I woke up in a foul mood after partying till after midnight. The very thought of food made my stomach turn. I had a strong cup of tea and as soon as I settled in the car, I heard a clap of thunder. It rained like never before and followed me as I made my way through Tinsukia, Makum, and Digboi. As I crossed Digboi, my mood changed as it never fails to do in this part of the country. Even in the pouring rain, Digboi and Margherita looked as ageless as ever…green and beautiful.
From Margherita, you need to turn left and go along River Dehing. After some time, houses change, surroundings become more serene and trees grow tall and strong. The rain kept pouring as we were welcomed into the drawing room of Pabitra Ningde and I appreciated the cup of tea offered. But, this was no ordinary tea…it was phalak. Tender leaves of tea are plucked and dried in the sun, and exposed to the night dew for three days and nights. The leaves are then pressed into a bamboo cylinder and exposed to smoke of firewood.
Sipping my tea as if it was wine, I heard the story of the Singphos. According to legend, a man-like figure descended to earth from heaven. This figure gave rise to six brothers. According to the Singphos, all these brothers were the forerunners of different races, e.g. the Chinese, Siamese, Burmese and the Singphos. In India, the Singphos are mainly found in Patkai territory, in the Changlang and Lohit districts of Arunachal Pradesh and Tinsukia district of Assam. They are also seen in Myanmar, Thailand, China and Japan. In India they number only about 10,000.
As a Hollock Gibbon howls in the verandah, my stomach rumbles, and I begin to look forward to the lovely food that I know awaits me. Continuing on the main Margherita–Ledo road, I reached Singpho Villa. The Singphos use very basic ingredients to make heaven. Pork, fish and chicken cooked in various styles with indigenous herbs are served with steamed Maytong rice ( a kind of ‘glutinous rice’), accompanied by various chutneys.
My meal was hot in both senses of the word. The tomato chutney was so hot and delicious that one part of me said ‘No more!’ while the other part urged me, ‘More! More!’ A chilli chutney was also served and both were really too good for words. The flavour Singpho food gets comes from two main herbs: Mazegya Pat and Machang Pat. These are thorny herbs found locally. The seeds of Mazegya called Mazegya guti are also grinded and used. Its flavour is a bit like nutmeg but not quite. No oil is used and ginger, garlic, onion, coriander, bamboo shoot (both wet and dried) are the main spices along with the traditional herbs. Oops! I forgot to mention the chillies!
Revitalized, relaxed and in a much better mood, I returned home. The first words my husband asked was “Where’s the food?” and for the next few minutes all I could hear was “hmmm” and the occasional gasp and a drink of water!
Singpho food? Invite me anytime, especially on a cold and rainy day!
Wa Sapung (Pork Gravy)
Pork: 250 gms
Onion: 1 big
Ginger: 1 inch piece
Garlic: 5-6 cloves
Coriander: 3 tbsps (chopped)
Dry bamboo shoot: 1 tbsp
Chillies: according to taste
Mazegya pat, Machang pat, Mazegya guti (optional)
Salt to taste
Grind all the ingredients (except pork) manually. Mix the pork in this paste in a wok and immediately put over heat (without marinating). Keep stirring till all the fat leaves the pork and till the mixture becomes dry. Do this slowly with patience. Now add water, and keep covered over low heat for about 40 minutes to one hour. Keep stirring in between and check if water is required. You can also use chicken or pork stock instead of water. Serve hot.
Wu Ping (Chicken roast)
Chicken: 1 kg, cut into 1 inch pieces
Bamboo shoot: 3 tbsp
Ginger garlic paste: 3 tbsp
Coriander: 3 tbsp, chopped
Lots of chillies!
Mazegya pat, Mazegya guti, Machang pat (optional)
Grind all the ingredients roughly, except the chicken. Now mix the chicken in this paste and skewer the pieces. Traditionally, bamboo skewers are used and the roasting is done over a clay oven. You can also roast in your oven at home. Roast it for about 20 minutes in a preheated oven at 250oC, turning it around and basting according to need.
Ngasan Sithu (Fish Chutney)
Rub the cleaned fish in salt and roast it well. Remove the bones and grind the roasted meat with the other ingredients. Serve with rice. You can also serve it as a dip with snacks. For a vegetarian version, wrap tomatoes and chillies in aluminium foil and roast over the gas flame. Remove the peel of tomatoes, and then proceed the same way as for fish.