North East India's Obsession for Smelly Food - REDENDRON Art meets Culture

North East India’s Obsession for Smelly Food

Diwash had done it, and the atmosphere was intense. For he had done the one thing that none in our class had ever done. He had packed ‘Kinema’ for lunch, and the word had almost immediately gone around. When the lunch bell rang, me and a few of our lunch buddies stood affixed at the little boy, who slowly unzipped his backpack and revealed a green Tupperware. We followed his hands as he slowly opened up the lid. My hand immediately went in to cover my nose as the stench from his lunch threw me away. But to my surprise, a couple of boys were drawn into the smell like a dog to a bone. Diwash was surrounded by new lunch buddies. He flashed a devious grin.

This incident caused a profound impact on me as several questions spun around my head. Why do a lot of people find satisfaction in food that smells like feet? I don’t mean to be judgmental here but that’s how I had felt, until one night. It was a sleepover at Shayzung’s, and the stench of “kuyeko churpi” from the kitchen had led me to wail around his house demanding the freedom to breathe. But my curiosity of the subject caused me to take just a pinch of its taste, and one spoon led to another and another and so on. The feeling can be comparable to the first time somebody tastes a beer. The first few times are bitter, but the taste slowly develops, and within no time, you’re obsessed with smelly food. My search for bizarre food had thus begun.

Gundruk (Source- Internet)

Although the rest of the world has their own share of smelly food such as Tempeh, Natto, Kimchi, Kombucha, and Yoghurt, no place has done it any better than Northeast India. Northeast India is high on fermentation with food products like Kinema (Fermented Soybean), Gundruk (Fermented Mustard Leaves or Radish leaves), Soibum (Fermented Bamboo Shoot), fermented meat in various North Eastern states, the list goes on.

Fermented foods are foods that have been through a process of lacto fermentation in which natural bacteria feed on the sugar and starch in the food creating lactic acid. This process preserves the food, and creates beneficial enzymes, b-vitamins, Omega-3 fatty acids, and various strains of probiotics.

This aforementioned geeky paragraph may seem like gift-wrapping the idea of zombie food, but research has shown that a majority of fermented food is your gut’s favorite. Translation, they improve digestive health, because the lactic acid help acidify the digestive tract, thus creating a favourable environment for healthy friendly bacteria. They are also said to prevent heart disease and counter obesity.

Such an astounding impact created by trillions of those tiny creatures, but how did it all begin? How did the human civilization ever consider fermentation in their cuisine? Let’s find out.

There could be various reasons as to why people started implementing fermentation and almost all the most obvious ones are as follows:-

1. Poor Preservation Facilities: – Modern farmers working under the agricultural umbrella direct their harvests towards the country’s population demand because their livelihood depends on it. Our ancestors were farmers and our vast range of food items is a proof of their excellence in the field (mind the pun). The yield of the crops were abundant but the technology hadn’t peered from the horizons, and farming was a self-sustaining activity. The stock of food leftover from the previous season was either fed to the cattle or kept covered under the leaves. This poor method of preservation of food led to the infestation of yeast and certain bacteria on the food products and caused a certain smell. Then some hungry savage must have tasted and told his friends who might have been reluctant at first. After chasing them down and putting a spoon in their mouth, one out of five, must have said heall yeah, I love that.

2. Booze: – According to BBC Earth, Professor Robert Dudley of the University of California in Berkeley proposed the idea titled, “Drunken Monkey Hypothesis”, which suggests that our ancestors were drinking alcohol long before they were human. Birds are occasionally seen ramming into windows and walls intoxicated by gulping on fruits that have fermented naturally, but they could not have come across ‘The Jungle Bar’ alone. Our ancestors had felt the effects of alcohol as well, and that is probably why alcohol fermentation is one of the main reasons why this tradition is still around the corner. It is the most important process in the production of some of the prevalent beverages of today, such as beer and wine. The variety of traditional beverages of The North East India such as Sekhmai Yu(Manipur), Tongba/Chhang(Sikkim), Zutho(Nagaland), Lao Panni (Assam) and Kiad (Meghalaya) is prepared from fermenting special types of rice, barley and fruit.

3. Taste: – Whatever be the reason behind the implementation of fermentation in our culture, it is definitely around because of its taste. The often repulsive smell starts to smell delicious, and the taste develops, which leaves you wanting more. Obviously, this might not be the case for all, but for someone who hated smelly food the entirety of his childhood, I am starting to salivate as I write this.


Fermenting food has proven to be one of the most important phases in shaping the evolution of humans and their eating habits, it is definitely going to stick around for a long time.

So our posts have the tendency of taking a stirring turn, because there can be a lot of lessons to extract from any situation. The lesson here would be, that good things are often difficult to embrace at first, but one must have the courage to persist with it, only then, can we start savoring the things that we often keep at bay.

My research on bizarre foods has developed a certain desire in me to try out various foods of different cultures around the world. Because no matter how many bad days that might unfold, and no matter how many adversities we might face, there will always be a lot of Kinema, Gundruk, Tongba and several other smelly foods to try.

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