An Indian kitchen fights prejudice with love from violence-hit Manipur | Food

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New Delhi, India – Bidotama, 26, is in the kitchen stirring peanuts in a pan. Every few minutes, she turns to her best friend, Mardza, 25, who is busy chopping tomatoes and slicing U-morok, a hot chilli variety, that will go into the special chicken curry bubbling on a two-burner gas stove.

They speak in their native Meitei language and chuckle as they continue cooking.

In the living room, Akoijam Sunita, 45, is moving a mixture of black perilla seeds, ginger and salt between a heavy pestle mortar and an electric grinder, hoping to get a grainy texture and not a paste. The graininess is key to getting thoiding asuba, a Manipuri side-dish, right.

Bidotama, or Bido as she likes to be called, and Mardza dressed in those comfy, furry pants the young like to live in these days, have been up since 4:30am cooking for a Sunday lunch service that they run out of Akoijam’s three-bedroom apartment in New Delhi.

Until May last year, both Bido and Mardza worked as digital marketing managers in Imphal, the capital of Manipur in India’s northeast. Akoijam, or Akoi as she is referred to, was their Delhi-based team leader.

Mardza and Bido cooking food for Lombard Kitchen at the New Delhi apartment of their friend, Akoi [Suparna Sharma/Al Jazeera]

Now Bido and Mardza are Akoi’s house guests and she is their business partner in the lunch service they have started in an attempt to rebuild their lives after they were wrenched from their homes in Manipur in the wake of ethnic violence that broke out in May. It has left over 200 people dead and thousands injured, and turned the beautiful, scenic state with the world’s only floating national park, into a ravaged war zone.

A day after violence erupted, Manipur was placed under curfew and an internet ban was imposed that lasted till December. In those seven months, many businesses shut down, including Bido and Mardza’s.

In the clashes between the dominant, largely Hindu Meitei community and the minority Christian Kuki-Zo community, many have lost their homes and continue to live in relief camps in Manipur or, like Bido and Mardza, fled the state fearing for their lives and in search of a livelihood.

Lomba Kitchen
[Clockwise from top right] A pressure cooker with dal, chayote squash, lightly boiled Manipuri chicken curry with king chillies and kambong kanghou, a stir-fry dish made with brinjal, crispy peanuts and water bamboo [Suparna Sharma/ Al Jazeera]

In the New Delhi apartment, all three women find solace in cooking, eating, talking about their food and running the Lomba Kitchen.

“This meal from Lomba Kitchen is Yum Gi mathel,” types Akoi on her phone as she composes a brief note about the Manipuri dishes. She will WhatsApp it to customers as the food parcels are sent out for delivery later in the day.

Their enterprise is named after a purple-coloured herb that looks like lavender and has a citrusy aroma and a peppery taste – the Lomba. It flowers around October-November and is used as a garnish in several Manipuri dishes.

“The name Lomba has meaning … When we think of winter, we think of Lomba. It reminds us of home,” says Bido.

Akoi crushes some Lomba flowers and sprinkles them on eromba, a mash made with yendem (colocasia) stalks, beans, sponge gourd, potatoes and fermented grilled fish. In the text she is sending to customers, she calls it “an object of our unconditional love”.

It’s 7am, and New Delhi’s temperature has dropped to a freezing single digit. But Akoi’s apartment, where the Sunday lunch menu is slowly coming together, is warm with the aroma of Manipur.

Akoijam Sunita, 45, at a pop-up dinner she hosted in Bengaluru recently [Photo courtesy Lomba Kitchen]
Akoijam Sunita, 45, at a pop-up dinner she hosted in Bengaluru, India, recently [Photo courtesy Lomba Kitchen]

‘Dirty food’

Roughly 1,500 miles from New Delhi, Manipur is one of the seven ‘sister states’ in the northeast that is geographically connected by a narrow 200km (120-mile) strip of land called the Chicken’s Neck to India’s mainland.

Most people from the northeast have distinct physical features and culinary traditions that add to India’s much-vaunted diversity. But incidents of racial discrimination, even verbal and physical abuse for their food choices, are routine in cities they migrate to, like New Delhi and Mumbai.

