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Khasi Cuisine and beyond with the Symbai Sisters

How sisters Daphimanroi and Dakiwanri Warjri are acquainting Mumbai with Khasi culture, one pop-up at a time
Symbai sisters Khasi cuisine

In the bylanes of Bandra, sisters Daphimanroi and Dakiwanri Warjri have brought a small piece of their Khasi culture to the heart of Mumbai. With a small balcony opening up to a lush green garden, and the smell of Black Sesame Pork filling their home, there was a sense of calmness and comfort at the Warjri sisters’ home. Fondly known as Daphi and Daki, the Warjri sisters are at the forefront of putting Khasi cuisine on the map with their pop-ups and community-style dinners through Symbai.

Born out of the lockdown as a delivery kitchen, Symbai, a Khasi food pop-up started hosting community tables in 2021 and has showcased their culinary adventure to an audience from many cities such as Puducherry, Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad. Symbai in Khasi means seeds. It symbolises the beginning of food – just like their journey of bringing Khasi cuisine to rest of India, one pop-up at a time.

Ahead of their pop-up at Mumbai’s Ishaara on June 15 and 16, we visited their home to chat about Khasi cuisine.

Khasi cuisine through Symbai lens

An inclination towards food was a natural one for both sisters, especially Daphi, who also runs a bakery called Flourists in Mumbai. The lockdown brought out the inner chefs for all of us and a need to learn and grasp more. It was in 2020 when Khasi ingredients piqued Daphi’s interest – from using them in newer ways to experimenting with flavours. This led to elaborate Khasi meals for friends and it was only after a friend’s suggestion that they decided to do their first pop-up in 2021.

Symbai sisters Khasi cuisine

Photos: Symbai

For the uninitiated, Khasi is an ethnic tribe from Meghalaya in Northeast India, all the way from the Khasi hills. “When we first started doing it,” says Daphi, the older sibling, “we weren’t sure how people would accept our food because this is regular home food for us. But thanks to a few friends who tried our food, we were confident that our flavours would pique the diners’ interest.” Their successful pop-ups across cities confirmed their confidence in what they do.

Khasi staples and more

The sisters try to keep the popup experience as authentic to traditional Khasi cuisine practices as possible. It starts with a soup called Syrwa. “We don’t eat soup by itself, it’s usually poured over rice and eaten with a pickle,” explains Daki. Like most items in Khasi cuisine due to the region’s climate, this one is also a winter staple. They transform a classic dish of pork and mustard leaves into a soup version and for vegetarians, it is usually a wild shiitake mushroom soup called Syrwa Tit Tung.

The Warjri sisters have also introduced a salad that is not consumed traditionally. “We have introduced a version of a salad that is eaten back home. It has oranges and mandarins,” says Daki. This salad uses the popular Khasi mandarins also known as Soh Sohniamtra in Khasi, along with pomelo – again a winter fruit — and mustard leaves. All of this is mixed with mustard oil, some chillies, and salt. This fruit is usually eaten at the end of a meal back home, but they use it as a core ingredient for their salad.

Local ingredients are at the forefront of Khasi cuisine. One of the ingredients the Symbai sisters use is the Perilla seeds, native to regions of Korea, Southern China, Japan, and India. “We use it a lot in our salads and as a dressing as well,” shares Daki. “They are small little seeds that, when ground to a paste work as a salad dressing. We use the Perilla seed dressing for our radish salad as well.

Symbai sisters Khasi cuisine

Photos: Symbai

Talking about Khasi cuisine and not about Lakadong turmeric is impossible. Known for its unmatched health benefits, the Lakadong turmeric is native to Meghalaya. “Turmeric is a big part of our cuisine,” says Daphi. “There’s turmeric in almost everything we make.”

Another important ingredient is the black pepper. This slightly numbing ingredient, similar to Sichuan pepper, has a slightly different flavour from the pepper variants available in other parts of the country. “It is also slightly more pungent,” adds Daphi.

The other dominant ingredients featured in Khasi cuisine are pork, sesame, mushrooms (which are usually foraged), and a bunch of local vegetables.

