Joining The Tribe

James Roper

In the city of Guwahati, on the banks of the Brahmaputra River in Assam, my Hindu family's home was a farm in itself. We had our own pond, where we caught fish that we roasted over coals, or used to make maachar muri ghonto, fish heads with dal. Our cows provided milk, and we kept different varieties of fowl, including ducks, which we used to make hahor mangso kumurar logot, duck cooked with gourds. While we were a self-sustaining family, I was always fascinated by the various cuisines that were available in my hometown, an array of tribal dishes—including stir-fries and pork dishes—heavily influenced by the surrounding countries of China and Myanmar. That fascination kicked into full gear when I turned 17. Freshly graduated from school, I began visiting different parts of the northeast looking for the purest versions of the cuisine I enjoyed back home. Luckily for me, many tribes here consider feeding strangers an honor, so I was invited into a number of homes, where I experienced unforgettable meals like phak-ok ten nempo, pork cooked in its own fat and mixed with sesame seeds, and langdung, mashed wild banana flower mixed with potatoes, tomatoes, and dried fish. While I am grown now, my passion for traveling this region to enjoy its tribal foods continues. On a recent trip to sample the foods of the Karbi tribe just outside Guwahati, I happened upon the Engti family as they gathered rice from nearby paddies. They invited me to join them as they shopped for ingredients at a local market. That night, we feasted on a spicy stir-fry of fern fronds and scrambled eggs served with rice. And while I had never met the Engtis before, I felt like family.