What does the kitchen mean to you? Is it a utilitarian space to cook, clean, and leave — or something more? I reflect on my travels to Northeast India and the significance of the kitchen in these regions.
Originally published in the Autumn Issue (2020) of The Little Journal of Northeast India.
The kitchen has always been a utilitarian space for me. I was born into a middle-class South Indian family, and my parents and I moved to Delhi when I was two years old. In all the houses we’ve lived in since, the kitchen has been the most negligible part, big enough only to accommodate at most two people at a time; a space to enter, cook, and leave—never to linger on. So I’m not surprised that the location, size, and purpose of the kitchens in Assam, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh immediately caught my attention on my first visit to the northeastern region of India.
Since then I’ve visited the region several times, and I noticed that the kitchen was the most spacious part of every house. It was where everyone gathered and was always abuzz with activity—gastronomy related or otherwise.
Women cooked, chatted, cleaned, and rested here. Men helped with chores, smoked cigars, and read the newspaper. Children did the dishes, completed their homework, and fed the dogs. Neighbors and extended family stopped by for tea and stories.
At Jeilei’s house in Longwa, Nagaland, the kitchen was a large area with colorful bamboo muddas, a chulha in the center, and a multi-layered platform suspended over the fire to roast and store meat. A big window let in natural light which lit up the otherwise dim space. The wall shelves were filled with rows of steel vessels, Burmese tin plates and mugs, and kadhais of varied sizes.
It was a homestay with a few extra rooms for guests, and by giving us unrestricted access to the kitchen, we felt like Jeilei and his family also let us into their lives.
The kitchen was where we hung out when we were indoors. Neighbors dropped by to say hello and helped chop vegetables even without being asked to do so. A pot of black tea was always brewing on the fire, while the friendly dogs paced around.
Even on nights when electricity bailed, the kitchen remained the place to congregate and share a meal in the dark, a torch or candle illuminating the makeshift-table laid out with dishes. No light didn’t mean no chatter.
During festivals, such as Aoleang in the Mon district of Nagaland, the kitchen was also a site for celebration. Apong was guzzled down and smoked pork was devoured by the entire family. The nights were endless, relatives and friends dressed in traditional Konyak gear trickling in and out. Sitting around the fire and talking, the kitchen immediately exuded an aura of comfort and community.
It was no different in Lingtam, Sikkim, where I spent a few days at the Dhungkar homestay. The kitchen resounded with Sikkimese folk music, and the women of the house, in their tago and domdyan, sometimes broke into a Lepcha dance, turning a regular evening of cooking and dining into a cheerful get-together of sorts. Homemade chhang flowed freely, while everyone took on different tasks: chopping vegetables, heating water, steaming momos, feeding the dogs.
Also read: Unorthodox Sikkim Through My Lens
In Mechuka, Arunachal Pradesh, the kitchen aided intergenerational bonding. I stayed at Khandu’s homestay, run by members of the Memba tribe, a sub-group of the Tibetan people. The oldest and youngest members of the family took care of the cooking and cleaning, while the rest managed family-run shops, restaurants, farms, and other work.
The kitchen was spacious and housed a TV, with the youngest girls breaking into a dance or humming along with Bollywood music while preparing momos or butter tea. Their grandmother, one of the oldest members of the Memba tribe in the village, handled the main cooking, occasionally resting on a stool near the fire and counting her Tibetan prayer beads. Sipping on hot butter tea, she’d tease her granddaughter: “you speak as fast as a train.”
When cats and dogs are family, the intergenerational bonding extends to them too. Whether in Nagaland, Assam, or Sikkim, I distinctly remember their presence in the kitchen, basking in familial warmth and lapping up whatever food came their way.
In Longwa, Nagaland, the dog at Jeilei’s helped with household tasks, like any other family member. He’d hold a ten-rupee note in his mouth, go to the grocery shop next door, and come back with a pack of biscuits for the kids!
Meanwhile, in Lachung, Sikkim, the kittens at the Bichu homestay would crawl into my lap and let me stroke their fur every time I was in the kitchen. They’re the friendliest felines I’ve ever met.
Interestingly, the northeast kitchen is not only a place for familial warmth but also the warmest part of the house in the winter, giving one more reason to spend time in the kitchen. With a cup of steaming tea held in one’s hands, hot food is eagerly awaited. With firewood gathered ahead of the winter, evenings are spent basking in the warmth of the room’s wooden structures, cozy blankets, and the kitchen fire.
The significance of the kitchen in the northeast may vary between communities and regions: its size and use may depend on monetary wealth, traditions, and other factors. But in all the homes I’ve visited, the kitchen was more than just a utilitarian space. It was a space for comfort, community and camaraderie; a space to be.