Inside a Karbi Kitchen- From Tradition to Modernity
Posted by Administrator on October 17, 2009
Inside a Karbi Kitchen –
From Tradition to Modernity
Abstract – This is a brief overview of the culinary tradition of the Karbis and this therefore does not claim to be a comprehensive study of the vast subject. Food is culture and culture is identity. With disappearing sources of traditional foods, the culinary tradition, taboos and rituals, herbs and health are now less important. Entry to the Karbi kitchen once regulated by kinship is now regulated by the harsh realities of market economy. From the KUT to the KFC, the Karbi kitchen has undergone a metamorphosis beyond recognition.
Inside a Karbi kitchen -
A Karbi kitchen (kut/ingkuk) is traditionally the most sacred domestic space, situated in the middle of the innermost location of a household. It is said, the fire in the me-hip (fire-place) in the kut is always kept burning! The Karbi me-hip (fire-place) uses a simple tool for cooking – three pieces of stones placed in a triangle which are collectively known as ‘korte-bang-kethom’ (three brothers) or long-thu (long=stone). The ‘three-brother’ metaphor used for the ‘stone-stove’ is significant and interesting. This ‘stone stove’, a direct descendant of the ‘more primitive…two-stones…so placed that the fire flies between them, and the cooking pot is supported by them over the fire’ has now been replaced by cast iron ‘tripod’ as modernity invades the traditional Karbi kut. Over the me-hip is a suspended rack (raap) where meat and other objects are left to dry. There is theng-roi-rai (firewood store) is on right side on the entrance to the kut where dried firewood is stored for ready use. The sang-rangtik (husked rice-store) is near the me-hip. There is dambuk to the west of the me-hip where the household members sleep and opposite to this is damthak where paddy is stored. There is lang-the-nun on the left at the entrance of kut near hong-pharla (courtyard/parlour) where water is stored in long bamboo tubes (lang-the). Nok-sek is on the right of the entry to kut where a nok-jir (a long handled dao used in ritual occasions) is kept. Adjacent to it is kasu-arahep, where dining plates (kasu) are neatly stacked. The protective household deity Peng is placed in the hong-kup (front verandah) in a bamboo tray tied to the ‘middle post’ overhead. Entry to the kut is regulated by the degrees of kinship relation to the house owner.
Traditionally, a Karbi cuisine primarily divides into three broad categories – (a) Kang-moi or alkaline preparation, (b) Ka-lang-dang or boiled and (c) Han-thor (sour/acidic preparation). There are food taboos and restrictions as well.
For kang-moi, the basic ingredient is phelo/pholo or alkali gleaned from various sources. Usually, dried and burnt ashes of arjang (young un-matured bamboo), ramphi-bak (a kind of herb), han-jang (mustard plant), nempo a-hong (stem of sesame), thengthe a-jaipong (corncobs?) and the barks of nu-sador (a local variety of giant banana) over which water is poured and placed in a phelo-bisir (conical strainer made of bamboo). Elders say that there were other plants, herbs etc. from which phelo used to be gleaned in earlier time. Probably, in primitive period, phelo obtained in this fashion compensated the absence of salt (ingti). Normally, meat or fish are not cooked by kang-moi when raw or fresh. A seasoned or smoked (ke-ur) meat of deer (thijok a-ok), wild-biffalo (chai) and dried fish (manthu) etc. are cooked in kang-moi. However, in ritual occasions, even raw or fresh fish and meat are cooked in kang-moi. Han-mi/Han-moi (soup or curry), either boiled or cooked in kang-moi (with pork fat and bones) and served as appetizer when there is large gathering for ritual feasts. There are however regional variations of this type of traditional and ritual culinary. In some regions, even pork and black lentil are prepared in phelo.
Ka-langdang is simply boiled in water with sprinkling of salt and freshly ground raw turmeric. Both fish and meat are prepared this way.
Spices : Karbis make use of varieties of spices. Lopong-birik (sweet basil/Leppia geminata), hanso (ginger), tihaso (wild turmeric/curcuma aromatica), vorek-a-jokasu/ han-kiching (maan-dhonia), jajur (jabrang), mirmihidu (coriander), theng-kiching (cinnamon), jirlang (cyperus brevifolius), tharmit (turmeric), nempo (sesame), and the commonly used harsun-kelok/harsun ke-er (garlic and onion).
