Very rarely would you come across an unfit person in Namsai. Here, everyone looks healthy and much younger than their actual age. One of the reasons behind this is their food. The people of Namsai stand up to the notion that you are what you eat. Their cuisine is highly nutritious, thanks to the generous use of locally grown herbs and veggies. Also, most of their food is either boiled or steamed. You won’t find many deep-fried dishes, and the use of spices is limited.
Embarking on a trip to Namsai is not only about visiting beautiful pagodas and quaint villages. You’ll also be taking your taste buds on a joyride, to say the least.
Arunachal’s food differs from tribe to tribe. Namsai is mostly inhabited by Theravada Buddhist tribes—Tai Khamptis, Singphos and Tangsas. These tribes are known for their delicious and wholesome food, which is prepared using traditional cooking methods and organic produce. The food of Namsai is largely rice-based supplemented by fish, meat and local vegetables.Most of the dishes you will savour in Namsai belong to the Khamptis. Primarily residents of the foothills of eastern Arunachal, the Khamptis love their rice and they have several methods to cook it. They usually blend their rice with boiled leafy vegetables. Homegrown spices and herbs including ginger, chilly, garlic, white basil and bamboo shoots are used to spice up the boiled food. Some of the commonly used local herbs include po hoi hom, pi chim khim, plo chim, mau plo mo and pi ki.The most popular dish in Khampti cuisine is paasa. Known as the warrior’s strength soup, pasa is a delicious thin soup made of raw fish, garlic, ginger, chilly, makat, pee chim khim, phoi hom (indigenous scented spice leaves). It is finished with the juice of ooriam (khumpatt) leaves.
It’s interesting to see how the Khamptis experiment with their rice. The basic steamed rice is called khaumouning. When rice is steamed and made into balls and wrapped in tong leaves, it is called khau ho and when steamed rice is made into pancakes and wrapped in tong leaves, it’s called khau-tongtep. Then there’s khaulam, perhaps the most interesting dish in Namsai. This is prepared by steaming rice inside bamboo tubes. The rice gets wrapped in a membrane formed by the inner surface of the bamboo tube. Rice is soaked overnight in water inside the bamboo tube and the tube is sealed with ko pat leaves. The tube is then cooked on open fire slowly and the rice gets the taste of bamboo shoots.One of the most popular varieties of rice in Namsai is sticky rice. When it is steamed and made into a roll and wrapped in a leaf, it’s khautoum. A variant of this is the ball-shaped khautek, which is roasted sticky rice blended with molasses. But the best of them all is khaupuk. Made of sticky rice and sesame seeds, khaupuk is a staple Khampti snack usually eaten for breakfast. The chewy sticky rice was once used by their ancestors to defend themselves during wars and jungle expeditions. They would make a jacket from the sticky rice. It not only protected them from sharp weapons but also satiated their hunger at times when they were left deserted in the middle of nowhere.A lot of Khampti dishes are made using bamboo shoots. While noo phan is boiled fresh tender bamboo shoots flavoured with ginger leaves, nou kai noo som is a type of chicken delicacy prepared with tender fermented bamboo shoots and nou moo shen is fried pork prepared with bamboo shoots. Fermented bamboo shoots are also used in preparing the chicken based dish kai noa som and the pork based nau mu phaun.
Fish, or paa as they call it, is another absolute favourite of the people of Namsai. Fish mixed with traditional spices and wrapped in tong leaves is called paa pho and steamed fish wrapped in tong or ekkam leaves is paa ning. When fish is roasted using bamboo skewer, it’s called paa ping and when it is cooked in bamboo, it’s called paa laam. Then there’s paa som, which is fermented fish fried in mustard oil.
Vegetarians must not be disappointed as there’s no dearth of good vegetarian options in the traditional kitchens of Namsai. The best is perhaps phak kho or steamed mustard green. It’s their version of the evergreen sarson ka saag, albeit steamed. You’ll also find the good ol black lentils, which they call thonin. Namsom tongpuk is another interesting preparation made with fermented yam leaves. Those who love potatoes must try munkala sen, which is dry fried baby potatoes.Khampti cuisine is also blessed with its share of chutneys. One must try nau khai, which is made with smoked meat of mithun and ephitsom, which is made with fried or barbequed fish and rice.
No meal in Namsai is complete without one chugging a glass or two of the refreshing and smooth apong or rice beer. Consuming cereal-based beverages is an integral part of Namsai’s socio-cultural heritage. Apart from giving you a sweet and mild high, apong is also great for tackling anxiety and improving one’s overall mood.The reason, experts believe, is the presence of probiotics or live microorganisms that the beer is naturally blessed with. So, you’ll never have a dull moment in Namsai, if you do it right. The best part about enjoying rice beer in Namsai are the attractive bamboo mugs it is served in. Carved with skilled perfection, these mugs also make for great souvenirs to take home.
Where to eat
There’s no dearth of small roadside eateries and restaurants in the main market of Namsai. However, if you are looking for something special, we have a few recommendations. Tai Hut at second mile, Namsai, serves some nice local Tai Khampti dishes. Just a few metres ahead is Dhaba NH52, run by Jayanto Mowkey and his wife Kusum Mowkey, also serves sumptuous Khampti food. Their phakko or steamed mustard green is a must try. 7KM Resort has a lovely ambience supported with great views and great music. You could spend a leisurely afernoon here in one of their bamboo shacks by the river and enjoy a wholesome khampti meal. Dhaba River View in Nalung on the highway between Chongkham and Tengapani, has a treehouse, where you can try some great local tribal food at reasonable prices. Centre Point at Chongkham has far less variety, but the food is still good. Subhash Dhaba near Pankha bridge, around 5km from Namsai, is locally famous for its North Indian mutton curry, attracting locals and customers from as far away as Dibrugarh and Tinsukia in Assam. All these places have friendly owners who will be happy to talk food with you. Noi Cheynam, conveniently located on the highway near the Golden Pagoda at Tengapani, serves Tai Khampti food, and the ambience is pleasant.