Manipur, Jewel land of India, displays a vast array of culture, heritage, and natural beauty. The indigenous Meiteislovingly call the place, “Sana Leibak”, meaning land of gold signifying the high fertility of the land. However, one often forgets to mention about the exquisite culinary experience offered by this pristine region. In fact, it is believed that the royal kitchen used to serve the royal family with 12 different dishes which went up to 108 during special occasions.
The social structure and culinary skills in Manipur are so deeply connected that the Bamons (Manipuri Brahmins) are considered culinary experts and are hired for cooking during occasions which includes a feast. The Bamons since time in memorial bring their pots and pans to cook by burning woods at private homes or community halls. Their natural talent with cooking is an awe factor for many and sometimes people wonder if they have special mantras. But in reality, it is the treatment and techniques involved with their skills to turn any dull vegetables into a delicacy.
It is no surprise to witness the expansion of these culinary skills beyond Manipur’s borders by the people who migrated from Manipur to parts of Northeast India including Assam, Tripura and even Bangladesh. Evidently in Guwahati, the area between Paltan Bazar and Manipuri Rajbari is a popular destination for various Manipuri Thali businesses serving delicacies from Manipur. Phouoibee Chakhum, Sangai Manipuri Rice, Yaiphaba Manipuri Rice, Emoinu Manipuri Rice are some significant businesses serving Manipuri Thali in the area. These outlets try to bring the traditional taste by using authentic Manipuri ingredients imported through Hojai, Dimapur and Manipur. A Manipuri thali usually includes daal, black daal, dried peas curry prepared with baking soda, decan hemp with dried fish, potatoes mashed with fermented fish (eronba), spicy veggies mix (singju), spicy aachar with fermented fish, and choice of meat or fish.
Apart from rice thali, another form of delicacy which is famous and prefered as afternoon or evening snacks is bora made by mixing besan, spices, potatoesand seasonal greens which are deep fried and served with tea.
“By 4pm customers will start coming for their bora and chai, I also serve puri, khichdi, and singju. We opened up mainly as a bus and flight ticketing services, but we had to upgrade our station to serve these foods and tea” said Nene, a Manipuri woman who run the business near Apsara hall.
Far from the buzzing city life, S. Chakraboty and Chirom Nonibala Devi have settled and established a family friendly dhaba near Games Village. “We mainly have regular customers from the Police Department, SSB, ITBP, and other dwellers of the Games Village. Manipuri and Assamese families love this place as the name says Rishtey, meaning the Relationship we build”, Nonibala said.
“I specially order the chillies from Kakching, Manipur. Most customers who are non-Manipuri may not like the bamboo shoot delicacies but they can’t resist the eronba complimented by a spicy chilly aachar”, she said. Ironically, due to regular customers preferences the rice served here is not the stuffy Manipuri rice which other Manipuri Rice dhaba serves typically. Chirom Nonibala shifted from Imphal when she married her husband who was born in Jaribon, they believe that with the present rate of customers visit they can grow their business and acquire new space, she added, “we believe that everyone should eat cool and calm, considering the heat in Assam we have modified the doors and windows and have installed AC for comfort”.
Another significant Manipuri business is a kitchen that serves Manipuri Rice thali at ISBT, Betkuchi called ‘Leima’. The place is now famous among travellers visiting ISBT and Royal Global University students, “I like thefood here, mainly the rice which is stuffy and completes my hunger. I like the fact that the business is run by women and they give a homely and warm hospitality”, said Jit a Manipuri student.
Bineiya Devi said, “our speciality is evergreen, serving Manipuri thali with chicken, fish, two types of pork curry: boiled and fried. The presence of RGU is a great thing for us because the Manipuri students are our regular customers and they bring prospective customers who are non-Manipuri, therefore helping us expand. Recently, we have rented a separate free space just three plots away, this has helped us accommodate more customers”.
These hospitality businesses set up by Manipuri people are part of the ever changing socio-economic lifestyle that the city of Guwahati provides. Several of these business owners have their identity here in Assam given their forefather’s migration into the land many years ago. While, other left home for better opportunities or to provide the same for their family. There are several challenges involved in their business but it is their endearing spirit to serve and survive that propels their kitchen to fulfil many tastebuds.