October food rituals

I like to start making beef stew in October. It is an old recipe of my father. Beginning in October, when the days got colder and the rains retreated, Dad would pull out one of his favourite recipes and cook it for the family with great pleasure. Dad’s beef stew made a simple and hearty meal, and no one has ever been able to make it quite like he did. It was back in the day when the local butchers sold good red meat and a choice cut would be kept aside for the stew. There was a solemnity about the whole procedure. The meat had to be diced: each strip of red meat was first cut in strips and then cut into little squares. Not a job for the unsteady of hand. Every vegetable to be added to the stew was diced; the potatoes, carrots and other root vegetables that were around in the season.


First the meat was rolled in flour to which salt and pepper had been added and set aside. A large onion would be chopped into big chunks and sit on the board awaiting its turn. Dad always used a big pan for the actual cooking. It made perfect sense as there were many mouths to feed. First the meat rolled in flour was fried over slow heat making sure that each piece was browned on all sides. Four cups of water were added and the meat was left simmering for a good one hour to allow the meat to get tender. The potatoes went in some minutes before the carrots and the onion. Just before taking the stew off the fire, he added chopped coriander which completed the flavor we all knew so well. (If you are not a fan of coriander, you can substitute it with thyme or celery). Thecarefully friedmeat brought its own unique taste to the whole. Beef stew was always eaten with fresh Jadial bakery bread, the white loaves of bread baked in a big mud oven that is still in use. Butter was optional, because the bread slices tended to crumble. By Methuselah (I don’t want to offend certain readers by writing By God), that was a meal guaranteed to keep a family warm and happy.


October has its own food rituals. After the harvest, the Naga farmer’s wife spends a whole day eating nothing but boiled lentils, maize and beans. This is a ceremony to ensure that the grain will last a long time. Of course, it is not explained how the lady of the house abstaining from eating rice for a day would contribute to making the grain long-lasting. But October is also a month when our diet gets more festive. It is supplemented with more meat even if the meat for some came from dragonflies and locusts.


The Sami people in the North celebrate the introductory period to the dark months with reindeer stew. Old women stoop over big cast iron pots and stir the stew with long handled ladles for what seems like hours before bringing the pot to the table. There is always a smoky wood fire inside the low turf huts adding to the arctic atmosphere. Cream and mushrooms are added to reindeer stew and it is eaten with bread. Many Nagas probably can’t get their head around adding cream and mushrooms to a meat dish. But it takes away the gamey smell from the meat and kind of neutralizes the reindeer meat.


The Danish have a custom of cooking duck in the second week of October. Bay leaf and cloves are added to the duck whilst it is being broiled in a thick sauce. It is never eaten alone. Neighbours and friends congregate and dine together on the well roasted duck which would have been cooking for a good two or three hours. Served with potatoes and brown sauce, duck meat is tender and nutritious and not at all stringy unlike the meat of other birds.


Another October recipe which Northerners begin cooking as early as September is lamb meat and cabbage layered together and boiled in a large pot for many hours. No other spices are added besides salt and pepper. But this simple meal supposedly gets tastier on the second day, so it is always made in big quantities.


October is also the month for cooking with seasonal herbs. A French carpenter liked to scour the forests for herbs and make a cheese and herb pie. It had an interesting flavor as each slice contained a different herb. It is invigorating knowledge that one can take a random stroll in the forests in this month, and find food for the table before the frost kills off all vegetation.


To each his own and for the Naga table, it’s time to cook meat in an old earthen pot and leave it overnight so that it turns glutinous the next morning and is perfect with a plate of steaming hot rice!