Staples like fermented bamboo shoots, soya bean paste and dried fish are added to northeastern dishes for their meaty, savoury aroma and umami flavour – one of the five core tastes that include sweet, sour, bitter and salty.

In her 2022 paper on “Dirty Food, racism and casteism in India”, anthropologist Dolly Kikon gives the instance of landlords and neighbours finding the food cooked by people from the northeast “stinky and revolting”, a reaction that, she says, stems from “ignorance of the eclectic food cultures in northeast India”.

The 2019 Bollywood film Axone, about a group of friends cooking the northeastern delicacy akhuni (or axone) with pork and strong-smelling, fermented soya beans, captures the hate that northeastern food often faces in the rest of India.

“My food has been so racially attacked that I always wanted to do something around food … When they [Bido and Mardza] came to stay here, we started talking about cooking … Maybe invite people over for a Manipuri meal,” Akoi says and then laughs as she adds, “But we didn’t have a dining table.”

King Chilli-Chicken
Cooking chicken with king chilli [Suparna Sharma/Al Jazeera]

‘The drums fell quiet’

”I’m here and she’s over there. We have a river in the middle,” says Bido, gesturing to explain where she and Mardza live – across the Nambul river that runs through Imphal, a city where the sun comes up early and the streets get crowded by 6am.

On alternate days, Bido and Mardza would set off around 4am to buy vegetables from the Ima Keithel or Mothers’ Market, the largest all-women market in the world. And then they would cook for both their families before heading to work.

May 3, 2023, was no different.

After finishing work, Mardza filled petrol in her car, dropped Bido and went home.

It was around 8pm when Bido heard someone banging an electric pole with a stone – a common way to alert the neighbourhood and get people to gather for any information or disturbing news.

Lomba Kitchen
ngari, a dried, fermented fish, being grilled [Suparna Sharma/Al Jazeera]

Bido came out and heard from the people who had gathered that there had been clashes between members of the Meitei and Kuki-Zo communities in Churachandpur, a hill district 200km (120 miles) from Imphal. Houses were being burned and there had been incidents of firing.

“It started raining,” says Bido, and under the soft solar street lights, she saw a religious procession coming her way. “I could see women on horseback, people dancing and singing because Lainingthou Sanamahi, considered the king of all gods, was returning to the local shrine,” Bido says.

The chatter in her community about the violence was getting louder and suddenly, she recalls, “The procession stopped … The clarinets, the drums fell quiet … It was eerie.”

The Meiteis, who are politically strong, live in and around the Imphal valley, occupying about 10 percent of the state’s land.

Kukis live predominantly in the hills and are listed as Scheduled Tribes, a constitutional protection given to historically disadvantaged tribes. It comes with certain guarantees, including job reservations and land rights.

For years, Meiteis have been demanding their inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes list, which would entitle them to jobs and government loans, and also give them the right to buy tribal land in the hill districts.

Their demand has been rejected in the past, but on March 27, 2023, a court directed the Manipur government to consider including Meiteis in the Scheduled Tribe list, triggering protests and clashes.

Lomba Kitchen
Manipuri chicken and dal, prepared at Lomba Kitchen in New Delhi [Suparna Sharma]

“Our neighbourhood was not affected by violence,” says Bido, but adds that there was constant fear of being attacked, often fuelled by rumours.

May 5, 2023, was one such night when a rumour swirled about three armed Kuki men hiding in the river. “Everyone was so delusional, so paranoid,” Bido recalls.

At 1am, several men from her locality jumped into the river and began searching for the armed men. On Mardza’s side, people were out with big flashlights scanning the water for signs of humans.

Bido could not sleep at night. Lying awake, the slightest sound would make her panic.

In anticipation of a sudden attack, she kept her sneakers close and packed a small school bag. It had her educational certificates, a couple of candles, a matchbox, a T-shirt, a water bottle, some paracetamol, cyclopam tablets for menstrual pain and three Choco Pies.

When Bido and Mardza eventually left Manipur at the end of May, they carried a small suitcase and a red handbag: They had packed some summer clothes, ngari (fermented) fish, fermented bamboo shoots and dry chillies. The plan was to get away for a few days, get some sleep, get some work and, when the violence subsided, to return home.

