“It looks like chicken soup,” said a family member. The lid had been removed, and the aroma that rose from the pot did have a whiff of chicken soup. It wasn’t chicken soup I’d made, but rohu kangsoi1. Though the skin of the fish slices still had a silvery sheen, the flesh wore a soft, gelatinous white. Someone tasted it and said, “It is chewy like chicken, too.” Dinner commenced without further ado.
I first had fresh fish kangsoi in Delhi. One of my flatmates—a Tangkhul girl called Awon—made it, assuring us it would taste just fine. To the rest of us who came from urban Meitei families, boiling fresh fish was a peculiar novelty. Awon was, however, an exceptional cook. She took pleasure in preparing food and feeding people. An attitude like that tends to make a difference. Even something as basic as fried yellow peas mixed with raw shredded cabbage and chilli powder can boast a gourmet appeal when prepared by the hands of someone who is passionate about the whole business of cooking. Old newspaper pages were laid on the ground, plates placed in position, the rice dug in and fluffed up, and the morok ametpa2 sprinkled with onion. The pot of fish kangsoi was brought in and carefully lowered into the space in the middle. I poured some over my rice, intrigued by the strangely familiar smell, and put a bit of the fish in my mouth. It was very, very delicious.
Not everyone loved it. Not everyone ate it. Awon made it only once after that. When she moved out, the fish kangsoi stayed behind as my memory of her company. As I added the fresh rohu to the boiling water 10 years later, I thought of her and that evening on which we went out to buy the fish in Kotla Mubarakpur, giddy with excitement. On my part, I had cooked ngamu-leirou3 with mustard leaves in oil for her. A memory of me.
Long before the fish kangsoi, my hostel roommate, Lima, an Ao girl from Kohima, announced during breakfast that I was to accompany her to her cousin’s flat. During the rickshaw ride, I asked, “What are we making for lunch?” She said food was ready. Her cousin had cooked the head of a pig.
I let that sink in for a moment. The head of a pig. The vision of a pig’s head perched on a silver platter flashed in my mind. “How do you cook the head of a pig?” I asked, fascinated. “You’ll see,” she replied.
It wouldn’t be the first time Lima had re-introduced me to meat. Beef? Shredded into thin, powdery films and thoroughly smeared with chilli, salt, oil, and garlic. Eel? Roasted in chunks and pickled with ginger and chilli. Pork? Stewed without onion, garlic, and turmeric, which were staple ingredients as far as I knew. Beyond meat, there was still the novelty of spiking Maggi with fermented soyabean. Through her, food had undergone a kaleidoscopic metamorphosis.
My brain bubbled with imagination. What does a meal of a pig’s head look like? Would the ears float above the gravy, or would the nostrils poke out of it? She said it was considered a special meal. I couldn’t wait. But when I opened the lid, I was greeted by the rather commonplace sight of your everyday pork curry. I decided not to voice this and tried a strip of meat. The texture and flavour felt normal inside my mouth. “What do you think this is?” I asked, showing her the remainder of the piece. She glanced at it and casually said, “That’s the tongue.”
Long before I masticated the tongue of a pig, I returned home on a school day and went straight to the kitchen, famished as usual. I opened the utensils one by one; to my delight, there was chicken curry in the smallest pot. It was only when I’d finished that my mother came in and told me it wasn’t chicken.
“That was rabbit, my dear daughter,” she said with a laugh. “Your father prepared it for his friends. I didn’t get the chance to warn you.” I had to fight down the urge to retch. At that time, I ate only chicken and eggs. The idea of consuming rabbit meat was one that hadn’t occurred to me; rabbit was neither chicken nor egg. None of my friends ate it.