Chilies (birik) of various species also form part of a Karbi culinary. Birik-maan (birikso), birik-jangkek, birik-rosa, birik-bokbok, birik-maan apunu are known in Karbi vocabulary. Birik-maan and birik-rosa are considered the hottest of chilies known to Karbis.
These spices are traditionally known and used extensively. In kang-moi preparations, however, only tharmit is taboo. Tihaso is used in some regions.
In ka-lang-dang preparations, all the above varieties are used, individually or in adequate combination.
Hanthor or sour dishes predominate Karbi traditional cooking. Some examples include – Upthor (bamboo shoot), han-serong (hibiscus cannabinus Linn), han-serong naka, han-serong-thepo (okra/Abelmoschus esculentus), delap (polygonum microcephalum), delon, han-jareng, pranpri (garcinia pedunculata), pranso (garcinia lance folia) , arlong suwat, ruipi suwat, longle suwat, han-che, plim-plam (dillenia indica), ok-hi-morokso, han-phorop, ok-hi-lovur, ingsum (amides diandrum), torte (averrhoea carambola), tantili-angjok, han-tari, solu, vothung-mekbop and many more. Pranpri and han-serong are regarded as the sourest. But there is also a golden rule in hanthor preparation – only upthor is cooked in kang-moi. Normally, no spice is used in hanthor preparation, because the aroma or flavor of the spice used becomes ineffective.
Kemung (cooked in bamboo tubes), kangthu (wrapped with leaves and shoved into hot charcoal/ashes), kephi (roasting), karnu pakreng (frying without oil), and ke-ur (smoking) are some of the usual culinary styles followed in traditional Karbi cooking.
Oil of mustard now so extensively used in modern cooking in unknown is Karbi traditional culinary till recently. Seeds of mustard and han-serong are boiled and then fermented which are then eaten as a delicacy.
In Karbi cooking, there are bitter dishes too. Traditionally known examples are – jok-an, rongpang riho, riho, kangkoroi, phelang riho, longle phat-ho (bhui tita), pherklum (nephaphu).
Varieties of vegetables are used in Karbi kitchen. For example – Voso piban, han-voti, arti-samphro, hanmoiso, dungkek (fern), han-thai, han-risang, han-sangbi, kurveng, jakuleng, jangnai, han-bipo, choru, hanjang-chikli, thechi rangkap/sobai (Pointed gourd?), bonghom/renglu (pumpkin and white gourd), hen (yam), hen-dongdar, chosot, bong-lang (jati-lao/bottle gourd), tara, vorek-han-so, han-mekphri, phri-kangnek, phri-langdung, mehek, hanthu, tado, ok-hi-lovur, dido (Indian spinach), nimso-ripak, nimsopi (mensopi), nitokreng, voputpo kenglok, singnam-longdak-angjok, ingthum arvo, rampak arvo, arlong chirim, ingku angjok, pri-supok, pri-angtuk, han-kumphi (mosundori/heartleaf), henru (arlok, ki-ik, kalavbang), ok-hi-atehang, langdung (banana heart), lochet, hipi (eggplant), longle-thelu, bap-keso, bokbok (tomato), bachekrang, dungkek-champring (mountain fern), antimi, chong-a-mok (Asiatic pennywort), han-boka, kung-kung, hipi sok-kran/vocherok a-an, arti-samphro, toksari angphar, chomangpi-nempthu, dengjari, bap-phulok, phar-chingki, chelempui, kreikrup, thepak (Indian beans), thengbon (yardlong bean), hantharvo, chophe (Urad bean) and such others with exotic sounding names.
Karbi culinary also includes varieties of tubers which are – ruidok (sweet potato), rui-loru, lang a-ruidok, rui-chelong, ruidok sudo, rui-pharkong (tapioca), sok-kedak athe, rui-lobong, rui-patum etc. which are simply boiled in water.
There are different varieties of larvae which are relished and are treated as specialties in Karbi culinary tradition. Ingket (larvae in general), pholong, chongkidur, hang-hoi (miso aplipli), arti-aso, ingki-ok (worm), pijo aso (le-et, le-sang, jo-kari, teke-hak-marjong, so-so-mi-et) including some varieties of grass-hoppers as well. Larvae are collected and roasted in banana leave-wrapping with addition of freshly pounded raw turmeric, garlic or onion or ginger.
