Pull up two chairs – for yourself and your appetite. For foodies, this part of India offers an incredible array of flavours, ranging from sophisticated fusion dining to robust tribal fare. Come with an open mind, and you’ll be treated to a bellyful of gastronomic delights that are bound to capture your imagination while you’re here.
Kolkata tops the chart as the food capital of the region. A city with a cosmopolitan palate thanks to its extensive colonial history, Kolkata’s food preferences borrow heavily from Chinese, Mughal and European cuisines. The classic Bengali platter, comprising rice, daal, leafy greens, fish (hilsa preferably) and sweets, such as rosogolla and mishit doi, has many aficionados across India, as do heavyweight Kolkata Chinese dishes such as chilli chicken and noodles in many avatars. European dishes – often married to Indian flavours – turn up on tables in the form of roasts, stews and puff pastries. Mughlai favourites, such as biriyani, chaap and kebabs are no less popular. To top it all, there’s a whopping range of lip-smacking street food on offer around every corner; gobble it all up while you can.
Rest of Bengal
Stepping out of Kolkata’s city limits, you’ll find Bengali cuisine divided into two broad categories. The flavours of erstwhile East Bengal (now Bangladesh), brought along by immigrants after Partition, are clubbed under the so-called Bangal cuisine, as opposed to the pre-existing cooking tradition in West Bengal, colloquially referred to as the Ghoti style. There are subtle variations in taste between the two, owing to the respective condiments and ingredients used. North Bengal, however, has a distinctly different cuisine, thanks to the hill tribes and resident Nepali and Tibetan community there.
Bihar & Jharkhand
Food in Bihar and Jharkhand is hearty, wholesome and mostly a no-frills affair. True, a few restaurants in Patna and Bodhgaya will serve you sophisticated stuff on elegant platters, but in the rest of the region, food is pretty much a utilitarian – though supremely tasty – affair. Look out for the ubiquitous litti (roasted balls of sattu) served with chutney and chokha, a tangy potato curry. In rural Jharkhand, you might want to try dhuska (deep-fried pooris made of rice flour) served with a tasty potato and chickpea curry. And don’t come away without biting into a slab of tilkut (pounded sesame cookies made with jaggery batter or melted sugar).
Mustard – used in seed, paste or oil form – rules the kitchens of Odisha, lending a pungent flavour to most dishes. The cuisine also gets a sour punch from tamarind and is made fragrant with spices such as cumin, fennel, fenugreek and kala zeera. Popular dishes to look out for include dalma (a spiced lentil sauce with vegetables, fruit and plantain), alu palak saag (spinach and potatoes) and ambul (fish cooked with mustard and tangy dried mangoes). Puffed rice (muri) and flattened rice (chura) are favourites across the state and are consumed either for breakfast or a daytime snack – the former with myriad deep-fried goodies and the latter with a banana and yoghurt mash. Save some room for chhena poda, a signature Oriya dessert of browned and sweetened cottage cheese cakes.
Sikkim’s don’t-miss beverage is tongba, a millet beer (also known as chhang) which is sipped through a bamboo straw from a wooden container. The container is periodically topped up with hot water, so as to increase the potency of the drink, especially to combat the evening chill. While Tibetan dishes such as momos and thukpa are available across Sikkim, more indigenous preparations comprise sisnoo or sochhya (nettle soup), ningro (fried fiddlehead ferns), chhurpi (dried yak cheese served on the side with meals), gundruk ko jhol (fermented mustard leaf soup) and pork, chicken and beef in curried form.
The cuisine of Assam is similar to Bengali cuisine at first glance, but reveals several differences upon closer inspection. Fish is a favourite here, often presented in a sour gravy called maasor tenga. Tribal influences and ingredients are also evident in the cuisine; pork for instance is a favourite and is the main ingredient in several curries. Khar, an extract from the ashes of burnt banana trees, finds its way into vegetable or fish preparations and lends an astringent aftertaste to dishes. Also on offer are a range of desserts, such as laru (compressed sesame or grated coconut in ball form) and pitha (stuffed rice cakes similar to the Bengali pithe).
Unusual rustic delicacies rule here. From the highest mountains of Arunachal Pradesh to the rolling foothills of Tripura, each tribe brings to the table a range of unique ingredients and flavours. You are likely to encounter smoked meats, fiery chillies, chicken and pork dishes flavoured with bamboo shoots and chutneys and curries bolstered with fermented soybean. The Northeast is all about experimenting with new tastes, so come with an open mind.
This article is an excerpt from our Best Escapes East & Northeast India. Go on, grab a copy NOW!