Traditional Manipuri Curries

James Oinam *

One of my uncles, who is a maiba (shaman), once said, it was believed that if the milky sap of more than a certain number of plants are mixed together, then it will cause 'yamounaba' (poisoning) if consumed.

Manipuri curries are categorized into various groups. The spicy category will be the 'eronba'. But its 'spiciness' mainly comes from the chillies, and not from spices as is generally known.

I believe many Manipuri curries were eaten more for their health benefits than for their tastes. One category, called 'champhut', is basically boiled vegetables. It has no spices (read chillies in this context) or oil, not even fish—dried or fermented. In some families, people put sugar in it for taste. However, at my grandmother's house, it used to be cooked without that even.

One of my aunts used to cook 'nongmangkha' curry, which is bitter in taste. 'Nongmangkha' is basically Adhatoda plant's leaves. The story is when Khaba was pursuing Panthoibi (who had eloped), he caught cold. On the way, he chewed some leaves of a plant. That cleared his cough and relieved him of his fatigue ('Nonma khangle, awa-ana kokhare').

Hence, Panthoibi named the plant as 'nongmangkha', and said, 'O plant, when living beings use you as medicine, you'll cure them of disease. When people use as food, you'll be the winner/the best' (source: a Facebook friend).

Our ancestors must have put a lot of thought on the health benefits of what they ate. The following taken from the book Chayom Thupki (Meetei Philosophy), authored by Makar Luwang can be pointed out to support this:
Pektuna lauba perukni
Gri-gri namba shaugrini
Hakchangdagi sharu-shayangda changkhraba ariba nungshit makhei pektuna tashillaga khada thadaba ngammi haibagi mabu peruk kaubani.
Khoidau makhagi komda nungshit ashabana eshingbu pumduna thakta pruk-pruk shaugatlakpada gri-gri namthaba ngambana mabu shaugri kaubani

[Broadly, the above passages may be translated as: Peruk (vernacular Manipuri name, common name Indian pennywort, scientific name Centella asiatica) is so named because it collects (pekpa) 'old wind' (causal agents of illness in the body?) from bones and muscles and helps to excrete the same.

Below the navel, because of 'hot wind', when the water of the pond putrefies, and bubbles emerge on the surface, making 'pruk, pruk' sound, the Shaugri (vernacular Manipuri name for roselle, scientific name Hibiscus sabdariffa) can suppress it, making 'gri, gri' sound. Hence, the herb was named Shaugri (shauba = boil + gri).]
(My translation from Manipuri written in Bengali script.)

Manipur shares food culture with other Southeast and East Asian countries. For example, the culture of eating fermented soya bean (Glycine max) is widely prevalent in the area. It is said, there are certain proteins in soya bean that cause indigestion. Fermentation denatures (destroys) them, thereby making their consumption safer. Long life of Japanese people is attributed to their food habit, among other things.

Doordarshan aired a Korean historical drama, 'Jewel in the Palace', dubbed in Hindi as 'Ghar ka Chirag' (The Lamp of the House) some years ago. The series is based on an allegedly historical character Jang-geum who was a very good royal cook, and who later became a physician. In Korea, a good cook is considered next to a physician. Two episodes in the series highlight this very well.

Episode One: A neighbouring king, who had diabetes, visited Jang-geum's kingdom. The guest was fond of oily and sweet food which was bad for him. Knowing the condition of the guest, Jang-geum cooked food which was not oily and sweet. The guest took it as an insult and refused to eat. Another cook was assigned the job.

The other one cooked the way the guest king wanted. After eating, he fell sick. On the advice of the physician, Jang-geum was again asked to cook. The guest ate reluctantly. Although it had no oil or sweetner, it tasted very good. And the guest praised Jang-geum and parted happily.

Episode Two: Once, it so happened, a lot of people in a village of the kingdom started dying suddenly in large number. The entire village was quarantined because the king thinking it was a disease epidemic. Jang-geum went to the place and studied the village carefully. She found that it was a particular vegetable which had been infected and getting spoiled.

People were eating this spoiled vegetable and getting sick. In this way, the quarantine, which was doing more harm than good because healthy food was not coming in, was lifted and people were treated.

Lack of spices and oil in the curry should not treated as backwardness. What is agreeable to the tongue might not agree with the stomach.

* James Oinam wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at jamesoinam(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on January 09, 2019.

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