By Chitra Ahanthem
One basic requirement for the sustenance of living organisms is food. The food habits of plants and animals depend on the environment but for humans, as social animals living along with others in communities and societies, our food habits are determined by a host of factors that include weather, terrain, religious factors etc. In South East Asian countries for example, insects are considered a delicacy though the West and Europe are yet to wake up to the ‘gastronomic delight’ of insects. In India, the main food preference is on cereals, pulses and milk and milk products with meat down in the list of priority food. The irony of a nation starving on one hand while having a sizeable cattle population on the other, is often cited by westerners who cannot seem to work out why a nation that is starving is not taking to cow meat, a good source of nutrition. Of course, religious sentiments will not allow a majority of the citizens of this country to eat cattle but starve to malnutrition and sometimes, even death. People in Ladakh whose core belief is non violence and who also practice Buddhism still eat meat for the simple reason that meat helps to increase the body temperature. Interestingly enough, the conflict between the basic need for food and the necessity of keeping the body warm with eating meat is resolved by having animals slaughtered by other communities. Coming to the north-east region, many people from outside the region frown on people who eat animals and rodents. What is not realized is that the people who do eat animals out of the usual fare of chicken, pork, beef and mutton are often from hilly terrain where agricultural crops are scarce and food resources low but where people not only need to eat food to stay alive but to eat meat to keep themselves warm.
Food habits also change with time and when boundaries open up which leads people to get exposed to other food habits and food components. This is true everywhere. In Manipur too, the earlier traditional food preparation processes of cooking without oil and spices have changed into a more pan Indian style of cooking and remains very much influenced and fused with the Bengali style of cooking which is not strange given the import of Hindusim from Bengal. Earlier generations of Hindus in the state brought up with strict codes of ‘pure’ and impure’ stayed away from eating meat even as fish remained the main focus of food in the valley. Those wondering why people who consider themselves Hindus have no qualms of eating fish would do well to realize that fish could not be done away from the food plate of Manipuris and specially those in the valley because it supplements for protein intake as milk is not favored by the people of the region due to their lacto intolerance levels. But the ‘fish only’ as meat contained food amongst people in the valley has over the years changed to meat only and the array of meat centers in every nook and corner of Imphal and beyond is proof of just how many people are taking to meat with a vengeance.
Food can at times be a comfort factor, which is why each one of us believes that the food that our mothers cook for us is the best. When someone grows up eating a particular food item in a certain way of cooking, taste and look, it takes some ‘getting used to’ when it comes to trying out new things that one has never eaten. Vegetarian parents often cut off meat in the diets of their own children who in turn will take a lot of effort (in a manner of speaking) to try out meat. But being used to certain food styles and limiting one’s sense of adventure to the tried and tested would mean never knowing the pleasure of discovering how other people eat. In fact, there is a standing joke amongst our people that till we eat rice, our stomachs are not really full no matter how much chapatti or rotis one has. Contrast this attitude to how culinary trends and food habits are changing around us with the concept of fusion food where different cooking methods and products mold into a new look and taste.
I grew up in a joint family that was staunchly orthodox when it came to food as my grand father was (and continues to be) a strict Hindu. My father told me of a time when he wanted to eat an omelet and my grand father asked him to make one on a broken piece of an earthen pot outside the gate and then take a bath after eating it. That was not all for my father had to change into another set of clothes, ‘purify’ himself with sacred water and then enter the house. It looks rather melodramatic in today’s world where even small children go ‘chicken’ when asked what their favorite dish is but that is how it was and how it is now.
While traveling out of the state, I do make it a point to always try the local cuisine. Thanks to a keen knack to try out uncharted territory in terms of food, I have tried my hand at various food items though I do draw the line at sampling dog or cat meat and insects. But my mother says that the best laphu eromba we had in the family that I once pointed out to her actually contained ‘naoshek’ (commonly called water bug I am told, also scientifically known as lethocerus indicus). And there goes the food story: where we eat without any fuss if we are are unaware what is on our plate, for our palate does not really mind!