From the lower plains of the Ganges where fish dominates the platter to the northeastern part of the country where it is more of a meaty affair, it is quite a culinary journey for any quintessential Bangalee. As the typical flavours of West Bengal – it is a place where love is measured by the amount of sugar you put in your dal and how much aloo posto (potato cooked with poppy seeds, a real recipe for an aphrodisiac) is on the plate – replaced the spicy and pungent dry fish in its various avatars two years ago, my taste buds were shocked out of stupor. They were initially confused, unable to fathom the change. But in no time they regained the energy to ‘taste’ their limits.
The first encounter my taste buds had with dry fish was in its humble, homely form, which ‘Sylheti’ Bengalis in Shillong call “sheedol”, cooked with potato, chili, garlic and lots of other spices. When I took the first morsel, I remembered how I would lock myself in my attic room in Kolkata when our ‘odeshio’ (a Bengali from Bangladesh) neighbour cooked dry fish. I would frantically spray room freshener to keep away the smell. I was surprised how readily my faculties agreed to play along with my taste buds and prepare me for future indulgence.
The second encounter was in a tribal avatar, tungtap, a kind of chutney (chutney back at home always meant sweet something) that local Khasis make with dry fish, chili and other spices. I could feel the love that was unfolding inside my mouth and I craved for more on my platter. I was ready for the most pungent taste and the unpleasant smell.
The next challenge was tungrymbai made of fermented soyabeans. It is another kind of chutney that even Bengalis living in Shillong for decades cannot eat because of its strong smell. This too is a Khasi recipe and needs strong taste buds to enjoy it. Mine are indomitable.
I would not even cringe at the strong smell of pork in local shops and relish jadoh like one would relish home-cooked food after a long stay in a god-forsaken place.
In Shillong, the cosmo-city of the North East, flavours from almost all states in the region can be explored. After a mouthful of Khasi and Jaintia delicacies, where pork cooked in different ways dominated the menu, I turned towards Naga food. My taste buds had matured by then and were looking for new challenges. So I turn to the Nagas for the punch.
Axoni (pronounced as akhuni) is another kind of chutney that my taste buds were introduced to. The spiciness hit them hard but not for long. When the Naga platter was served with beef towels (it is the bovine intestine that actually looks like small pieces of a towel and hence the colloquial name), smoked pork, unknown vegetables and a terribly tasteless but smelly soup that I called Naga dal, I could feel the excitement in my mouth. I was with my friends from Bangla who too are culinary explorers. By the time we finished food, I was the only one who ate every morsel on the plate and the numerous bowls. In fact, I loved the smelly soup and my taste buds were giggling in satisfaction. It was sunshine in my mouth as rain pattered outside.
Two years on, my taste buds are no more the benign Bengali types. Their limits have grown beyond imagination and now, sky is the limit. They want some creepy, wriggly, moving things to feast on, exactly the same way their Chinese brethren do. So my next challenge is to go for silkworms, another delicacy in the region. The taste buds only need the right time to graduate.