Eastern India has mountains, beaches, forests and mangroves and thus making it one of the most fertile regions in India. The bounty of the nature is truly reflected in the cuisine style of the different East Indian states, namely West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, Sikkim, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, and Tripura. Rice and fish are the staple food in most of these places, although meat is also eaten extensively. Eastern states are predominantly non-vegetarians, unlike most other states where vegetarians are in the majority. The geographical location of this region means its food bears the strong influence of Chinese and Mongolian cuisine. West Bengal, however had influenced and been influenced by the British who ruled from Calcutta for a long period of time before shifting their base to Delhi. Steaming and frying is the most common method of cooking; lots of vegetables and fish and meat are used in everyday cooking.
Rohu Fish Curry
The exhaustive assortment of various fish dishes and mouth-watering sweets epitomizes the grandeur of West Bengal cuisine. Bengal’s numerous rivers, lakes, and ponds teemed with a wide variety of fishes caters to this fish loving state with sumptuous gastronomic delights. The preparation styles are as eclectic as the variety of the fishes, - fried, steamed, braised, stewed, made with greens and vegetables, thin soupy curry called ‘jhol’ or thick gravy called ‘kalia’, in mustard sauce or coconut paste or with poppy seeds. The list is innumerable. Fresh water fish is more preferred than sea fish, although the latter is also eaten amply. Essential and the most basic meal of any Bengali home will be the ubiquitous rice and fish along with dal and some vegetables. In summers meal ends with sweet yogurt.
Bengali cooking uses a Panch phoron, special mixture of five different whole spices to give the dishes a quintessential flavour inherent of that region. Some of the fish delicacies of this state are Rui macher jhol (rohu fish curry), Daab chingri (prawns cooked and served in tender coconut), Bhapa Ilish (steamed Hilsa fish), Chingri macher malaikari (steamed prawn in thick creamy coconut-mustard gravy), Doi Mach (fish in yogurt) Macher paturi (steamed fish wrapped in coconut leaf), Ilish mach bhaja (deep fried Hilsa fish) to name a few. It would however be wrong to assume that Bengal reigns only in its fish preparation. Mochar ghonto (coconut blossom curry), cholar dal (thick gravied lentil), Dhokar dalna (lentil based cakes, fried and then made in to curry) tomato chutney, begun bhaja (fried egg plant) are some of the lip smacking dishes. Bengal is famous all over the world for its assortment of sweets, especially Rasgulla, Sandesh, Mishti doi (Mitha Dahi) All sweets are milk based, prepared with sugar and many times with jaggery. There are wet sweets like rosogolla, kalo jam, Pantua, Cham cham, Ras malai and dry sweets or sandesh.
Fish, Meat and Vegetables
Orissa or Oriya cuisine is quite similar to Bengal cuisine, in taste, ingredients and cooking methods. Orissa being a coastal region enjoys unlimited seafood, and the verdant pastures of paddy and a myriad assortment of vegetables add to the diversity of the cuisine. The flavour of Oriya food is milder and more subtle compared to the fiery curries of the rest of the country. The tenderness of the food is enhanced by the extensive use of coconut and yogurt. Here too the five whole spices or Panch phutana is amply used for flavoring dishes, especially vegetarian dishes. Apart from fishes, prawns, lobsters, and crabs adorn the gastronomic treats. Maachha Jhola (curried fish), Chadachadi (mixed vegetables), Dahi baigana (aubergine in thick yogurt gravy), Pakhala (fermented rice) are some of the popular dishes. Oriyas love sweets like rest of Indians, and they have their very own recipes for their own indigenous sweets, like Chakuli Pitha, (sweet pancake), Chhenna Poda (cheese cakes), Enduri Pitha (rice, coconut cake), and lots more. Although Oriyas are generally non-vegetarians, during special festivals and fasts, the food is purely vegetarian, even devoid of onion and garlic. The food offered to Lord Jagannath in the famous Puri temple is divinely delectable. It is a simple vegetarian meal cooked everyday as offering to God and later is distributed as Prasad to the devotees. Almost 10,000 people are fed everyday from the temple kitchen, which is one of the largest kitchen in the world. Oriya cuisine redefines the sophistication of simple yet wholesome food, bursting with exquisite flavour and texture.
Bihari cuisine is quite similar to North Indian style, although it has been equally influenced by the Eastern cuisine styles like that of Bengal and Orissa. Rice, dal, vegetables, and pickles form the basic of any meal, extra add-ons are non-vegetarian items, sweet dishes, buttermilk or yogurt. The most famous and well known foods from Bihar are undoubtedly Sattu-paratha, (bread made with sattu- powdered gram), Litti –Chokha (gram bread and spicy mashed potato dish), Dhuska (powdered rice and ghee deep fried item), Khaja and Tilkut (sesame seeds sweet) Fish in mustard sauce, meat in spicy gravy, meat kebabs and biriyanis are also common dishes eaten and relished in Bihar. Makhana or lotus seeds are used to prepare sweet dishes, which is a specialty of this state. Local liquor called Handia is very popular along the tribal belt of Bihar. This strong liquor is made from fermented rice with some toxic herbs. Like Orissa, Bihar too used the flowers and sap of Mahua tree to make their own liquor, which is again very popular drink in Bihar. No tribal can even imagine a festival without Handia. It is customary for the tribals to exchange handia as gift.
