MEGHALAYA FOOD AND CULTURE: TRAVEL GUIDE
Meghalaya is a hilly belt in the northeastern part of India that covers 22429 square kilometres of area, spanning 300 km in length and 100 km in width from east to west. Meghalaya is blessed with breathtaking natural beauty, lovely weather, mesmerizing waterfalls, caves and more.
It is a complete traveller’s delight, in terms of sights, sounds, food, everything. Along with natural beauty, this hilly state is also well known for its traditional foods, festivals, culture and more. To a food tourist or culinary traveller, for example, Meghalaya is a land of diverse cuisines. The state’s cuisine has its distinct flavour and style, which can be traced back to the rich cultural heritage that it has inherited from its history.
Take the Khasi-Jaintia cuisine for example. This is a unique cuisine blend with Assamese and Bengali influences. The Khasian people are one of the oldest ethnic groups living in India today. They have been settled here since time immemorial. Their language is called ‘Khasi’ or ‘Khassoum’. Today they live mainly in the districts of Jaintia Hills, Garo Hills, West Khasi Hynniewtrep National Park.
This article will give you an insight into similar food culture stories and deep dive into some of the most popular foods eaten by locals as well as tourists, along with other cultural aspects of Meghalaya, which are worth discovering personally, for every traveller here.
Additionally, this article will also give you vital insight into Meghalaya’s history, tourist attractions, clothing, culture, tribes, festivals, and more. So read through to the end to find the top 10 main dishes that make up the traditional food of Meghalaya. But first…
Meghalaya & Her History
As beautiful as the state of Meghalaya is, its attractive and meaningful name feels justified. The word Meghalaya is made up of two Sanskrit words. Megh + Aalaya = Meghalaya.
In Sanskrit, ‘Megh’ means ‘cloud’ and ‘Aalaya’ means ‘abode’ or ‘home’. By this definition, Meghalaya means ‘abode of clouds’ or called ‘house of clouds’ just as it is in reality.
The history of Meghalaya is associated with the three major tribes residing here, Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo. These tribes have been living here for ages. According to legend, the Khasi were among the earliest immigrants to the state. All three tribes, Khasi, Jayanti and Garo then settled in different areas of the state.
Around 1765, this region of the northeast, then Assam, was occupied by the British. After Independence, in 1954, the residents of this area raised the demand for a separate state, which the States Reorganization Commission rejected.
In 1960, ‘All Party Hill Leaders’ was formed to get this demand accepted peacefully. Due to this and several other movements, in September 1968, the Government of India gave Meghalaya the status of an autonomous state while living within Assam. Later on 21 January 1972, Meghalaya was formed as a separate state.
Tribes of Meghalaya
Meghalaya’s history is closely linked to the different tribes here. So let’s know more about the history of Meghalaya by getting to know more about Meghalaya’s five main tribes.
The Khasi are an ancient tribe living in Meghalaya. A small population of the Khasi tribe also lives in Bangladesh, and the meaning of Khasi is ‘seven huts’. The people of this Meghalayan tribe speak the Khasi language. According to the 2001 census, more than 11 lakh Khasi tribe members lived in Meghalaya.
People of the Khasi tribe cultivate betel leaves, betel nuts, and oranges. They are also skilled in making bamboo and cane products. In many states of India, the Khasi tribals are recognised as a protected Scheduled Tribe. Men of the Khasi tribe wear traditional dresses called the Jaiphong, while women wear Jansen.
The Garo are a tribe of Meghalaya and adjoining areas of Bangladesh. It is the second-largest tribe of Meghalaya and is predominantly Christian. That said, these tribals also pray by sacrificing animals in front of many gods and goddesses, so one could say that they have a mixed religious belief. This tribe lives in Meghalaya as well as in many northeastern states of India.
According to the 2001 Indian census, their population in Meghalaya was about two lakhs. Their language is Garo, which is similar to Tibetan and Burmese languages. Wangala, Galmekda, Agalamka, and Christmas are among their main festivals.
Hajong is a tribal ethnic group and is the fourth majority tribe in Meghalaya. This ethnic group is spread out in Northeast India as well as in Bangladesh. Including both the countries, the estimated population of this tribal group is around 1.5 lakh. Their language is Hajong, which is an East Indo-Aryan language. Pathing and Phulaagon are the traditional clothing of the women of the Hajong ethnic group. Durga Puja, Nontang, Chormaga are their main festivals.