Lomba Kitchen
Bido, 26, getting meal trays ready. The meal she is putting together is called yum gi mathel. On a plate on the left rests Lomba, a herb that looks like lavender and has a citrusy aroma [Suparna Sharma/ Al Jazeera]

Something sour

It’s 9:30am in Akoi’s apartment, the electric rice cooker’s lid is bobbing with steam and her large coffee table is starting to fill up.

There’s a pressure cooker filled with hawai thongba (split lentils cooked with chives, smoked green chillies and garnished with dill), Mardza’s chicken curry (yen thongba) and kambong kanghou – a stir-fry dish made with brinjal, crispy peanuts and water bamboo that a store in New Delhi sources from around Manipur’s Loktak lake.

“In Manipur, meals end with something sour. Usually, it’s a fruit sprinkled with dry-roasted chickpea flour and red chilli powder,” says Akoi.

But since that is not practical, the Lomba Kitchen sends a little surprise gift with its meals. Last week it was black rice kheer, this week it is thoiding asuba – a traditional Manipuri condiment that Akoi has ground to perfection and is now rolling into Oreo-sized little patties in her gloved hands.

In June last year, just weeks after Bido and Mardza had flown into New Delhi, when they were missing home and wanted to go back, a video of two women from the Kuki-Zo community being paraded naked and sexually abused by a mob surfaced.

It sparked national outrage and fear.

“This had never happened in our generation in Manipur. There were a lot of bandhs, blockades, but nothing like this. Our generation was very happy. We thought it [the violence] would be contained by the next day … or in a few days. It’s now been … what?” Bido asks Mardza.

“Nine months,” she replies.

Their parents are still in Imphal and refused to leave with their daughters. Bido and Mardza talk to them on video calls regularly. Firing and deaths, they say, are now a part of everyday conversation.

“Earlier we would get triggered by the news of death … Now, when we hear some person died, we’re like, ‘Oh, where?’… I think that part of us died … the emotion part,” says Bido.

Meal trays
Meal trays are filled with food before being delivered [Suparna Sharma/Al Jazeera]

Comfort food

After several stressful weeks of trial and error, the Lomba Kitchen team has cracked the toughest part of their enterprise – packing food and making sure that the meals are delivered on time.

Several rows of black plastic meal trays are laid out neatly on the coffee table.

Beginning from the top right, Bido starts putting in the stir-fry, then the dal. Mardza adds the chicken, Bido puts in eromba, carefully wiping the edges, ensuring there are no spills anywhere. Finally, on top of the rice, she places two long slices of daskus champhut (chayote squash, lightly boiled).

Together, and with Akoi’s help, Bido and Mardza have found a rhythm of life in Delhi.

In a room full of cardboard boxes with stuff left behind by friends that Akoi and her husband have taken in over the years, Bido and Mardza have negotiated a small world of their own. A laptop sits on a small study table and their clothes are neatly folded and kept on the bags they arrived with.

They have found new clients and resumed their digital marketing work. On weekends, they run Lomba Kitchen.

(Left) Bidotama, 26, and Mardza, 25, in their room in New Delhi
Bido, 26, and Mardza, 25, in their room in New Delhi [Suparna Sharma/Al Jazeera]

Mardza and Bido talk wistfully about weekends spent driving out of Imphal valley with their mats, food and friends. They would settle on a hill from where they had a panoramic view of the city and the Loktak lake.

Bido says she often dreams of her home, of Manipur, of the tree-lined university campus with “overgrown grass” where she completed her graduation.

But in her nightmares, triggered by news of violence from Manipur, she sees people running after her or watches herself being killed.

“Sometimes,” she says, “I lose my s***… When I am closer to nature I have better control of myself.”

Bido, a literature student, is expressive and often, mid-sentence, breaks into Meitei language to ask Mardza a question, to confirm a fact, or to hand her something.

Mardza, who has a master’s in microbiology, is the quieter of the two. She finishes Bido’s sentences and fills in the gaps with details and dates.

So what’s your favourite dish, I ask Mardza, trying to get her to talk.

She falls silent for so long that Bido gets impatient and blurts out while shaking with laughter: “What’s the dish you would eat if you were to die today?”

“Eromba,” Mardza finally says.

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