphal War Cemetery. 

Shingju at a roadside stall at Imphal, Manipur


What you need*

Cabbage, a small one, chopped
1/3 onion, chopped
1/4 carrot, shredded
1 tomato, chopped
4 green chillies, chopped (alternately sun-dried raja mirchi pound to a pulp)
2 tbsp Shi seeds, roasted and ground to a powder
1 tsp, roasted chana, whole or ground to a powder
Salt to taste.

Mix all ingredients together.

*Ngari, or fermented fish, is a common ingredient added to this dish. Also, aithanglou, which is the root of a plant is also often added. Shingju is generally very hot and pungent, but I adapted it to better suit my taste buds, and others around me.

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