Kinema—fermented flavours of Kirats and its historyFor Limbus, there is no other food that is more quintessential and defining than kinema.
The smell of kinema is strong—so strong that neighbours notice when you’re cooking it. Kinema, made by fermenting cooked soybeans, is a much-loved ethnic food of the Kirat community, chiefly Limbu and Rai, who inhabit the eastern hilly regions of Nepal. Strong flavours such as kinema’s are ingrained in their culture. A friend belonging to the community corrected me as soon as I noted its smell: “ganhauncha nabhannu na, baas auncha” (“It isn’t stinky; it has an aroma.”). Some may find it very unusual or even offensive, but for people growing up eating kinema, its smell and flavour is one that evokes nostalgia.
For Limbus, there is no other food that is more quintessential and defining than kinema. I knew about Japan’s natto and miso, and have enjoyed eating Indonesia’s tempeh, another style of fermented soybeans, before becoming aware of Nepal’s soy fermentation culture. It seems not many Nepalis are aware of it either. Soybeans, or bhatmas, are considered one of the oldest crops and fermenting them is one of the oldest food cultures of eastern Nepal. In the book History, Culture and Customs of Sikkim, Kirat historian Jash Raj Subba wrote that black soybeans were the first crop cultivated by Kirats (Limbus) according to Mundhum, an oral legends of Kirats. This centuries-old fermentation practice is largely contained within the community, and not yet acquired by other communities, as with some other Nepali foods.
Kinema comes from Limbu dialect ‘kinambaa’, in which ‘ki’ means ‘fermentation’ and ‘nambaa’ means ‘flavour’. It’s not exactly known when or how the fermentation method was introduced to eastern Nepal, but it seems likely to be a more-than 1,500-year-old tradition. Indian microbiologist Jyoti Prakash Tamang suggests kinema might have originated in east Nepal somewhere between 600 BC-100 AD, during the Kirat dynasty, and introduced by Limbus. Historical narrative mentioned that the Shan Mokwan people, originally from South China’s Yunnan region came to eastern Nepal, and established their own kingdom by 7th century and named themselves Yakthumba or Limbu. The culture of soybean fermentation could have been brought to Nepal by these people, and then spread to other communities and disseminated further east.
By the 3rd or 4th century, fermenting foods had become mainstream in the region, with the introduction of Buddhism leading to growing adoption of vegetarian food habits. Tamang proposed a hypothetical ‘KNT (Kinema-Natto-Thua Nao) triangle’, an extension of ‘Natto triangle’, by Japanese ethnologist Sasuke Nakao, which suggests that the sticky, stringy and non-salted soybean fermentation culture exists largely within the triangle covering Eastern Nepal, Northeastern India, Southern Bhutan, Northern Myanmar, South China, Japan, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. Nakao in his book The Origin of Foods suggested thon-salted fermented soybean might have originated from Yunnan, which also appears to be at the centre of hypothetical KNT triangle.
Kinema is also known by different names—chembihik, hokuma—by different Kirat communities. Along with their different names, there is slight regional variance in the process of making Kinema as well, but the process starts with soaking dried soybeans overnight, and boiling them over firewood until well-cooked. The cooked beans are drained and pounded to split them, and put in a bamboo basket lined and wrapped with a few layers of ferns, banana leaves, and/or other leaves. In some communities, they are pounded until they become a coarse paste. The idea is to increase the surface area for microbial activity. Some also sprinkle firewood ash over the cooked soybeans to make them more alkaline which makes for a more conducive environment for the fermentation. Then, the beaten soybeans are placed in a basket and kept in a warm place, usually near a wood oven, to help ferment the product.
The beans are then left to ferment for a day or two, by which time the beans turn into a stringy-sticky mass with a pungent ammoniacal smell. They are then generally sun-dried and stored for later use.
Food technologist Huma Bokkhim, who belongs to the community and has grown up eating kinema, explains that the white powdery stuff on the inside of a banana peel and fern leaves have rich microbiota that help in the fermentation process. “Unlike the controlled Japanese modern natto culture, the process of making kinema still is mixed-culture fermentation,” Bokkhim says. Bacillus subtilis is a dominant species in the fermentation process, but as mixed-culture has other microbes and yeasts, the fermentation of kinema is not as straightforward as pure or controlled culture, and that is what lends the complex flavour and pungent aroma in kinema. The sticky viscous material developed by Bacillus contains glutamic acid, a type of amino acid that is responsible for giving the kinema its umami and meaty flavours. Thanks to the bacillus species for their generous effort in converting a bland soybean into flavourful kinema. The more viscous the kinema, the more flavourful it is.
Kinema is also great in curry form. Usha Thangden, a friends’ mother, grew up in Tehrathum and now lives in Jhapa. She uses black soybeans instead of brown soybeans for making her kinema curry. She roasts the soybeans first before boiling them, which is very unique to her and different than the one taught by her mother. And everyone from her neighborhood to her relatives adore her kinema. It is usually cooked as a curry unlike in many regions where fermented soybeans are mainly used as a flavouring ingredient. For making curry, she soaks the dried kinema in warm water first. A little vegetable oil is heated in a pan, and green chilies, garlic paste, finely chopped onions and turmeric powder are added. Soaked kinema is then added and fried, which coaxes out the kinema’s pungency. Salt is then sprinkled, according to taste, then tomatoes are added, and finally water. Thangden uses the water she used to soak the kinema, so as to retain the flavour. This also reduces loss of water soluble nutrients. Then the kinema is cooked until it becomes tender. She recommends to add dill leaves or coriander leaves in the curry to add extra flavor. A dry achaar of kinema is also a favourite in her house. To make dry achaar, she suggests to simply pound dried kinema with garlic, chilies and salt.
Rekha Limbu (Rai), owner of Dharan Koseli Ghar, makes kinema to sell in the market and also occasionally supplies to Kathmandu. She learnt the skill from her aunt some seven-eight years ago. “I didn’t really like kinema when young, but as I grew up, I started missing its flavour. That nostalgia made me learn the process of making kinema,” she says. “I am sure that the culture of kinema won’t go away soon. I have been cooking for my children. They are not going to forget the taste and will be looking for it as I did.”
This culture of making kinema has lasted for centuries but it is a known fact that now fewer and fewer people are making it. Because there is a certain lapse in the transfer of knowledge from generation to generation, there is a chance that the tradition and idiosyncratic form of cuisine could be lost, which would not only be a tragedy for taste buds, but for Nepali and Kirat cultural diversity in general.