IT’S that time of the year when hundreds of tiny obscure villages dotting the mountains of Meghalaya come alive, ready to host their grand annual reunion. Christmas celebrations amongst us, the Garos or A’chiks as we call ourselves, of Meghalaya, is a grand community affair and like many others from the state who live away for studies or work, every year, I make my way back to my ancestral village for the celebrations that have remained unchanged over the years.
Apart from the harvest festival Wangala, Christmas is the most important festival for the Garos, most of whom follow Christianity. The preparation for the celebrations usually start weeks before the actual day. It’s the season to be social and the days are made up of visiting friends and relatives and catching up with each other over endless rounds of hot black tea and Garo rice cakes known as Sakin. People sitting outdoors around a fire with a constant supply of tea is a common sight during the festive season, soaking up the warmth and enjoying each other’s company, sometimes even without exchanging a single word.
About a week ahead of Christmas, the menfolk of the village hold a meeting to organise the setting up of a huge bamboo pandal in the centre of the village. By huge, I mean enormous — the pandal can house the entire population of the village. The young and the old come together to erect the pandal, some collect bamboo poles from the forest while others collect paddy straw from the fields to make the floor. In this festival of feasting and mingling, there is little respite for the retiring folks. There are strict rules for those who shun company — if you fail to socialise or don’t participate in setting up the pandal, you could be fined Rs 250. You have to be really young or very old to be exempted from festival duties.
The duties are shared. Each household is tasked with bringing a quota of firewood to cook the feast and to keep the pandal warm through the night. The village elders decide, select and buy pigs and chickens a day in advance of the feast for slaughtering.
As the Garos are generally frugal eaters, our food usually consists of a serving of steamed rice with boiled vegetables and meat. There is little of the elaborate and exotic cooking that goes into the making of feasts in many parts of India. But we do loosen our purse strings and go overboard during Christmas celebrations.
Our cooking is no different from the rest of the Northeast; we prefer pork over other meat and no Christmas feast is complete without it. The Christmas menu has remained unchanged since my childhood, at least in my village. Usually for the feast, pork and chicken stew, thickened with pounded rice, known as pura, is served with a side of hot and spicy pork and chicken fry. The dish is served wrapped in leaves of a plant locally known as Reru (Phrynium pubinerve).
The community feast is actually pot luck, with people getting steamed rice and other delicious side dishes from home. After saying a brief prayer, everyone sits together at the pandal to eat. Afterwards, it’s time for traditional cultural programmes, which are incomplete without a men vs women riddle battle, where they both take on each other with witty jibes. Trust me, it’s a bloodbath out there!
Then comes the long night of the dance, when everyone dances to songs and the beats of drums. The drum beats converge from distant villages scattered all across the jungles, echoing through the night and into the morning, keeping true to the spirit of the Garo song that we dance to. “Salgi a’aa mo’o ba dontongkuna be”, which means “Even if the sky shakes, do not stop dancing and celebrating”.
Nambie Marak hosts Eat your Kappa, a YouTube channel, in which she chronicles recipes from the Northeast.
Assamese style fish stew with Indian sorrel and Asiatic pennywort
Being the gateway to the Northeast, Assam’s cuisine bears the influence of both mainland India and the Northeast. Unlike many tribes of the Northeast, the Assamese do use oil to cook, but in very small quantities. Spices, too, are used sparingly. Here is a rustic yet delicious fish stew recipe infused with medicinal herbs such as Asiatic pennywort (locally known as manimuni) and Indian sorrel known as tengesi.
4-5 — small fresh water fish
2 — medium sized boiled potatoes
1 cup — Asiatic pennywort
1 cup — Indian sorrel
½ cup — Mustard oil
5-10 — cloves of garlic (crushed)
5-7 — green chilies
1 tsp — Turmeric
Salt for seasoning
1 tsp — Fenugreek seeds
Preparation time: 30-40 minutes
* Cut, clean, wash and pat dry the fish. Marinate it in salt and turmeric for about 10-15 minutes. Fry the fish in mustard oil and keep aside. Wash the Asiatic pennywort and Indian sorrel and coarsely pound them, just enough to bruise them to release their juices (do not pound them into paste). Keep aside. Mash the boiled potatoes and keep them aside as well. In a pan, heat 2 tbsp of mustard oil. Add fenugreek seeds to the pan when the oil heats. Once the seeds start spluttering, add the crushed garlic pods and mashed potatoes. Add ½ a tsp of turmeric powder and mix well. Let it cook for about 10 minutes. Add crushed pennywort, Indian sorrel and slit green chillies to the mixture. Add salt and about 2 cups of water. Stir well and bring it to boil. Let the mixture simmer for about 15 minutes. Add the fried fish and allow it to cook for another 5 minutes. Serve hot, with rice.
Pork with dried bamboo shoot
Each of the 17 Naga tribes have an amazing and diverse food culture. A traditional Naga meal comprises steamed rice, boiled vegetables and meat. All celebrations are incomplete without rice beer. The Nagas love and relish all kinds of meat with a few exceptions but beef and pork remain their favourites. Meat is usually cut in large chunks and cooked slowly with bamboo shoot, ginger, garlic, chillies and locally available herbs.
250g — Fresh pork (fat and meat in equal proportion)
2 tsp — Dried bamboo shoots
2 to 3 tsp — Chilli flakes
1 — Ghost pepper (Bhut jolokia, optional)
8-10 — cloves garlic
1-inch piece ginger
3-4 — cups water
Salt for seasoning
Preparation time: 45 minutes
Wash the pork, drain it and cut it into 2-inch thick pieces. In a deep vessel, mix the pork with chilli flakes and salt. Add lots of water to the mixture, cover the vessel and allow it to cook slowly over low heat. Meanwhile, grind the ginger and garlic to a paste. Add dried bamboo shoot to the ginger-garlic paste and mix it well using mortar and pestle. Add the ginger-garlic and dried bamboo shoot mixture once the pork has cooked well and is tender. Allow it to cook for 5-10 minutes over high flame, stirring constantly. Sprinkle some water if it gets too dry or starts to burn. Serve it hot with rice. This is a dry dish, but you can add a cup of water in the end if you want some gravy.