This was actually the first I ever laid eyes on the legendary kabow beri – one of the several items that flow into Manipur through the ‘Moreh market’. yes, many may have heard of the Chinese market elsewhere, Tibetan market in Delhi (and elsewhere) but in Manipur, the ‘Moreh market’ is pretty much a brand in itself. It does not matter which products bear which brand. In any case no one i know has learnt to read the Burmese scripts on these items. Every item that comes through this route inevitable earns the tag ‘Moreh’ preceding it. So we have Moreh satin (umbrella), Moreh kampor (blanket) as also Moreh dukan (shops that sell such items). Essentially, all items making its way through this route comes to be identified with ‘Moreh’ – the trading town on the Manipur side of the India-Myanmar border which is a market hub.
Kabow biri is an old product plied through the Moreh market. And to imagine finding it in Delhi far away from the frontiers of Kabow valley in Myanmar and from its consumers in Manipur who know the product by this name. it is probably known by another name in Myanmar. and now that i think about it, i wonder why it is not ‘Moreh biri‘ instead of ‘Kabow biri‘!
It all started one evening when a friend from Arunachal Pradesh offered a small packet of smoke-dried freshwater fish as we prepared a Manipuri-style stew/soup. Not expecting her to have that item, I asked her where she got it from. She told me she got that small packet for Rs. 15 from a shop at Patel Chest Christian colony area and that it had a whole lot of varieties including fermented fish and bamboo shoots . It reminded me of some select shops in Indravihar which kept a few select items – mainly the preserved fruits produced in Myanmar that came in small packets or the paan known as komkwa (Manipuri), tamul (Assam), kwai (Meghalaya).
Then one rainy evening, we longed for a cup of piping hot tea with fritters. A junior from Assam suggested we head off to this stall, again in the same Patel Chest Christian colony area, where we can enjoy the Manipuri style kanghou-bora. Initiated into the cuisine through her friends, she was more informed about its availability unlike me who never bothered to find out.
Much later when I mentioned such shops and if they were still around, I was told that there definitely were shops that sold specifically NE stuffs. I found about four shops in the Vijaynagar area. All of them happened to be run by people from Manipur (and none of them were Meiteis). They had the usual stock of non-perishable ‘Moreh’ goods but they also had packets of dry fish, smoke-dried fish, mushrooms, dried herbs, snacks and a couple of them kept a variety of fresh vegetables as well.
The last shop that I visited definitely had much more varieties to offer from snacks, canned fish, ‘joker’ toasts as well as locally produced pickles that are quite popular but they also had a good stock of snacks. It had no advertisement announcing itself, I guess the items out on display at the front – strings of sunflower seed packets, shrimp pastes, ‘Moreh’ munchies etc. announces itself. they did have a poster scribbled with the special item they had on offer – shingju (a spicy salad) and betel+areca nuts. This last shop was where I found the kabaw beri.
The most coarse or basic form of smoking tobacco which was also the cheapest that I had known was the ‘Mantu Biri‘ brand that came wrapped in a pink-ish paper wrap with a monkey on it. we used to call it ‘yong biri‘. Gold flake, navy-cut, Wills, etc. were the more polished products and also costs a little more. In many jokes there had been several mention of the kabaw biri that apparently had been in the market for as long as (or perhaps longer) than these brands. In these references, kabaw biri sounded like something that pre-dated these later brands and at the same time it seemed more easily available or affordable but apparently had been cowed down by the new brands being marketed. It proved elusive – for no one seemed to consume it, not openly at least.
So when I came across it at this shop, I did not recognize it. It was only after the shopkeeper informed me that I stopped for a second look. It is at least three times the size of the Mantu Biri and the length of a cigar. It was quite exciting to come across it where it was least expected.
Fancy, as it was to me, the shopkeeper only confirmed my suspicion – it did not sell much anyways. Perhaps not the kabow biri, but for those in Delhi the next time you run out of that indispensable ngari (fermented fish) in your kitchen, you know where you can get it.