This is ‘the jewelled land’, a princely state of fabulous beauty, of rolling hills, rivered valleys and gentle plains. Situated in the north-east of India, Manipur is the crossroads of Asia – connecting the subcontinent to Southeast Asia, China, Siberia, Micronesia and Polynesia; a melting pot of people, cultures, and religions.
Safe to say, Manipur is a land with a fascinating past. This is the place where polo originated, along with the rugby-like game of yubi lakpi, or coconut-snatching. But it also has a pretty intriguing present…
The lovely Loktak Lake is home to both a floating national park and a floating primary school, while the 500-year-old Ima Keithel bazaar sells textiles, spices, fresh fruits and vegetables all made and sold by the roughly 5,000 female traders!
A state, then, that’s unique in many aspects – not least its cuisine, distinguished from more mainstream Indian food by the use of various aromatic herbs and roots indigenous to the region. Of course spicy foods are still the norm, with chilli peppers a real favourite: eromba is a local chutney made from vegetables boiled or steamed with piles of red chillies or umorok (king chilli). Added to ngari (fermented fish), and garnished with herbs such as maroi and coriander, this purportedly constitutes Manipur’s most official dish.
Thanks to the backyard ponds found at many a Manipur household, fermented fish also makes an appearance in singju, another popular dish. Originating with the Meitei culture (the majority ethnic group of Manipur) this is a spicy salad snack widely sold in restaurants all over the state, a side dish that relies heavily on veg such as cauliflower, rice beans, onions, unripe papayas, lotus stems and the ever-present chilli. In fact, it’s actually the vegan option (sans fish) which is most common: enjoyed at ritual feasts (where meat and fish are off the menu), the dish focuses on seasonal veggies grown, for the most part in kitchen gardens.
Even the desserts are veg-laden: paaknam is a savoury chilli-flavoured cake packed with herbs and vegetables and steamed in banana leaves), while chak-hao kheer is a delicious pudding made from rice, milk and cardamom, garnished with dried fruit and nuts. A melting-pot of cultures this may be, but it’s vegetarianism that’s won the day in the jewelled land of Manipur.