If you tend to fall in the category of ‘gastronomically adventurous’, the Northeast region of India may just become your new home.
The seven sister states – as they were called before Sikkim joined the party in 1975 and made it ‘eight sister states‘– of the Northeast are not only culturally different from the rest of India, but they also stand out in their culinary habits. And this holds true especially when it comes to what constitutes ‘non-vegetarian’ diet in this region.
Back in my home state of Kerala in South India, there is a proverb in Malayalam which I learnt as a child. “Naayine thinnunna naattil poyaal nadu kashanam thinnanam”. As a figure of speech, this is the Keralite’s way of saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. But if you want the literal translation, that would be, “if you visit a land where they eat dogs, make sure you eat the meaty part!”. This proverb embodies the Malayali spirit to survive anywhere, from the sandy cauldron of the Middle East, to the air-conditioned hallways of the Silicon Valley.
When I heard this proverb as a child, I had no idea that this proverb was going to turn out very literal for me in the North East.
A meaty affair in the North East
Northeast India adorns a festival atmosphere during the months of November and December. But that is because it is during these months that most of the major festivals of Northeast happens. I had arrived here early November for the Shillong Cherry blossom festival and Garo Wangala Festival in Meghalaya. From there, I took to the Sangai festival in Manipur and the Hornbill festival in Nagaland.
Further Reading: 7 Lessons I learnt while camping at the hornbill festival in Nagaland.
Apart from the cultural performances these festivals were famous for, another integral aspect to them was the food and drinks. There was nothing to complain about the drinks, as every tribe in the North East seem to be competing with each other on who makes the best rice beer and rice wine. But when it came to food, the choices were limited to meat. So limited, that I almost took pity on the vegetarians who visited this region!
On my first day in Meghalaya, I had already noticed that they served pork everywhere. And despite whatever the cow politics of the central government in Delhi, beef and buff was everywhere too. That was only the beginning. By the time the hornbill festival had ended in mid-December, I had already tried silkworms, wild boar, venison, rabbits – and eventually – dog meat. My childhood proverb had finally come true.
Make no mistake. I am not cribbing. I am very flexible with my diets and had previously tried everything from Snake meat in Taiwan to Kangaroo meat in Australia. And I had always thought that it would take me nothing less than being marooned on an island, before I would start to crave for anything vegetarian.
But after a month of a heavy meat-based diet in North East India, something weird started happening to me. I was craving for some good old vegetarian food! Something south Indian. Perhaps a tinge of tamarind. Some lentils for protein. A taste of turmeric.
Good god! I was craving for some Tamil Sambhar! In a region of India, where I was highly unlikely to find it!
I started searching for Tamil restaurants. While in the city of Shillong, Meghalaya, someone told me there was a restaurant named ‘Chennai Junction’. Chennai being the capital of Tamil Nadu, there should definitely be some Tamil food here, right? Wrong! I went all the way to the restaurant, only to find out that it was a restobar which served alcohol with local Khasi food. It was named ‘Chennai Junction’ only because the owner was from Chennai. Duh.
And then, I heard about the Tamils on the India-Myanmar border.
The Tamils far away from home
It was during the British colonial times that Tamils first came into Myanmar. With their enterprising nature and hard work, the Tamils – especially the Chettiar Tamils, who were exceptional in business skills – became the pillar of the Burmese economy. Of course, this invited a lot of distrust from the local Burmese populace. In 1960, General Ne Win of Myanmar set off a series of legislations that were intended to choke the Tamils and their businesses. The Tamils of Myanmar returned as refugees to where their forefathers came from: the southern state of Tamil Nadu in India.
But life as refugees was no bed of roses. It was tough, and many of the Myanmar Tamils were unable to cope with their newfound environment. So, some of them decided to return back to Myanmar, a country that they already knew very well. They took the land route through India, crossed forests and non-existent roads and came until the Indo-Myanmar border. To a place called Moreh in Eastern Manipur, where there was nothing at that point of time.
And there they stopped. Because the Myanmar border police did not let them cross Moreh.
Unable to enter Myanmar, and unable to turn back to Tamil Nadu, the Tamils decided to stay in Moreh. They put their enterprise and hard work to use again, as they converted Moreh from an inconsequential town on the border, to a major trading point between India and Myanmar. Even when the Kukis – the local tribe of Moreh – became irritated with the growing dominance of the Tamils on local economy and unleashed violence on them in the 1990’s, not all of the Tamils left Moreh. Some still stayed behind in this small town, thousands of kilometers away from their original home, but right next to their once-adopted home. I am not certain if they considered Moreh their true home after all these years of living there. But I was certain of something.
