By Chitra Ahanthem
It is commonly believed that in terms of our food habits, Manipuris have their stomachs filled only after rice makes its way into it. In fact, the joke on this rice fetish is often on the lines of how we eat our fill of roti/chappati/puri/paratha but keep crying aloud that our tummies are empty till the time we take in rice. There is another food associated social behavior that I have come to observe about us: that most of us do not eat outside. When we do eat out of the house, it is only for ‘ooshops’ (derived from utsav which means festival in Hindi/Sanskrit?) wherein we eat rice again! This lack of a social culture of eating outside has contributed to the lack of eating outlets where one can sample the various range of Manipuri cuisine, though of course there are ‘rice hotels’ (yet again) dotting market areas and bus stands which are targeted at the lower social and economic rung. For an earlier generation of people, the only items that could be eaten outside were snack items. Over time came the roti/chappati/puri/paratha gravy train followed by Indian Chinese of course. ‘Indian Chinese’ here because the type of chow mein, manchurian and schezwan food that is on array in this country and Manipur is miles away from authentic Chinese food starting from the type of noodles used, to the garnishing. Authentic Chinese food comes without spices with the base food being bland but coming with a tray full of assorted garnishing ingredients that can be added as per one’s palate unlike those in India that comes soaked in oil and dressed to the brim with masala!
I was tickled greatly when I read about the concept of fusion food where food styles in terms of taste, cooking etc of different cuisines merge into one. They have made it out to be such a novel concept while the truth is that people have been assimilating different cooking styles as per their encounters with people of different cultures. Just look at Meitei cuisine, which was all about boiling, steaming and roasting and using crushed or pounded aromatic herbs for garnishing but after an exposure to Bengal brought in the idea of using oil for frying and use of spices to give us our current food style which is a mix of both. This marriage in food is true everywhere. Another fancy term I read up on was this whole theme of pop out or rather was it pop up food. I found that it was the concept of inviting people or joining a group of people who come with expertise in cooking food where each person cooks something and everyone pays to eat. But isn’t that what we have been doing in our impromptu ‘chaak chaanaba’ where people meet up, fork out money and everyone joins in making the food?
Coming back to the matter of places to eat out, Imphal at least has seen a spurt of restaurants and eating out joints with cafes becoming a favored destination for foodies. But step in to these places and the majority of people who drop in are the younger generation. Save for a few elites who eat out off and on, the majority of older people prefer to eat home food for the simple reason that they believe that it is not practical to pay for food that one can make at home. Compare this attitude to other towns and cities where eating out is a social activity and where there are avenues for choosing what kind of food to eat as per one’s budget. This nonchalance towards eating out here could be the baggage of being a part of the joint family system where family members ate together at home or perhaps it may be due to the difference in the pace of life or the shift in the role of women in the house as meal providers elsewhere. This last bit about women’s role in the kitchen as eternal meal providers here, can interestingly be broken only when people at large begin to accept the practice of eating out: good for the economy, a very good way of providing employment/entrepreneurship and good for women who can hang up their cooking responsibilities from time to time!
One main grouse though of people who visit Manipur, is that they do not get to sample Manipuri food in restaurants here. A few adventurous ones and those with a good digestive wall are able to swallow the food at eateries around the Polo ground area and they do appreciate the food spread there but many balk at the lack of a ‘nice place to eat’. The ones who are unable to sample Manipuri food complain that they do not fancy the ‘Chinese’ or ‘Indian’ fare they get in the hotels they stay, for that is served everywhere. Perhaps the vanguards of Manipuri culture and identity should take into consideration that food is an integral aspect of culture and then cook up a storm on the streets of Imphal and other parts of the state. That would be something, but ‘cooking up a storm’ has no relation whatsoever with the current street aggression. Let me hasten to say that cooking up a storm here means, making the food scene in the state more interesting!