Ngari is what i consider the soul of Manipuri cuisine considering that almost all the signature dishes of Manipuri cuisine have ngari as the basic ingredient.
For the uninitiated, ngari is nothing but fermented fish. Ngari is prepared from sun dried phabou nga (Puntius) by fermenting in specially made earthen pots called kharung using traditional techniques.
The finished product is what you see in the picture above – not the prettiest of sights nor the most pleasant smelling but treasured all the same. Ngari is very much an acquired taste but once acquired, it is hard to forgo. Ask any Manipuri (or non-Manipur from Manipur who has had a taste of ngari) and you will know what i am talking about. It would be hard to find a household in Manipur (and even outside) without ngari in the pantry. It is one of the things never lacking in a kitchen, like salt.
Ngari is steamed or roasted and used in the preparation of Manipuri delicacies like eromba, singju, kangsoi, kaangsu to name a few. The smell of ngari is, to put it mildly, pungent (though most Manipuris would swear there is something comforting about the smell of roasted ngari) and needs a little (OK, a lot) of getting used to.
i love to call ngari the stinking gold, because for some Manipuris (like my husband) who stay outside Manipur (and thus deprived of an easy way of procuring this precious commodity), ngari is as precious as gold. If he had his way, i suspect my husband would keep the ngari under lock and key and count them before he retires to bed just to ensure i have not used more than the required quantity. Since you cannot get ngari outside Manipur (though some people say the shutki mach or dried fish sold in Bangladeshi shops can be used as substitute but it is a poor substitute), you have to depend on the stock you smuggle from home (packed in airtight container, wrapped several times in aluminium foil – i shudder to think how the sniffer dogs at the airport would react if they caught a smell of the ngari!) or ‘borrowed’ from friends just returned from a trip back home.