Sticking Together Through The Ages: The Tangkhul Nagas And Their Ties With Hao Khamui or Sticky Rice
Updated: Mar 7, 2021
The Internet is filled with random little gems such as the following quote: “Food is the ingredient that binds us together”. However, just because they are random doesn’t mean that they are not true. North-East India cultivates a variety of rice that is so sticky that it binds itself into delicious breads and cakes. It goes by different names among the different tribal communities. Among my community of Tangkhul Nagas in Manipur, it is known as Hao Khamui. It is also commonly known by its literal English translation ‘sticky rice bread or cake’. These days, a number of variations to this snack can be found even in the metropolitan cities like Delhi.
This delicacy is more than just a mere snack. Whole festivals are celebrated in different parts of the North East where the rice cakes are the stars. The festivals are mostly celebrated after the harvest when sticky rice is in plenty. The binding character of the bread does not end with the sticky texture but it also binds the community through symbolic gestures during the festival of Yerui (the r being pronounced as a combination of r and z).
In Talui Village, located in Ukhrul District of Manipur, there was a time when large quantities of this bread used to be made in long-houses by the youth of the community and distributed to each and every family during Yerui. This was aimed at uplifting peace, harmony and oneness in the community. The bread so distributed is called muitulu. The rice cakes prepared at other times are simply called hao khamui.
Khaikap is another festival which is celebrated after the harvest season and marks the resting period for the community. Hao khamui is prepared to mark this period until the next cultivating season.
With the coming of Christianity, these traditions are long lost on the younger generation. Today, remnants can be seen during Christmas when friends and family gather together to prepare and enjoy this snack.
So, how is it traditionally prepared in a Talui home?
The sticky rice used is commonly found in three colours, red, purple, and white. It is locally called khamanew. The grain is generally short, stocky and can either be cooked and eaten as normal rice is or made into a type of porridge. Khamanew is also used to brew rice beer. The harvested grains are sundried and pounded. Wooden mortar and pestles are used for this purpose. Pairs take turns in a rhythmic kung-kung manner. The de-husked grains are soaked in water for some hours to soften it. The wet grains are laid out to drain excess water in a traditional multipurpose plate like a dehusker/rice cleaner made of cane or bamboo called yam. While the water drains, a quick trip to the garden or jungle is made to collect the leaves and stem of a type of Hedychium known locally as marinii favoured as a wrap for its aroma. Broad unblemished leaves are preferred. The leaves are washed and hung out to dry. The stems are split by bashing them against a flat surface. Once drained, the rice is pounded again into flour of preferred fineness. The flour is then mixed with water and made into a batter. The batter is portioned and wrapped in the leaves in squares or in a circle and carefully sealed by tying with the split strands of the stem to prevent any leakage. These square or round packets are then either steamed or boiled. The result is a sticky cake which is enjoyed usually with a mug of rice beer and increasingly more commonly, with a steaming cup of red tea.
The demand of the current society has brought about new methods of preparation. Electrical appliances have eased and quickened this process. Nowadays, beyond soaking, batter can be produced in minutes. Another contemporary variant of this snack is the fried one which is similar to cookies. Cakes, crepes are also prepared from the flour batter by mixing sugar and other baking products. Purists will stick to the traditional methods but changes have already begun. The humble rice cake does not care how it is prepared, cooked, fried or eaten. It only demands of us that we remember its origins and relish it with reverence.
This article is created as a part of the Adivasi Awaaz project, with the support of Misereor and Prayog Samaj Sevi Sanstha.