Like any cuisine among the various tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, Tai Khamti cooking is a “throw-together” style of cooking that allows much room for creativity. One of the delights of eating Tai Khamti delicacies is the tremendous varieties offered and the enormous variations of the same dishes, giving consumers a variety of choices to satisfy differing taste preferences and varying moods. The variations in the way same dishes are made reflect not only the creative talents of the Tai Khamti people, but also regional as well as individual taste preferences and their love and tolerance for variety.
Arunachal Pradesh is full of ethnic diversity, blended with unique cultural and family traditions. For the tribes in the central belt, rice and meat are among the staple diets. Contrary to popular belief, these tribal communities are not traditional meat eaters but they preserve them for lean season when hunting isn’t fruitful. For them, cultivating rice is one of the calendar’s main task. In the hills, they still practice shifting cultivation while at the foothills wet rice cultivation is prevalent.
The Tai Khamti, mainly resident at the foothills of mid-eastern Arunachal Pradesh, grow rice and mix that with boiled green leafy vegetables for a prefect meal. While most of the Arunachali cuisine does away with cooking oils and spices, these tribal people use home grown spices like ginger, garlic, chilly pastes, herbs like watercress, white basil etc, and bamboo shoots to spice up their boiled veggies.
Rice is also prepared in various ways. Cooking ‘khaulam rice’, where rice is steamed in bamboo tubes, requires a great deal of labour and attention. Another variety uses the steam of hot water to cook pre-soaked rice. The cooked rice is then packed in special leafs which in turn soaks the aroma of the leaf. Locals say that the variety of paddy also determines how rice is cooked.
Like its diverse and colourful traditions, the Tai Khamti food is a heady mix of various ingredients, preparations and esoteric items. Locals define the quality of preparation in the aroma of the food. They pass on the recipe with experimentation to the next generation. They learn by experience, by looking at what elders serve at home and by experimentation.
While there are ‘chefs’ who put ‘secret ingredients’ to give their product a unique personality, others mix-match whatever is freshly available at the kitchen garden or at the local vegetable market. For the Tai Khamtis, the secret ingredient could be herbs available in the kitchen garden like makat, po-hoi-hom, pi- chim-khim, plo-ching, mau-plo-mo, pi-ki.
Some of these herbs may not be available in other places but these don’t stop you from cooking a great Tai Khamti cuisine. It only requires ingenuity in making substitutions that can most closely approximate the results you are after. When you liberated yourself from dependence on recipes and learnt the principles of creatively working with flavor ingredients, the food you make will not only satisfy your tongue, but nourish your soul and spirit as well – that’s the spirit of Tai Khamti cooking.
(Originally published in the East Expedia)