Aah succulent steamed momos
Sikkim, the mystical land east of India is not only picturesque with the mighty Himalayas in the backdrop and colorful Buddhist monasteries, the cuisine are equally exclusive. Cradled between India, Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal, the cuisine reflects the amalgamation of these different cuisines into something that is distinctly Sikkimese. Rice and maize form the staple food with a huge assortment of both veg and non-veg items. Due to the severe cold months resulting in a scarcity of fresh products, fermented foods are very much in vogue. The cuisine is also incorporated with Dals (lentils), fresh vegetables, bamboo shoots, wild flowers, mushrooms and nettle leaves. Talking about non-vegetarian food, beef, pork and fish are relishing items. Momo(steamed or fried dumplings), Thukpa, (vegetable, meat and noodle soup) Sel roti, (fermented rice bread, deep fried), Kinema (fermented soya bean dish), are some of the renowned dishes. Other delicacies are sishnu soup (Nettle leaves soup) and items made with Chhurpi, a fermented dairy product prepared from cow milk with a mild sour taste for making soups and pickles. Accompanying the food often is Chhaang, a fermented cereal-based alcoholic beverage. It is sipped from a bamboo receptacle using a thin bamboo pipe. The receptacle, which has millet in it, is topped with warm water a few times until the millet loses its flavour Raksi, is another appreciated alcoholic drink that is extensively drunk along with food. A visit to Sikkim is incomplete if the array of its diverse dishes is not tasted.
Deep fried chicken momos
Assam, the land of exquisite Muga silk and Bihu dance is also notable for its simple but delicious cuisine. The hilly regions of Assam rely more on fermented and dried food items while the plain regions enjoy the abundance of fresh vegetables and fish. Rice is again the staple food of Assam, and it is eaten with various preparations of vegetables, fish, meat and lentils. Assamese cuisine is rather bland compared to thedd north and southern parts of Indian cuisine. Minimal use of spices, slow cooking on fire and utilization of indigenous herbs add to the uniqueness of the Assamese cuisine. Traditional food always starts with a dish called Khar and ends with Tenga or sour dish. Foods are very often steamed, wrapped in banana leafs or bamboo. Salads, fritters, vegetable curry, fish and meat preparations, chutneys and sweets are all part of Assamese gastronomy. Assamese Pithas are never to be missed for their subtle sweet and savoury taste and flavour. Savour the aroma and taste of pure Assam tea with delicious warm fritters made with various indigenous products and herbs from Assam.
Mutton Masala (curry)
The exclusiveness of Arunachali gastronomy lies in the absence of oil and packed spices, but yet highly nutritious and delicious in their own way. Vegetables and meat are often boiled or dried, instead of cooked in oil, and chutneys or sauces made with the fiery indigenous chillis of the regions like Bhut Jolokia chili pepper add zing to the taste. Thukpas and momos are also popular food in Arunachal Pradesh. Intoxicating drinks are locally brewed and relished by all Arunachalis. Apang or Apang is the most famous drink made from millet and sometimes from rice. Generally apang is first offered to god before people consume it, and of course it is needless to say that no celebration is complete without having apang and other delicious fares as part of the joyous occasion.
Manipuri cuisine is simple and nutritious, depending almost entirely on rice, vegetables and fish. Like Arunachali and other eastern cuisine style, boiling, steaming and drying is the most preferred manner of preparing food. Instead of using ready-made masalas, homegrown herbs and ghost chillis enhance the taste of the otherwise bland food. In fact Kabok, a traditional specialty, is mostly fried rice with a world of vegetables added in. The Iromba, an eclectic combination of fish, vegetables and bamboo shoots is served fermented.
Kheer Kadam, sinfully delicious
Meghalayan people consume a lot of fruits, vegetables, fish and mostly meat dishes. The spice level of this particular cuisine is higher than the other neighboring states. Jadoh, - a spicy dish of rice and meat is an all-time favorite. Meghalaya is also famous for its special beer made from fermented rice.
Rajbhog, bigger and better cousin of Rasgulla
Mizoram cuisine enjoys the sumptuousness of various meat and seafood dishes. This particular style blends the taste of East Indian as well as Chinese cuisine and creates something very much of their own. Food is cooked in such a way that the nutritional value is retained. Bai (spinach, pork and bamboo shoot with rice) is a popular dish. Zu (tea) is also popular along with local wine made from fermented rice.
Tripura has a large Bengali community and thus food habits are quite similar to that of west Bengal. Rice and fish are the most popular food, along with different meat dishes. Pork, Beef, chicken, mutton, turtle, crab, frog, fish and crabs are some of the major non-veg ingredients relished in Tripuri cuisine. Fermented and dried fish preparations are part of the regular meals. Mui Borok is the traditional cuisine of Tripura, with dishes like Chakhwi (pork and bamboo shoot), other rice, vegetables, meat and fish dishes. Poora Machh (grilled fish) is a delicacy, which goes very well with Chuak, the fermented rice wine.
Generally, North East India has milder food, based more on rice and fish. Bamboo shoots, various varieties of chillis and lemon add exclusivity to the cuisine, which is pungent, whole-bodied, sweet and salty, all at the same time. They are an amalgamation of Indian, Chinese, Thai and Nepali cuisine, taking the best out of those cuisine, incorporating them into the indigenous ingredients and creating a culinary delight which is as mysterious and mystical as the states themselves.
Updated: Aug 20, 2012