Delectable delights: The Spirit of Tai Khampti Cooking

Like many cuisines of different tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, Tai Khampti cooking is a “throw-together” style of cooking that allows much room for creativity. One of the delights of eating Tai Khampti delicacies is the tremendous varieties offered and the enormous variations of the same dishes, giving consumers a great number 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 Khampti people behind the food, but also regional as well as individual taste preferences and the Tai love and tolerance for variety. A very large percentage of people especially those people who are in North East state of India or those outsiders who happen to be amidst the Tai Khampti people in Arunachal Pradesh are aware that Tai Khampti cuisines are the best in the whole region of Arunachal Pradesh. Yet, have you ever wondered what is it that makes them so good and mouth savouring?
Our State of Arunachal Pradesh is made up of many ethnic peoples who are settled in the various regions, blended with their unique cultural and family traditions. Among the tribes occupying what is known as the central belt there is rice, and there is meat, if it is available. Contrary to popular belief traditional communities are not a race of meat eaters. The life of a hunter-gatherer is arduous and not always fruitful. Meat and fish are generally smoke dried and preserved to tide over lean periods. The energy of the village is concentrated on the cultivation of rice for which vast clearings are made on the hillsides. In the foothills belt every fertile plot of land is given over to wet rice cultivation.

A variety of green leafy vegetables are eaten, preferably boiled. An Arunachal cuisine does away almost entirely with cooking oils and spices. The popular spices are more on the form of hot chilly pastes, herbs (like watercress, white basil etc), powders, garlic and ginger and of course bamboo shoots. Certain flavorings and condiments used in local cuisine involve a preparation time of hours, or days. There are ways of cooking rice that requires a great deal of labour and attention, like the khaulam rice steamed in bamboo tubes. An area of potential popularity that is an unexplored realm is the realm of Tai Khampti food. Like its diverse and colourful traditions, the Tai Khampti food is a heady mix of various ingredients, preparations and esoteric items.
It is therefore better that you rely on your intuition and senses (taste, smell, sight, etc.) to guide you to relish the delectable delights of the Tai Khamptis. The vast majority of good Tai Khampti cooks, if not all, did not learn to cook by using recipes or from culinary schools. They learned by experience, by a process of osmosis watching others in their family cook since they were an early age, by experimentation, and by what is fresh and looks good at the market as opposed to what a recipe dictates. In fact, the greatest chefs are those who deliberately add their own “secret” ingredients to give their product a unique personality. That secret ingredient of the Tai Khamptis is more on the form of herbs available in the natural surroundings of their homes like the makat, po-hoi-hom, pi- chim-khim, plo-ching, mau-plo-mo, pi-ki. Some Tai Khampti herbs are not available at all where you live, but that does not mean that you cannot make the Tai dishes that call for them. This requires ingenuity in making substitutions that can most closely approximate the results you are after. With an intimate knowledge of ingredients and the different forms they are available where you live and a good grasp of the art of creating Tai flavor harmonies, you can cook Tai delectable delights. When you have liberated yourself from dependence on recipes and learned 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. You will be cooking with the free-spirited and easy-going nature of the Tai Khampti people and understand the “Spirit of Tai Khampti Cooking.”

The Tai Khamptis have varied cuisine whose some of the names of the food for the visitors might be nonplussed but are delectable delights and mouth savouring such as Khau ho a rice cooked in steam rice cooker and made into balls wrapped in a leaf known locally as tong and people of Assam called it Ko-pat,  Tongtepwhich is a steamed pancake wrapped in leaf, Khautek is roasted sticky rice mixed with molasses and made into balls, Khaupuk a steamed sticky rice pounded with sesame and fried in oil,Khautoum is a sticky rice roll, Khaumouning is a steamed rice cookie, Paa-Ping fish roasted using bamboo skewer, Paa-Laamfish cooked in bamboo with traditional spices, Paa-Chawfermented fish freid in mustard oil, Paa-Saa fish soup traditionally served cold, Paa-Pho fish blended with traditional spices wrapped in a leaf known locally as tong and roasted,  Thoneenboiled lentils (mug dal), Munkala Sen dry fried baby potatoes, Munkala Phun mashed potato, Muokhuo Phunmashed eggplants(brinjal) Muokhuo Toum boiled eggplant soup, Phak Kho mixed green leafy vegetable.