If there were Tamils in Moreh, there had to be some sambhar there too.
The ride to Moreh
I rode to Moreh on my motorcycle, which has been my transport system throughout the North East. Moreh was roughly 120 KMs from Imphal, the capital of the state. Unlike other roads in this region, this highway was in impeccable condition – maybe because this was an international highway, which will soon link India all the way to Thailand and the rest of South East Asia. Yet, this wasn’t a very comfortable ride. Because Manipur still has a few active insurgent groups, and the highway snaked through stretches where some of these groups were active. The fear would have lingered throughout the ride, if it weren’t for the sight of ‘Assam Riffles’ soldiers patrolling almost the entire stretch of the route. Assam Rifles is not only the oldest paramilitary force in the world, they also handle the border security for the Northeast Region of India. They were brave and reliable, and their sight alone relaxed my jittering nerves for the entire ride.
Further Reading: The ride along another India-Myanmar border, from Margarita in Assam, along the Stilwell road towards Pangsau Pass in Myanmar.
When I finally reached the Indo-Myanmar friendship gate in Moreh – after nearly 3 or 4 army checkpoints – the scene had shifted from the beautiful peace of the valleys that preceded it. It was now a scene of cacophony. Traders carried their wares between both sides of the borders. Hand-pulled rickshaws were used for carrying the larger goods. Everybody had something on their head or their shoulders. There were all sorts of languages in the air. I heard Hindi, English, Burmese and Meitei, the local language of Manipur.
But no Tamil. Where were all the Tamils?
I walked around the border gate, checking out each of the shops. There was no sign of any Tamil restaurant. I even crossed the border, and went into Tamu on the Myanmar side – which was the most that I could go legally without a Myanmar visa. There were supposed to be some Tamils here on the Myanmar side too, but I guess they were hiding from me today. Because I saw no one that looked Tamil.
I had returned to the Indian side and was ready to give up hope, which was when I spotted him. He sat in a small shop close to the border gate, which sold grains, lentils and spices. I would have not understood he was Tamil, if it wasn’t for the sandalwood mark on the forehead. The Meitei people of Manipur had the tradition of putting these religious marks on their forehead too, but theirs was a long-tailed mark, going all the way till the nose. The Tamil style was different. It was a simple dash, right in the center of the forehead.
“Are you Tamil?”, I smiled at him and asked.
“Yes”. He smiled back.
“And what’s your name?”
I’ll be damned! His name was Tamilarasan, a common name in Tamil Nadu and one that was often shortened to Tamil!
Over the next few minutes, Tamilarasan gave me a complete account of the Tamils in Moreh. How they ended up there, the Tamil culture and traditions they still follow, and how they have blended in with both the Manipuri and the Burmese communities. In fact, I did not hear any Tamil earlier, simply because the Tamils here already had switched to Meitei seamlessly.
He further told me that there was a Tamil temple in Moreh now, and the Tamils were still involved in most of the trading that happened in this region. He was very happy to see another South Indian come down to Moreh, and he could have gone on and on about the Tamils in Moreh. But, I think I hampered his flow when I abruptly shot him the most pertinent question.
“Can I get Tamil food here?”
He almost laughed out hard. And then gave me instructions. “From the Friendship gate, take a right. Go towards the Andala parameswari Tamil temple. On the way, look to your right for ‘Laxmi hotel’. And enjoy the food”
The time was already 3 PM, and I had to return to the checkpoint by 5 PM. The army does not allow anybody to return to Imphal after the 5 PM cutoff, and I would have to stay a night in Moreh. While the thought was tempting (more Sambhar!), I decided to move quickly. Following Tamilarasan’s instructions, I ended up in a small street near the Angala Parameswari temple. There were small alleyways from some of these streets which would lead me into Myanmar. None of them legal.
And as Tamilarasan promised, on the left was Laxmi hotel.
The interior of Laxmi hotel was very Spartan, with 2 or 3 tables and small benches placed on both sides of the tables. I sat down at one of the benches, and waited for the guy to come to me. The owner gave me the weirdest of looks: it was obvious I wasn’t from the locality. He was a balding man of medium stature, and I couldn’t tell if he was Tamil. But a smile and some small talk later, I figured out his forefathers hailed from Madurai, a place in Tamil Nadu famous for its temples. He, on the other hand, did not seem surprised to meet someone from Kerala.
“All South Indians who come to Manipur, somehow end up finding this restaurant”, he smiled. And then proceeded to ask me what I would like to have along with my rice.
I had the widest grin on my face when I replied to him.
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