Busting myths about Khasi cuisine

“It’s not spicy,” declares Daki. “We don’t add chilli unless it’s a personal choice. If someone wants heat in their dish, we add a green chilli on their plate and they can bite into it.” Most of the heat element in Khasi cuisine comes from their pickles.

This is a no-brainer that all seven states in the Northeast have their own distinctive cuisines, and it is not all the same, the way most people assume. In fact, within Meghalaya, all communities and tribes have their individual food preferences and styles of cooking. “We recently found out that in some communities, they grow lavender and cook with it,” shares Daphi.

Symbai sisters Khasi cuisine

Photo: Symbai

After watching the 2019 film Axone on OTT, I was curious to know whether their food does in fact have a peculiar scent. “It is not a misconception,” clarifies Daki. “But not everything smells.” The technique of fermenting – a common one in Khasi culture – is when certain foods start to smell. They ferment soybeans, fish, and even bamboo shoots. “It is an acquired smell and taste,” adds Daki.

Besides fermentation, other popular cooking techniques popular with Khasi cuisine include smoking.

What does a Symbai pop-up plate look like?

Rice is a permanent dish on the menu. Regional cuisine screams local ingredients, and that is what the sisters have been doing for their Khasi meals. “We use a lot of seasonal ingredinets,” they say. This is also the reason behind their constantly evolving menu.

Adapting to the dietary preferences of each state is the kind of attention to detail the Symbai sisters put into their Khasi cuisine pop-ups. The smoked pork and the black sesame pork – two hero dishes on their menu, sometimes require modification. “Sometimes we do a black sesame chicken because it is the meat that most people eat,” says Daki. “In Mumbai and Hyderabad, we replaced beef with mutton. We cooked mutton balls, which is not something we traditionally do. Khasi cuisine doesn’t include a lot of mutton, but it tasted just fine,” she adds.

Along with rice, a meal consists of three to four sides such as a radish dish, charred aubergine, tomato salad, and stir-fried baby potatoes. “The Khasis love their potatoes. You’ll find it in some form in every meal,” chuckles Daphi.

In terms of produce, they admit that they don’t cook with what they usually use at home. They adapt and innovate to make do with what is available. It was during one such experiments that they stumbled upon a realisation – “Back home,” says Daphi, “the radish salad is made with white radish because don’t get the pink one. But here in the cities, we tried to use the pink ones and realised that it tasted much better. The white one is very sharp and has a peculiar smell, whereas the pink ones are milder and also add a pop of colour to the plate.”

The quintessential Symbai spread consists of 12 to 15 items and the prep for a pop-up takes an entire day. The format is something they like to play around with –  community-style dining, course-wise dining, or even a thali.

The Khasi community is traditionally not a dessert-eating tribe. In fact, they don’t even use sugar. Jaggery or honey are the sweetening agents used in their preperations. “For dessert, we had to come up with something new and yet stick as close to our tradition as possible,” says Daphi. Thus, the dessert that was born out of tweaking a tea-time snack that features yam and honey. The other option they have is sticky rice with malai and honey – “We eat this back home, usually with a dollop of jam.”

Food in the Warjri household

A memory that reminds Daki of her home and the food she ate was a simple potato dish made by her grandmother. “She would cook the potatoes in a garlic, onion, and turmeric tadka. It’s so simple but nobody has been able to replicate that dish.”

As a baker, Daphi’s favourite has to be the shortbread cookies her mum baked during Christmas every year. She fondly recalls her grandmother making golden, fried bread balls – similar to the East Indian fugiyas – that she still drools over.

Symbai sisters Khasi cuisine

Photos: Symbai

After an hour of learning about Khasi cuisine and culture, the whistle had us go back to the kitchen where we were welcomed with the aroma of the Black Sesame Pork – a quintessential Khasi dish. While we thought we got a crash course of Khasi cuisine, the Symbai sisters prove us wrong. “There are so many ways people are cooking and eating food, that there is so much to explore and understand in terms of our regional food,” they sign off.