my mayang kitchen and other experiments
The art of fermentation
When supermarket aisles lay empty early in the lockdown, my husband, Jo, brought home whatever essentials he could get his hands on — two packets of soybean lay in the pile. Odd to have not noticed it before like other lentils on supermarket shelves, given that pork cooked with axone (fermented soybean) is a weekend ritual at home. My uneventful recipe search fuelled more curiosity about the non-popularity of non-fermented soybean. I’ve had edamame (immature soybean) in Japanese restaurants and a variety of products — tofu, soy sauce, soy milk, soy chunks but never cooked like the more familiar mainland Indian lentil preparations. Then recently I stumbled upon an article Soy friend or foe, according to its sources ‘many of the compounds present in soy can be toxic. Plants in general are protected by anti-nutrients to ward off insects and animals that might otherwise eat them, and beans in particular are high in anti-nutrients which can make them a challenge to digest. Unlike most beans though the anti-nutrients in soy don’t wash or cook off and they present significant health risks… Although a rich source of protein, it contains substances that can cause severe hormonal imbalance.’
How did the consumption of soybean become part of some cultures in India and not others? An archaeological study by the National Library of Medicine, US, traces the soybean to 9000–8600 cal BP in northern China and 7000 cal BP in Japan and in Korea by 3000 cal BP and research shows it was first domesticated in China around 1000 BC. The ancient Chinese practise of fermenting soy frees it of its toxic compounds and releases some of the most important nutritional benefits, some consider it the only way of neutralising its anti-nutrient properties and has multiple functions in traditional Chinese medicin. In Japan, Natto, as it’s called is a breakfast food, rich in protein, and is a main ingredient in the popular miso paste. The practise spread to the Java island around 13th CE and through European trade in Asia in the 17th CE and further spread to the Eastern Himalayas via trade in Myanmar. Though the process of fermentation has adapted and varies across regions, a commonality is the distinct pungent ammoniacal smell and sticky consistency that gives the bean its nutty flavour and texture.
Food and Society
In Hindu philosophy social structures and food habits are directly related in the dichotomy of ‘you are what you eat’ and ‘you eat what you are’. Reading and decoding puranic (ancient) texts would need more than a lifetime, based on NS Khare’s book Eternal Food this is a feeble summary, the gastro-semantic triangle consists of food-self-body and foods are classified into three qualities known as gunas: Satvik foods are those that are fresh, pure, providing a balance between mind + body and are consumed by the Brahmins, vital for ahimsa. Rajasic foods consisting of high-protein meats, pulses, spices are attributed to energy and vigour and linked to the warrior class. While tamasic consists of fermented food, stale food or excessively heavy food that tend to be dulling of the mind and related to those at the bottom of the caste system. However the three gunas are not exclusive and our doshas or elemental nature that constitute the body is a combination of the three gunas in differing proportion.
Soy is not part of the traditional Ayurvedic diet and because its hard-to-digest protein is considered rajasic in nature — one that is heavy and causes aggression. It also has more nut-like properties than lentils and can be pacifying for vata according to the doshas but is generally not used in traditional Indian medicine. Further, fermented foods are also not favoured in ayurveda except for yogurt, and is generally viewed as tamasic or dulling of the mind and probably explains why our breads were unleavened.
Ours vs theirs. Micro identities and micro worlds.
My natural tendency is to position myself to the mainland when writing in the context of a food that I’m associated to by marriage to a Tangkhul Naga (ethnic group of head-hunters across Northeastern India and Myanmar). To the larger community I’m considered ‘mayang’, a derogatory term used by Meitheis (ethnic group native to the people of Manipur) and by extension to Nagas in Manipur to refer to the people of mainland India. My Goan identity (westernisation by Catholicism) is engulfed by my Indian identity that is often a reduced stereotype of India and Indians. I was raised in a staunch Catholic home, and Jo, in a devout Protestant one yet, despite being part of very cosmopolitan milieus by virtue of growing up in Bombay and Delhi, respectively; our families managed to remain cocooned in their own belief systems while adapting to the multi-ethnic social norms of the workplace. How we navigate the world is based on our individual lived-experiences, and in our case the value given to tradition and identity. Varela in Ethical know-how explains spontaneous coping a result of our micro identity and the corresponding situations we live in as our microworlds. Our cognitive understanding and identity is not independent of the world we live in and the people we interact with. Our catholic-protestant, Kshatriya-tribal union caused heartburn on both sides but having NID, a premier institute as common ground, gave us both a new identity subsuming those by birth. The individual strands of food, religion, identity bringing comfort to our micro-worlds of lived experiences both at a shared and individual level.