Panar or Jaintia
Panar is a tribe of Meghalaya, but it is also known as Jaintia. The word Jaintia is from an earlier kingdom, the Jaintia Empire, whose rulers belonged to the Sinteng community. In 1835, the Jaintia kingdom was annexed by the British. After Independence, in 1972, the Jaintia Kingdom was established as the Jaintia Hills District. The original tribal religion of Jaintia is known as Nimedre.
The Tiwa tribe is a tribe living in Assam and Meghalaya. The Tiwa is a Scheduled Tribe within the state of Assam. People of this tribe are further divided into two groups, Pahadi Tiwa and Plain Tiwa. Pahari Tiwa people live in the northern corner of the Ri Bhoi district of Meghalaya. The second group lives in the plains. According to the 2001 census, they have a total population of about two and a half lakhs.
Traditional & Famous Food of Meghalaya
These tribes of Meghalaya have their distinct taste, and their amazing cuisine and popular dishes are also different. One thing common in all of them is that they are most fond of non-vegetarian dishes and almost all have sticky rice as a staple food. The meat of pig, cow, chicken, fish is used prominently in Meghalayan cuisine. Apart from this, the people of Meghalaya also use seasonal green vegetables, green bamboo, and local herbs, and people here give more importance to steamed rice instead of bread.
Here are the 10 most famous foods of Meghalaya, the ones that you cannot miss especially if you take a village food tour.
Jado is a trendy, popular dish belonging to the Khasi community of Meghalaya. It is a rice-and-meat dish, and its colour is yellow and red. Traditionally, Jado or Jadoh is made with pork pieces but vegetarian variations of the dish, such as potato Jadoh are also popular today.
Jadoh or Jado is like a cake and is famous for its richness and taste. It is made from besan (chickpea flour) and rice flour, with a blend of special spices like turmeric, cardamom, fennel seeds, nutmeg, cinnamon and rosewater giving a unique flavour to it. The famous Meghayan Jado is served along with fried chicken or mutton curry and plain rice.
Doh Khlieh or Dohkhlieh
Doh Khlieh is a delicious, nutritious and fragrant mixed pork salad that uses pig head. Finely chopped pieces of other meat can also be added in with onion and green chillies to make the dish tastier. It is a simple dish that can be made in minutes using as little as just four ingredients. It is also famous in the plains of Assam but a favourite dish for locals in Meghalaya.
Doh Neiiong or Dohneiiong
This dish is delicious, and it is a Khasi traditional food with pork, essentially pork belly or chunks of pork fried in mustard oil with black sesame seeds and spices. The pork dish is oily and dry, but delicious; it is popular, gravy-less food in Meghalaya.
Nakham Baring Belati Chutney
This dish, roasted tomato and dried fish chutney is a favourite of the people of the Garo community. Tomatoes are roasted on flame and then peeled. Garlic, spices and dried fish are then added and mixed to make a delicious bharta-like chutney. This dish is served as an accompaniment to traditional meals served on banana leaves.
Nakham Bitchi or Nakam Bitchi
Nakham Bitchu is a spicy, dried fish soup that the people here serve after a meal since it is something of a palate cleanser. Though most people know it as a delicious soup, it is more of a thick stew since the preparation involves cooking the dry fish and vegetables together, without using additional water.
Tungrymbai is a vegetarian dish made with fermented soybean. This vegetarian Meghalayan food is popular with the Khasi community. Tungrymbai is an acquired taste but once you fall in love with it, you’ll appreciate its high protein content and the prophylactic role it plays in your body once eaten. Tungrymbai is served with rice or with roti. This and other indigenous foods are part of Meghalaya’s rich food biodiversity.
Kyat is a party drink, made with fermented rice. Rice is boiled and then other local ingredients make up the garnishing. In a way, this is a kind of rice beer (or rice wine) that adds a level of zing to almost parties and special occasions.
Similar to Kyat, there is another local drink named Singju or Shinjuh. This drink is made out of gum extracted from tree bark and is later fermented by adding some special ingredients. It is bright yellow and is known as ‘the champagne of the north-east’. Shingjuh tastes sour, slightly bitter, and mildly sweet. It is also effervescent due to its carbonation. In Meghalaya, drinking Singju is just like drinking water.
