Comforting cuisines

By SAMHITA BAROOAH

Comfort food is a trendy concept which is engulfing the youth in a big way. Anything goes wrong with life time decisions blame it on food and forget about the realities. Similarly all relationship blues gets colourful with a crunchy bite of the comfort food. Again every celebration and moment of joy needs to be celebrated with a bottle of beer or local fruit wine.  Comfort food has become an integral part of our life in such an invisible way that we are almost enslaved by the aroma, flavours and taste of such comfort food. In the current age of technology and globalisation, information, fashion and cultural fads pass at a lightning speed.  In urban areas, media plays a very crucial role setting the trends through all the compelling commercial advertisements and jazzy social events where lifestyle choices are endorsed publicly by movie stars and celebrities based on popular choices. Young people are the easiest to be influenced as they are vulnerable to peer pressures, popularity ratings and intense capacities to explore and experiment when it comes to food. In rural areas also gradual influence of television, cultural practices and socialising patterns do fascinate the first generation educated young people to experiment with the concept of comfort foods.

With the advent of trendy ethnic festivals in rural and semi-urban small towns, food choices have become very diverse for young people in North East India. Mostly people have the tendency to try something new and experiment with new tastes and flavours. Momos, rolls, soup chow, thukpa, chocolates and puri sabji have become anytime favourites of young people from rural Nagaland during their journeys and even when they visit some place outside their villages. Most roadside food joints in Nagaland all along the National Highway 61, caters to the choices and tastes of the young people who travel frequently in these roads. Shops are full of chips, sweets, tamarind, sunflower seeds, prawn flavoured snacks and betel nuts wrapped in betel leaves with slight tobacco sprinkled over it. While travelling through local buses and taxis in Nagaland, I observed many young people munching on such comfort foods. In the villages where I have gone in the past few years in Nagaland, comfort food for children and young people means a sweet from the local shop, sometimes its biscuit mostly Parle G or Tiger and some kids binge on dry noodles like Rumpum, Mimi and Wai Wai. Pan without any sweetening agent is also another very comforting food which sustains the interests of the young people in rural Nagaland. But mostly comfort food for young people in Nagaland means the chutneys like akhuni, challies and pickles made from pork and beef which are packed in sleek plastic packets and consumed voraciously during large meals. “Chutneys take me back to the memories of my Grandmother,” said Amba Jamir, Executive Secretary of Sustainable Development Forum Network. Amba was nostalgic when he shared his memories of juicy plums fresh from the home garden spiced up with a pinch of salt and chillies. He says these were comfort food because such food recreated the flavours of the past in a fast paced life which has replaced the slow cooked aromas with the market driven fast food. The concept of comfort food indeed is important for the Naga young people living outside their hometowns to be able to bring back the stories, family bonding and flavour of home through the tastes of such food in distant places where they are living currently far away from their communities, families and love ones. The elaborate stages of cooking anishi in Ao tradition, akhuni in Sema, Angami tradition, corn in Chakhesang tradition, bambooshoot in Lotha traditions and yam and Kholer beans in Konyak tradition and roasted tapioca in rural pockets of Nagaland does stir the blended aroma of comfort food in Nagaland. As Amba shares, “in the cities recreating the traditional food cultures and introducing comfort food to young children becomes a very expensive affair. Most of the traditional flavours have to be either cooked or arranged to be brought from the village so that the authentic tastes are retained.” But in this jet age, there is hardly any time for such elaborate cooking traditions. Young people today enjoy quick meals and light snacks which come out of packets because the market projects that such food is much more comforting and safer than cooked food available in homes or in public spaces.

Comfort cuisines in Nagaland are big rice meals with special curries drenched in authentic flavours of Naga spices of garlic, ginger, chillies and basil layered in green leafy vegetables and chunks of smoked or boiled pieces of meat. Such meals connect generations and also the flavours are transferred from one generation to the other. While reminiscing about the elaborate comfort cuisines which food innovator and connoisseur of traditional Naga cuisines, Rovi Chasie shared that food is very subjective and Naga food is filled with variety of choices. She said, “I have tried to blend global tastes with local ingredients when I cooked up the Jungle pata and Bambooshoot Kofta dish, Black berry jam tarts, Millet Cakes and the Royal dish made out of wood worms for the eminent dignitaries and state visitors which includes the Royal Princess of Thailand. She also added that when one talks of comfort foods in local cuisines, Tiapha which made out of soft rice, local mineral salt made becomes a staple diet for children and the older people.

Comfort food always triggers stories of memories and when such stories come from none other than Temsula Ao, such stories are refreshing. Ao, shared about her perspectives on comfort foods for pregnant women in olden times. It seems her grandmother’s generation had a local food which tasted like chalk during pregnancy. She also told a story about forbidden food like a black small fish goroi maas for women in olden times due to traditional beliefs. She also said that there are many Naga families who found non-beef dishes very comforting in her traditional village.

The Director of the Women Department also shared about his childhood memories of comfort foods which used to be mainly sour lime and other fruits with chillies and salt made into tangy chutney. As kids, such foods used to be more comforting that today’s generation of children binging on chips, chocolates and soft drinks.

My food trail continues to understand a diverse food basket which will trigger more stories of bonding, bonhomie and endurance in Nagaland.

(This piece is written under the aegis of CSE Media Fellowship. )

Samhita Barooah

Samhita Barooah

Samhita Barooah is a Researcher and Travel Writer.