When Nambie Marak was growing up in Shillong, her fondness for potatoes was famous. “They called me potato girl,” she said. “I was known in the neighbourhood for how much I could eat.”
Born and raised in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, Marak is from the Garo tribe. She grew up among idyllic landscapes, privy to culinary secrets that inspired her to create and host Eat your Kappa, a YouTube channel in which she travels around the North Eastern states of India, chronicling recipes.
“Everyone thinks that people in the North East eat momos, or even worse, that we eat anything at all,” she said. “But the cuisine is well thought out. It is very intricate.”
In her video log, Marak cooks her favourite North Eastern recipes outdoors, throwing light on some recipes and ingredients that are relatively lesser known to people living in the mainland.
The log is a guide through the intricacies of the North East’s diverse cuisine, bringing an anthropological perspective to foods that are often stereotyped and dismissed. It takes a look at Baring Nakham – a mash of aubergine, dried fish and chillies – which is a quick way to add flavour to a meal of rice and potatoes. In another video, Marak cooks rice in a bamboo stem, explaining that the bamboo used must be fresh and wet.
“In my tribe, we normally eat roots – tapioca, yam and millets were staple foods before rice,” she said. “The vegetables that we use are wild vegetables, the mustard we eat is a mountain mustard. One of my earliest memories of food was eating mustard greens boiled with sliced onions, slit green chillies and salt with a hint of mustard oil. It is such a specific dish.”
Like Marak, most of her followers are enthusiasts from remote areas of the North East who are nostalgic about food from their hometowns. Sometimes, she is also criticised by traditionalists.
“Occasionally, a follower will tell me, ‘Why do you put garlic in your food? In the ancient times no one did that!’ But of course, even North Eastern cuisine is constantly changing with the times.”
Although she grew up in a Garo home, Marak believes the true essence of cuisine from the North East lies in the diversity of its foods, but also finding a common connection between them. The food of every region is different and reflects within it a legend or story specific to that area, which Marak is always careful to include. A Kappa, the source of the name of her vlog, is the name of the cooking technique in the Garo tribe – in which meat and vegetables are cooked with liquid alkaline.
“A Kappa – it can be of pork, meat or vegetables, is cooked by using liquid alkaline – usually made by burning the bark of a banana tree,” she said. “The addition of this helps soften the meat and gives a distinct taste to whatever is being cooked. Most importantly, it tastes like the earth.”
Marak’s childhood revolved around the kitchen. She described growing up in a sleepy town where nothing much happened, so all the excitement revolved around the table. Meals were usually a collaborative effort, and it was through duties delegated to her as a child, that Marak learned to cook.
“My mother had a garden where she would pick the vegetables and spices she cooked with,” she said. “We ate whatever was available in our backyard. We would never go shopping for vegetables, maybe pulses and rice, but we would usually pick things from the garden and watch her cook.”
Marak lived in Shillong until she finished school and then went to Chennai to study. She realised the importance of everything she ate only once she was away from it – there was no other way to recreate those memories, but to cook on her own. North Eastern cuisine, Marak explained, was unlike other Indian foods in its simplicity.
“It is tribal cuisine, mostly,” she said. “It came from humility, and lacks the exhibitionism of food from cities like Delhi and Lucknow. There is no glamour in our food, but it is healthy, frugal and nutritious. In many ways, it is what modern people want to eat today.”
Indigenous vegetables, Marak explains, form the basis of North-Eastern tribal cuisines. Endemic plants change from region to region, allowing each tribe to form distinct recipes around them.
“Even though every tribe cooks with different plants, we have some stuff in common,” Marak said. “One of the herbs indigenous to the North East is the heartleaf or fish-mint and is used in all the tribal regions, even in parts of South East Asia.”
“Most of these herbs and plants have medicinal qualities,” she added. “Traditional recipes always thought of these things.”
Marak said that it was difficult to recreate the food she got at home, because the ingredients were hard to find.
“In the areas of Shillong and the West Khasi hills of Meghalaya – where my parents currently live – there are not that many markets,” she said. “Sometimes, we have to cross a state to buy goods, so the villagers trek to the market every Tuesday and stock up for the entire week. But usually, we make do with what we have. That’s the beauty of this cuisine. My ancestors had to be inventive with whatever they found around them in the forest.”
The unavailability of spices meant that North Eastern food was built mostly on fresh flavours. These days, ready-made masalas are common in the North Eastern kitchen too, but the essential flavour of a vegetable or herb is still the main flavour.
“The flavours of the North East are distinct to the usual flavours of India,” she said. “That is why it is hard for people to identify this as Indian food. Spicy food is alien to us, but other flavors – like fermentation, we enjoy that a lot. Fermented fish is a favourite with all tribes in the North East. There is a certain oldness about these foods, it makes it seem like we are holding onto tradition.”
Like in many parts of India, there is a sense in the North Eastern states that tradition is disappearing . But while many people have stopped speaking their native tongues and rejected traditional clothes or food, there is also a movement by some young tribal Indians like Marak to preserve their heritage.
“Often, people believe that education and modernisation are bad – like it takes you away from your roots. But it is inevitable. When you are away, when you see other cultures, that’s when you know how valuable your own is.”
While Marak enjoys all kinds of food, she said she would take a Kappa over a burger any day, and is excited to explore the entirety of cuisines in the North East.
“Arunachal Pradesh has more than 21 tribes,” she said. “Assam, I haven’t even counted. Can you imagine how much food there is only in this part of the country? I can’t wait to leave everything, travel and try everything there is to eat.”