Updated: April 5, 2015 7:15:40 pm
Looking at the north-south expanse of Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, from a nearby ridge, Liansanga, 34, a community leader, pointed towards a hill-side meadow surrounded by trees and said, “When we were kids, that’s where we used to tether Christmas cows.” It is a custom in these parts for every congregation to save money through the year to buy at least a pig and a cow for the Christmas feast.
“A bunch of us would walk down from the neighbourhood every morning and feed it. It was always the responsibility of the kids to make sure the cow was fattened,” he remembered.
Pigs, on the other hand, are never given such treatment. They are simply bought from its owner and slaughtered near the sty it has always lived in.
It never has and may perhaps never equal the pride of place its wilder cousin, the bison, has in stature as meat, but beef is now more commonly consumed across the tribal, non-Hindu regions of the North-East because it is cheaper and more widely available.
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For some tribes in Arunachal Pradesh, it is a lesser meat because while the bison is the meat of choice during celebratory festivals or marriages, beef is rather like chicken and mutton. For some Nagas, it is either a meat for the less wealthy (those who cannot afford to slaughter a pig for a festive family occasion offer guests beef) or sometimes a side-dish accompanying bison meat (when a bison is slaughtered for community feasts, a cow usually follows).
An old Naga saying goes that when male relatives travel to a distant village to look for and find a bison to slaughter for a girl’s wedding feast, the bison will travel on its own to where the wedding will take place. No such mythical intelligence is afforded to the cow, however, a pointer to where it stands on the pantheon of meats.
But nonetheless, beef is widely consumed, and no part of the cow’s body is wasted. Lean meat, tongue, brain, innards, legs, bone, marrow, and no, not even the tail.
The Mizos relish the lean meat when it is simply boiled in some amount of water with seasonings and salt. Most, by the way, swear by the soup’s Viagra-like properties. Sometimes, it is cut into strips and smoked. The Khasis add a larger range of vegetables such as potatoes, cabbage and onions to make stew of it, or mince it to turn out cutlets. Most Nagas like lean meat smoked in thin strips and shredded to accompany chutneys of fermented soya-bean and local herbs.
“We don’t fry our food. Beef has it’s own juice, we add ginger, garlic, chilli powder or fresh green chilli, according to our preference, put it on medium heat and let it cook,” said Aketoli Zhimomi, proprietor of Dimapur’s Ethnic Table restaurant and one of Nagaland’s most famous chefs.
Arunachal Pradesh’s Tani group of tribes smoke it over the hearth fire in large chunks or stuff them into bamboo placed near the flame, bringing it to slow tenderness. “We eat everything from the stomach to the brain to the tongue. Usually they are all cooked inside bamboo, where we place ginger, garlic and some native leafy begetable and we roast it near the fire in the hearth. We call the leaf we use to line the inside of the bamboo akum. We add a little bit of water, and then we slow cook it. So it’s roasting and steaming at the same time,” says Moyir Riba, of the Gallo tribe, one among the Tani group of tribes.
Among the tribes that inhabit the central hills of Arunachal Pradesh, beef innards freshly extracted from their bamboo ovens offer conviviality, for it is more often than not an accompaniment to apong, local beer made from rice or maize, a mildly sweet drink that slowly but surely affects the head.
The head, of course, offers yet another delicacy. The head of a cow, that is. Particularly the brain.
Nagas mostly make incisions all over this organ so a paste of ginger-garlic, chilli and salt seeps into its inner sanctums. The whole is then wrapped in a plantain leaf and stuffed under the warm ashes of a hearth. On top, a wood fire is built. After this, it is dry fried in bits on a pan, then add bamboo-shoot and Raja Mircha (considered the world’s hottest chilli), serving it as a sort of chutney.
Surely some part of the animal must not be consumed, like the bone? “The bone?” asks Zhimomi, bewildered for a moment before recovering with a giggle, “Oh, we love to chew our bones. And the marrow is what we really fight over at home.”
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