Come to the table

Zac O?Yeah | Updated on March 10, 2018

Local flavours: Usually called ‘Ja & Sha’ — rice and tea, respectively — Shillong’s no-frills eateries are often run by Khasi women known as ‘Kongs’. Photo: Zac O'Yeah   -  BusinessLine

Simplicity and wholesomeness are at the core of the food that Shillong’s modest eateries and speciality restaurants dish out

Halfway between Guwahati and Shillong, when the taxi stops for a tea break at Nongpoh, stalls peddling atom-bomb hot bamboo shoot pickles herald the pleasures ahead. The golden stuff is sold in recycled jars that leak oil into my luggage, so that for the rest of my trip I walk about smelling of fermented bamboo. Besides, monsoon is peaking in Shillong. These are the legendary rains that brought me to the Khasi Hills on my first visit 20 years ago: A wall of cement-grey cosmic piddle rattles gutters, raindrops the size of bullets ricochet off the pavement and up my pant legs.

Hot food assuages the chilling weather and the town is dotted with numerous local eateries. Usually called ‘Ja & Sha’, they sound like the name of a rap band. But ‘Ja’ simply means rice, the side dishes are assumed, and ‘sha’ means tea — often had as sha saw (red tea without milk). Generally these places have no menus, but the iconic dish is jadoh, translating roughly as ‘pork spare-part pulao cooked in pig’s blood’, perhaps best eaten with the paranormally pungent tung-rymbai, or fermented soyabean stewed with pork, and doh-iong or black sesame pork curry. These canteens used to be traditionally dark, cavernous and crammed with low-bench seating arranged bus-style, with long narrow tables in between. Even if the eateries were sheds patched together from flattened mustard oil tins, they were efficiently run by dignified Khasi women known as ‘Kongs’, who ensured homely quality and reasonable hygiene.

Those places are still around. However, on my monsoon visit this year, I notice that tribal cuisine has taken centrefield — its time-tested simplicity and wholesomeness is what attracts customers, but its presentation has now acquired a complexity.

Earlier, all fancy restaurants in Shillong focused on Chinese or north Indian-style multi-cuisine, and the only remotely restaurant-like place to eat Khasi meals was the enthusiastically christened Trattoria Dukan Jadoh (now simply the Trattoria) in Police Bazaar, the main drag. It isn’t as posh as the Italian-style moniker suggests, but brighter than average jadoh stalls, with polished stone tables and photographic depictions of dishes on the walls. The jolly proprietor, seeing that I’m a tourist in need of culinary guidance, plates me a gustatory pork thali. I get samples of all the available dishes — pork meatball ( doh shain; very yummy), boiled pig’s brain salad ( doh khleh; mildly-wildly delicate), pork chutney, and curried pork — all at a humane ₹140.

However, I see many more eating places advertising Khasi food and shops sell tribal specialities such as dried pork and pickled beef. Several restaurants also offer the foods of the Jaintias, Nagas, Mizos and Manipuris — clearly, regional pride is reflected in a newfangled interest in homely cookery, as in the rest of the world where global is giving way to regional.

When I’m not roaming in the intense maze of the women-dominated Iewduh market with its banana brokers, fresh-fishmongers, honey hawkers, pickle peddlers, swine slaughterers, and tea traders, my sightseeing mostly happens sitting at tables laden with exotic delicacies, dishes mildly flavoured with ginger, garlic, onions and pinches of chilli, but no artificial tastemakers, and often smoked or cooked with a minimum of oil and salt. The recipes rely more on natural flavours or fermentation. My BP is happy, and I love every bite I eat.

The full extent of north-eastern gastronomic glory is revealed at Phunga, a year-old restaurant spread across three cheerful rooms in a charming old bungalow in Laitumkrah Main Road, a bubbly student area a short walk from the cathedral. Phunga apparently means ‘kitchen hearth’, which, in these parts, is traditionally the place where people get together after a hard day’s work not only to eat, but also sing and tell stories. The restaurant features recipes from all over the North-East — Khasi, Tripuri, Mizo, Naga, Arunachali and Assamese, though there’s a special emphasis on the foods of Manipur.

With such a vast menu, all dishes aren’t available every day and everything I ask for takes a good long while to prepare. The unhurried maitre d’ returns half an hour after having taken my order only to let me know that the smoked fish is unavailable. (Traditional ‘slow food’ as a reaction against the entry of fast-food chains in town, has apparently been trending in Shillong since 2010 and Phunga takes that slowness to its very extremes.)

I let him talk me into trying a shiitake mushroom dish with sprouted peas and their special off-the-menu caviar gravy, which sounds like it could be terribly pricey. And I obviously must have one of their thalis as well — although the jungle chicken and wild duck combos tempt me, I go for the fish thali (₹200). A good three-quarters of an hour later, the food is ready but it’s so worth the wait. The thali contains many exquisite preparations — curried, fried, fermented, dried, and mashed fish, in all 12 dishes on one plate. When the bill arrives, it turns out that the juicy shiitake is only ₹100 and the delicately eggish caviar balls curried in tomato gravy, was billed at ₹80.

It must have been my cheapest gourmet experience ever!

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist. His latest books are the crime novel Tropical Detective and the travelogue A Walk Through Barygaza (both out this month)

Published on December 01, 2017

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