January 25, 2020
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The Companion Grain

The Meghalayan menu. It’s like the white on rice.

The Companion Grain
The Companion Grain

The trick was in the jam, shovelled straight out of a Kissan bottle, vaguely called ‘Mixed Fruit’, virulently red and mind-numbingly sweet. That was the way I liked to eat putharo—a flat saucer-sized rice cake, sometimes so sticky it stuck to the roof of my mouth till I dislodged it with my tongue. The grown-ups said putharo went best with pork—doh nei iong (pork with black sesame seed), doh jem (curry made with the ‘softer’ meat, including liver, intestine and kidney)—or tyrungbai (fermented soya bean paste). Still, I preferred mine with jam, and in a thick slather that threatened to (and often did) drip onto my fingers.

While for most of the country, rice’s function ends with the main meal or an occasional foray into a creamy dessert, in Meghalaya, it constitutes the very fabric of life. The Khasis, Jaintias and Garos turn to rice for their snack treats. Rice is soaked, usually overnight, slightly dried and then pounded in a stone thlong (mortar) into a fine powder. It is then used throughout the state to create little local dishes of delight.

Within Shillong, and a far cry from the dainty bakeries that are a genteel reminder of the city’s colonial past, are kongs (ladies) who operate makeshift shops on busy sidewalks, selling their wares to people who have neither the time nor the inclination to trek all the way to Iew Deh for these traditional sweets. Nestled within cane baskets are banana-leaf packets that wrap pukhlein (rich cake)—a honey-brown cake of ground rice, mixed with jaggery and deep-fried in lard. Best eaten warm, when the slightly tough exterior gives way to a sweet crumbly middle. A healthier alternative is pusla (leaf cake), a hardened steamed cake sold in long candy-like sticks that you break and dip into tea. Its plebeian cousin, the pumaloi (bowl cake), is a spliced idli-shaped snack that’s plain and crumbly, yet deliciously comforting and wholesome. Pusyep (or, unappealingly, “sweaty cake”) is a variant on pumaloi, but made from heavier red rice, wrapped and steamed in a banana leaf. It tastes much better than it sounds. From the city outskirts, in the grime-encrusted mechanic workshop neighbourhood of Mawlai, comes the delicate pusnepkor (coconut cake), a slightly sweet steamed cake filled with fresh, grated coconut. A perfect accompaniment to tea.

For rarer delicacies, you must travel into the lonely rural countryside of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, where the sounds of traffic fade, the houses become smaller and roads sometimes don’t exist. We had gone to visit my old governess in Jakrem, a small village about three hours to the southwest of Shillong, famed for its hot springs. She served us red tea and pumithai (sweet cake)—a round, moulded cake, faintly sweet and perfect for hungry travellers. For a more filling savoury snack, drive south of Shillong towards Cherrapunji and stop at Mylliem where pudoh (meat cake)—a rice cake stuffed with bits of soft, salty, succulent pork—is usually available in the small roadside jadoh stalls. Southeast of Shillong, in a small valley village called Sohiong, stop for tea and punei (sesame cake), a mix of ground rice and black sesame, faintly oily to the taste.

A Jaintia specialty, which some say is now a dying art, is the brown bite-sized snack known as puniawhali. My father recalls its distinctly delicious aroma. Crunchy, slightly salty and full of deep-fried goodness, meaning: it’s terribly difficult to stop at one. It’s nearly impossible to find them anywhere in Shillong, though they are still made in the Jaintia Hills. Even more difficult to trace is putyndong, perhaps because the ground rice has to be stuffed into a bamboo piece and heated over an open fire for a week to ten days. The bamboo is then broken, and though the snack is quite brittle and hard, it carries a delicate smoky undertone. From the Garo Hills near the Assam border, where stews are thickened with handfuls of rice powder, comes the pitha, a sweet dish of ground rice wrapped around desiccated coconut or sweetened black sesame paste. Rice is also used in the local liquor, which in turn plays an important part in traditional Khasi ceremonies, for instance in the naming of a child.

Tucked into the dark recesses of my bag is a small plastic container of red rice that I carry whenever I leave home. We believe it ensures you always find your way back home safely. Our rice, in all its forms, is part of who we are.

The author is a writer based in Shillong

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