Before the rabbit, I had accompanied my father to Kumbi and stayed with him in his rented room. “Try this tea,” the kind old man who owned the house offered to me in the morning, “it is prepared with our buffalo’s milk.” Though I seldom drank tea, I could discern the difference between the tea in that cup and the tea we made at home with powdered milk. It smelled extra sweet and landed thickly on my tongue. I finished it with pleasure, surprised by my own enjoyment of a taste I generally avoided. More astonishing than this event was what happened a few hours later. A neighbour, the mother of the boys I played with, came in with a covered stainless steel bowl. “It’s a special dish,” she said. “Eat it with your father.” When my father informed me it was bush rat stew, I shrank in horror.
There was that night when venison was cooked in a large cast iron khaang4. The fire burned brightly as the men of the kollup5 sat around it and took turns at stirring the meat. We were only thrilled for the opportunity to play after dark, unencumbered by the dour imposition of studying. As soon as the venison stew was done, we gathered at the maanggol6 and squatted in front of the steel plates heaped with rice. The venison was poured over the rice with a big ladle. I chewed and chewed the meat until I was defeated by its rubbery resilience. Perhaps, it hadn’t been cooked right—I wouldn’t know. I haven’t had venison since.
The older men compared it to beef unfavourably. I was perturbed by the thought of eating beef. Our relatives raised cattle, and there was that famous supersized bull that roamed the Thangal Bazaar area. I frequently saw him on the way to school. The driver had to swerve the van to avoid hitting his expansive body. Could I bite into his cooked flesh? I wondered. I discovered I could when a Muslim lady acquaintance brought beef curry for us to taste. I also discovered I could eat mutton when the landlord of the basement our company rented in Gurgaon gifted all the employees half a kilo of fresh mutton each to celebrate the breaking of their fast. No one in my flat knew what to do with it, so I made a curry with it, unwilling to let the good meat go to waste.
Our diet is a feast assembled not only by geography but by the forces of economy and religion, too. It carries our history and is a dominant aspect of who we identify as a community. Had my father not possessed an adventurous and experimental palate and my mother not been as accommodating as she is, I might not have had this delightful gastronomical journey. Food, like any other cultural commodity, is after all a double-edged sword. It can divide us and it has, as proved by the devastating events of the recent past. People have been killed and arrested over meat.
The prejudice that stems from the difference in diet is nothing new; the group that consumes only chicken and fish might consider another that includes pork and beef in their diet as inferior in class. Those who eat pork and beef in addition to chicken and fish might argue that others who eat the meat of dogs and cats are devoid of humanity. An individual who enjoys all of these might be turned off by the tradition of making snake soup and deep-frying frogs, and someone who relishes cooked snakes and frogs might be appalled at how South Koreans devour live octopus. The majority of us would balk at the practice of cannibalism observed by the Korowai tribe of Papua New Guinea. Our reaction to what we classify as an alien diet is the result of social conditioning that segregates food into morally acceptable and unacceptable, rather than edible and inedible. Morals, however, are themselves subject to varying social codes that can be both rigid and arbitrary.
Keeping aside the argument for ethical killing of an animal for its meat, the virtues of veganism, and the hunting of endangered species to the point of extinction, it cannot be denied that food—non-vegetarian food, to be specific—is used as a tool to fortify elitism even within members of the same ethnic community. But food can also act as a bridge. It is a revelation that took years of trials and errors to unwrap. The consumption of food, loaded with politics, is an intensely personal act. Bonding over an alien dish can be transgressive, and as a consequence, intimate. It is a preface to affinity. Convinced though I am that I lack the courage to swallow a fried worm, I am certain that the ability to enjoy my pork while the person across the table picks up one from their plate and pops it into their mouth is a milestone covered.
1kangsoi: a type of soup typically prepared with vegetables, smoked fish, and fermented fish
2morok ametpa: chutney made with chilli. In Meitei culinary, it is mostly prepared with fermented fish
3ngamu-leirou: smoked snakehead fish
4khaang: a pot similar to a wok
5kollup: an extended family that lives together
6maanggol: the open area at the front of a house used for receiving guests