Kimu - Karbi ancestors had knowledge of wide varieties of mushrooms and there never occurred any mistake in identifying the edible from the poisonous varieties. Some of the surviving mushrooms are – mu-plong (that grow in mounds) , sokpun a-kimu (that grow in the hey-stack), mu-rik, mu-cherdeng (or plakplak), mu-si, mu-lokso, mu-arnan, mu-langtangte etc. Mushrooms can be prepared either in kang-moi or ka-langdang.
Fish - There are varieties of fish (nu) in Karbi vocabulary. Nu-ne (ras bora/esomus danricus), nu-sor, nu-ter, nu-phreng, nu-pet (wallego attu), nu-jung, nu-tun, nu-plang (sitol notopterus chitla), ok-langso, ok-borok (green snake-head/chana punctatus), artu-ok-langso, ok-sangti, ok-nempo, arnam-chekengke, pencha, pabu, tengkera, phoja (kandhuli/homopterous notopterus), singki (hetorop nestus fossilis), nakur (clarius batrachus), kaki (anabus testudinius), chekung (prawns/shrimps). Fish is normally cooked with sweet basil (lopong) which removes the fishy smell altogether and enhances the fragrance and taste of the preparation. Fresh raw turmeric or powdered sesame is added. Fish is also ‘cooked’ in bamboo tube by kemung .
Meat - Pork (phak-ok), mutton (bi-ok), chicken (vo-ok), duck (vokak a-ok), pigeon (vothung), rhino (kindu), bear (thokvam), elephant (ingnar), rodents (phak-pule), pocupine (jok-hi bonghom), squirrel (karle), piji-okso, monitor lizard (chehang), tortoise (chetung), crab (chehe), wild buffalo/mithun (chai), wild goat (karju), karpu (pangolin) etc. are traditionally eaten.
Besides, with its uncounted varieties, rice is the staple diet of the Karbis as well. It is cooked, or steamed in a bamboo tube, pounded and powdered to make rice-cakes. Sangpher (toasted/flattened rice), sang-aduk (fried powdered rice), him (raw powdered rice), sang-sorik (fried and powdered rice used during rituals) etc. are some of the preparations made from rice. Home brew such as hor arak made of rice is a popular drink which is also a ritual necessity. There is a beautiful rice-lore which describes how rice was first ‘discovered and domesticated’ (sok-keplang) by a Karbi ancestor.
Food taboos -
Among the food taboos, alkali and turmeric are never used together in any preparation. Such combination is prepared for persons devoured by wild animals, especially tigers. Another golden rule observed is that sour and bitter ingredients are never combined in Karbi cooking.
Dog is venerated as the animal that guarded and protected human race at creation against evil spirits. A dead dog is therefore buried with due reverence. Some folk tales also describe tiger and man being brothers. Therefore, meat of dog or tiger is not eaten.
It is taboo to kill or even injure a monitor lizard (chehang) in the Killing region because the animal is considered the vehicle of the Killing deity. Crab is strictly avoided by priests because the violation invites divine punishment.
There seems to be no religious bar on eating beef but it is now generally avoided due probably to Hindu influence. Again, meat of elephant, bear, or rodent etc. is not socially eaten. The meat of dog, tiger, buffalo, snake, vulture, craw, stork, frog etc is not eaten.
Eating of langdung or banana flower (also known as banana blossom or banana heart) is taboo. A priest is forbidden to eat langdung. He is also forbidden to eat white gourd (Benincasa hispida) or grow the plant within the boundary of his house.
There is a special class of shamans or priests known as ‘ucha’ who tame the tigers. But they are required to follow many strict food regulations. For example, the first harvest of vegetables or fruits grown in the village must first be sanctified by him.
It’s already mentioned about the taboo on eating the meat of monitor lizard because the animal is the group totem of the people within Killing, a traditional Karbi administrative area. Each of the five principal Karbi clans (nok-hum) and their corresponding sub-clans similarly has such totems and there are as many taboos as well, some of which relate to food and eating.