The Tai Khampti most popular fish soup, Paa-Saa is of a fresh green colour and in taste the soup is a masterpiece of subtle flavours and elegant seasoning. This soup is laboriously prepared using all parts of the fish and seasoning the stock with a variety of special herbs. It is also interesting in that it is generally prepared by men and involves all hands a bustle of activity that highlights the tribal’s inclination for community activity.
The fish is raw, so it is imperative that the freshest river fish is used. Sometimes dried fish is used following the same laborious method. A key ingredient of the fish soup is the uriam’ leaf (khum-phat). Uriam leaves are pounded and steeped in water to produce an extract that cancels out the raw taste of the fish. Salt added to the fish is also steeped in water first and carefully added to the soup is required. The cooking time for paa Saa is approximately one hour. It is served with rice and Paa-Saa chutney.

The Khau-Laam or bamboo rice steamed in bamboo tubes is another popular mouth watering delight of the Tai Khampti people. Ingredients required to prepare this dish are only rice and water. It is difficult to give absolute measures for the preparation of bamboo rice. The rice used is of the sticky, local variety and the amount of rice depends on the size and quantity of bamboo tubes in which the rice is cooked. The variety of bamboo used is known locally as khaulam-ba. It is soft bamboo with a thin membrane that coats the rice during cooking allowing the cooked rice to be removed easily in one cylindrical piece.  The rice is soaked overnight and filled into bamboo tubes allowing enough space for expansion. A little water is poured in and the bamboo is sealed with ko-pat leaf. The rice filled tubes is than placed on an open fire. Great care and good deal of attention are required to ensure that the rice is thoroughly cooked and not burnt. Bamboo rice can be eaten by simply pulling back the soft bamboo or sliced by cutting the bamboo into pieces. It has unique flavor and offers a clean, convenient, hygienic way of packaging cooked rice that can be carried easily.
A journalist and former civil servant based in Itanagar, Mamang Dai has written extensively about the culture and history of Arunachal Pradesh. In her book, The Mountain Harvest-The food of Arunachal Pradesh she has mentioned and written on the different culinary of the Tai Khamptis. The book also offers the first comprehensive introduction to the food habits, ingredients, and methods of preparation of what constitutes Arunachal tribal food.
PAA-SAA (FISH SOUP)
Ingredients
Fresh Fish – 2kgUriam Leaves (Bischofolia javanica)-3 kgHerbs, spices, seasoning ( Corriander, chilly, garlic, watercress, whitebasil)Serves 5
Method
Clean, scale and prepare fish by removing all bones and chopping finely. Set the scales and bones aside. Mix crushed garlic and finely chopped herbs and chilly with the fish. Set aside. In a large vessel pound the uriam leaves and steep in water. Extract the juice by squeezing out the excess water to yield a litre (4-5 mugs) of uraim juice. Meanwhile use the dry roasted fish scales and finely pounded bones of fish to make the stock by mixing it with water and filtering the whole through a fine sieve. This stock is used for as long as the fine layer of fish oil is visible.
Mix the uriam juice with the chopped raw fish and herbs and pour in enough stock to make up a thick soup. Depending on the number of people more of the fish oil stock may be added.
PAA-SAA Chutney
This is the traditional spicy accompaniment to paa-saa. The favoured fish used is silgoria whose innards are edible. The roe and innards are stir fried in a little oil with chopped garlic, scallions, salt and chilly. The result is a dark, rich paste that is perfect combination with paa-saa and steamed rice.

By:- Chow Bilaseng Namchoom