Axone — Deep smell
Back in NID, Jo’s hostel room balcony was converted to a wondrous kitchen. The friends who showed up on weekends for meals were pan-Indian meat lovers (plus the occasional exchange student) Bengalis, Malayalis, Tamilians, Paharis, Ladakhis, Tibetans and of course ‘NorthEasterners’. After being expelled from the campus hostel after the legitimate 4 years, I shared an apartment with three of my girlfriends. Careful not to hurt the sentiments of the two vegetarians in the group, Priyanka and I sneakily cooked dry prawns (sent by my mother) when the girls left for weekends with their boyfriends, on one occasion midway through our cooking one of the girls returned to pick up something she’d forgotten, what ensued was an unpleasant attack that created a short-lived rift but an irreversible sensitivity to food smells on my part.
My four-year-old has an extraordinarily sharp nose, we’ve had many an embarrassing situation visiting friends. Since smoked pork axone is a home staple I was presumptuous that he had been seasoned to the intoxicating fumes wafting through our kitchen but a few weeks back while I was cooking he rushed to report ‘something stinks’.
Axone in popular culture
A film titled Axone by director Nicholas Kharkongor was No 1 on Netflix a week into its release in June 2020. The smell reminiscent of a septic tank, illustrated in this comedy attempts to unpack the complexities of cultural contexts and further parodies the dissonance in cultures that appear to have much in common and are chunked together to form Northeast India, the Babel scene in the room is a humorous yet effective way of communicating the deeper disparities. Which also makes me wonder how this infamous ingredient has become a force to reckon with. Does it have anything to do with other trending Eastern cultures? Have Natto and Tempeh changed the perception of the humble fermented bean from home? Do dominant cultures overshadow their less popular counterparts to get bundled as one? The etymology of soy comes from the corruption of cantonese sihyàuh. Soy has travelled its way to the global map and is a miracle super food since its introduction to North America just 170 years back.
A long-ignored and diverse culture is presented through a Hindi/English movie with well-known actors in the lead. I came across comments ranging from scathing to highly complimentary within the NorthEastern community. The Khasi director used a Sema Naga term — axone for an ingredient that is consumed across the Eastern Himalayas and is known by different names. If ‘Indian’ fermented soy had a Geographical Identification tag which post-independent state would win the race? Rasagolla’s GI tagging to Odiya came as a surprise to many.
Susan Blackmore, a British writer and parapsychologist whose field of research includes eastern philosophy and memetics says that imitation and copying are Darwinian concepts fundamental to human behaviour. In evolutionary biology genes are responsible for copying, varying and replication, while memes are its cultural counterpart. Not all ideas stand the test of time, but those that do are memetic in evolution in the pattern of copying, varying and replication. Does the memetic success of Axone pork have anything to do with the popularity of the Nagaland stall at Dilli Haat? Was the Nagaland stall at Dilli Haat a cultural phenomenon thanks to the more experimental university goers, the defiant ‘jhola brigade’ or ‘anti-establishment’? Does the process of acquiring new tastes involve challenging individual micro identities? Is the readiness to adapt directly proportional to a richer experience of the world?
Among the Tangkhul Nagas axone is called theshui, a word I seem to have forgotten ever since axone became the recognised term in our mixed (non-Tangkhul) circle of friends. Hawaijar, kinema, tungrymbai, peruyaan, bekang are some of the many names across the Eastern Himalayas.
Up next… Idea framing and axone mapping