A traditional Karbi household is regulated by strict table-manner. A prayer always precedes any eating or drinking, either in a private or public occasion. When rice plates and other dishes are served for eating, the head of the house washes his hands and takes a few morsels of rice and other dishes (including bits of fish or meat), mix them, holds them, and thanks the protective deities of the household and the rice-deity and at the end of the prayer, places it on the right side of his plate. ‘At each meal a pinch of the food is put aside for the God (arnam)’. Then the eating takes place, followed by the rest of the family. In public occasion too, the eldest person or a person with the highest cultural status enjoys the authority to lead the prayer. An example is given below:
Dei arnam…(Oh god..)
Keme arnam/Kechok arnam (Oh god the good one, the right one..)
Kikim arnam/Kerak arnam (Oh god that builds, oh god that binds..)
Pithe-pothe/Pi Mukrang-Po Mukrang
(Oh god the father, god the mother…Mukrang the father, Mukrang the mother)
Binong arnam/Bichon arnam (Oh god the real one….)
Kiri arnam/Kidu arnam (Oh god that seeks..)
Charchung arnam/Charchak arnam (Oh god to lean on…)
Aroi arnam/Ajeng arnam (Oh god of rivers…)
Mi arbung isi/Mi arphe isi (This household of mine…)
Keme dei/Kechok dei (May it progress….)
Kebar dei/Kejar dei (May it expand…)
Chokhi le me/Chokhan le me (May it prosper..)
Boche le me/Sonse le me (May wellness flow…)
Kerok le me/Keran le me (May it surmount….)
Ne ta puru kelong/Phandar kelong (The riches bestowed on me..)
Ingkro kelong/Ingtong kelong (The granaries bestowed on me…)
Nongpi nongnong/Nonglo nongnong (Let they germinate….)
La abor/La akan (These your blessings…..)
Nang pi lukhi/Po lukhi (Oh thou mother lukhi, father lukhi..)
Ve dimro/Che dimro (Oh Ve Dimro…..and Che Dimro…..)
Nangdak/Nangtur dei ho…arnam…(With your blessings….Oh…god…..)
There is this custom which regulates that the first spoon (lumhor/lumplak) of rice and other dishes is always served to the head of the household first. The order of the household hierarchy is followed accordingly thereafter. It is to be ensured that no stale food (ansam/hansam) or left-over is served to the head. It also is a kind of taboo or restrictions.
Food, festival and ritual-
In traditional Karbi society, there were rituals which accompany the community preparation and feasting of certain food items. ‘Hen-up-ahi ke-en’ is a ritual harvesting of bamboo-shoot by the entire village community. A huge bamboo basket (hen-up ahi) is woven and erected in the middle of a village where the bamboo shootsm chopped into smaller pieces, are collected. A pig is sacrificed, cleaned and shoved into the basket. This is left this way till the festival of hen-up-ahi-kekan is celebrated with due fanfare the year after. The bamboo-shoot and the meat are distributed to the village heads, traditional provincial governors (habe), and invited dignitaries. A ritual feast follows soon after. Ritual songs are sung and dance performed by young girls and boys. This is a dying tradition but the practice has not totally gone out of fashion.
‘Hacha-kekan’ is more broadly celebrated ritual when the annual harvest is brought home. In days not too long ago when fish was aplenty in rivers and lakes and ponds, ‘ok-keroi a-hacha’ or harvesting of fish used to be as popular as harvesting of paddies. Hacha is still performed though losing its earlier vitality or appeal. But the later variety is long forgotten and now it’s only part of a dead food-lore of the Karbis. The culture of plenty has totally disappeared.
Food and health -
Karbi ancestors had a good knowledge of their surrounding. Even in the days of ‘slash and burn’ farming, the plot was left to regenerate for a period of five to ten years before the process was repeated. The herbs used in the traditional cooking have medicinal and healing properties. Some examples are cited below :
1. Hanso (Ginger) – Raw ginger is eaten to treat flu and cough.
2. Harsun kelok (Garlic) – Few cloves eaten to treat flatulence.
3. ihaso (Curacuma aromatica Salib.) – Used as spice in fish preparation. Quickly heals fresh cuts etc.