Another famous vegetarian food of Meghalaya is the Pumaloi or powdered rice. Since rice is a staple in Meghalaya, Pumaloi rice, powdered and steamed is accepted even as a celebratory food. It can be had for any meal and it is usually had with spicy stews and curries. This simple dish may be simple in prep but it is made in special cooking pots known as khiew ranei.
The Meghalaya are fond of pork and this can be seen in a multitude of local dishes such as tung rymbai, doh jem and dohkhlieh. But in Meghalaya’s famous food list is a mouthwatering chicken dish known as Do’o Kappa.
This Garo style chicken dish is almost regular in ingredients such as onion, ginger and garlic, but it is made exotic to taste through the use of soda powder, fresh cream and green onions.
We could have had Meghalaya’s famous momos, meat or vegetarian as our traditional food number 10, but momos have taken over the world, oh alright, India then as a popular and mouthwatering dish. And since rhey have already made fans across India, so here features something a little more exotic, Meghalaya’s bamboo shoots dish.
The Khasi people here make a bamboo shoots dish with chunks of soy sauce-marinated pork. Loads of fresh vegetables and of course, bamboo shoots are also added to the preparation along with sliced onions and spices. This unique dish is a must-try when visiting Meghalaya and numerous restaurants in Shillong also serve it.
In addition to these 10 popular foods in Meghalaya, you can also try vegetarian foods Sakhin Gata and Pukhlein while you’re here. When you travel to Meghalaya, keep a food tour list ready to check off when you experience these foods and ensure that you also add the following Meghalayan foods to that list:
- Minil Songa
- Ga’lda Na’kam
- Wak Jo Krapa
- Misa Mach Poora or Misa Mach Pura
- Herbed Pork & Apples
- Egg Dal
- Mylliem Chicken
As you may have guessed already, food tours in Meghalaya may be a little difficult if you are a vegetarian (worse, if you are vegan). But there are some select restaurants in Shillong, Cherrapunji, Guwahati and Dawki that offer authentic but vegetarian local cuisine variations. You can find more information on these restaurants here.
And if you wish to try some of Meghalaya’s most famous street foods, join in on one of the many food festivals here, where you can taste both savoury as well as sweet dishes from this part of North-East India.
Festivals and Celebrations of Meghalaya
If you want to make the most of your trip to Meghalaya, food is not the only way to maximise your utility. Get yourself there when the locals are celebrating a festival and you gain access to a cultural tour unlike any other. Here are some of the most important local festivals in Meghalaya.
Ka Shad Suk Mynsiem
Ka Shad Suk Mansem is a Khasi celebration in Meghalaya. It falls in April each year and gets maximum community participation in Shillong. This is a dance festival, what we could enthusiastically call a thanksgiving dance festival. During the festival, people meet at the end of each harvesting season and celebrate by dancing. They also pray for the good beginning of the next sowing season.
Wangala or Vangala
Wangala is also a dance festival known and is also known as the Dance of Hundred Drums. This Garo festival is also a harvest festival that is held for Saljong, the Misi Sun-God of fertility. To celebrate a good harvest and to pray for another one next year, people gather to dance, eat, drink and celebrate.
The tribe’s chief performs a ritualistic ceremony known as Rugala before the celebrations begin. During this ceremony, rice beer and local delicacies are first offered to God and later enjoyed by the people.
The Nongkrem festival is celebrated in autumn each year, October or November, and it is a five-day celebration. This Khasi tribe festival involves a lot of dancing. Men dance to the beat of drums and tangmuri pipes while holding swords in their right hands. People perform this ‘ka shad mastieh’ dance ritual to make the all-powerful Ka Blei Synshar goddess happy and to get her blessings for a bumper harvest next year
The Nongkrem dance festival is also known as ‘ka pomblang syiem’ or ‘shad nongkrem’ and you can enjoy these festivities at Smit when the festival starts. Smit is the cultural centre of Khasi Hills that helps to boost tourism in the region.
It is a festival of the Jaintia community. In this festival, men and women take part in their traditional dress. This festival is celebrated by the people here in the form of dance for entertainment.
So visit Meghalaya the next time you want an exotic holiday. This Scotland of the East welcomes you with good weather, good food, good sights and sounds and numerous lesser-known attractions from living root bridges to incredible ancient caves for adventures such as caving.