4. Theso keho (Solanum Indicum Linn) – Bitter taste and eaten in various forms. The leaves are used as fermenting agent.
5. Thoithe rampre (Justicia Gendarussa Linn) – It’s eaten. Leaves and barks are used as leech repellant.
6. Bithi phak-no (Kaempferia galanga Linn) – Used as spice. Injuries due to tiger- bear attack are healed.
7. Tharmit (Curcuma Longa Linn) – Used as healing agent on cuts.
8. Han-kumphi (Houttuynia cordata Thunb) – Eaten as ‘chutney’. Eaten raw to treat flatulence.
9. Plim-plam (Dillenia Indica Linn) – Added in curry for taste. Used in olden days as natural shampoo to keep the shine of hair.
10. Rui Loru (Maranta arundinaceous Linn) – Boiled and eaten as a delicacy. Applied in suckling mothers’ breasts to produce more milk.
From tradition to modernity -
Kangmoi, ka-langdang, ke-up, kephi and such other culinary traditions are now identified with rural societies as town-dwellers and more affluent sections are integrated into ‘continental’ or global tastes. But what may be called the Karbi ‘national cuisine’ is surviving only in the rural areas. With globalization, food habits have inescapably changed and tradition is fast giving way to modernity with all its hybrid dimensions. From Mehip to McDonald and Kangmoi to KFC, the culinary globalization, or cultural mutation of a Karbi kitchen, is almost complete without raising much smoke. Therefore, what was once sacred, the kitchen in innermost location of a Karbi household, is now occupied by corporate culinary tastes. Access to a Karbi kitchen is no longer determined by kinship but by sheer economic realities of the time. From the religious to the secular, Karbi foods and food habits have undergone a sea change. ‘We are we what eat’ has quickly given way to ‘we eat what we are’. The food-shift that brings culture-shift also gradually brings identity-shift. The latest fad is ‘ethnic tourism’ on which the market is waiting to pounce upon. And food is what constitutes one of the basic concerns of tourists as – ‘….every tourist is a voyeuring gourmand….’(Lacy and Douglass/2009).
Because, food serves as ‘a focal point for cultural studies of complex societies as it brings into view symbolic meanings of human activity born of changing material conditions, scientific and medical understandings, as well as political and social contingencies.’
Food as a distinct cultural or identity marker, seems to have taken a backseat for the modern day Karbis as no literature worth its ‘salt’ is forthcoming and preparing this short (and in no way comprehensive) write-up was itself a ground/back-breaking exercise. Because, ‘Every facet of food production, distribution, and consumption is itself a cultural act, encoded with implicit and explicit intentions which, when studied closely, reveal how a people make sense of what they eat and why.’ (Sydney Watts/2008) Also that – ‘Next to breathing, eating is perhaps the most essential of all human activities, and one with which much of social life is entwined.’
But, I guess, there is a word of solace for me though. As a food scholar recently lamented -“One of the most universal complaints of food historians is that nobody takes their enterprise seriously. …. ‘Treatises and wars, strikes and elections, rallies for equal rights, protests against discrimination and exploitation, these are the stuff of history. Food seems ephemeral, the subject for cookbooks….. Food is too ‘mundane’, too ‘trivial’ to warrant scholarly attention as a historical subject; its very ubiquitousness ensures its historical invisibility.’ (Spary/2005)
 Kut and Ungkuk are two variants used by the Karbis of the hills and the Kamrup plains.
 Weaver, Martin E – ‘The Cultural Melting-Pot in the Kitchen’; Sources – Bulletin of the Association for Preservation of Technology, Vol. 8, No.1 (1976)
 Depending on the direction of the house (raised house) built.
 Botanical names of most of the traditional Karbi vegetables/herbs have not been established so far.
 Like the Mexican Caviar!
 Stack, Edward and Lyall, Sir Charles – ‘The Mikirs’, United Publishers, Pan Bazar, Guwahati. P13.
 Hanse, Hangmiji – Arnam Kipu (Prayer Book), 2008.
 Examples are cited from the compilation of Karbi medicinal herbs by Sikari Tisso of Diphu, 2009.
 Watts, Sydney Mintz and Du Bois, Christine M – ’The Anthropology of Food and Eating’ /Source : The Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol 31 (2002)