In this, the first part of our North-East Foodie series, we bring to you popular dishes from the beautiful state of Nagaland.
Once upon a time, the green and misty hills of Nagaland saw their warring tribes mount their horses and ride away to glory. From headhunting tribes to the ones with distinctive facial tattoos as well as earrings made of animal bones, this state is a buffet for cultural and history enthusiasts.
While the 16 tribes have relatively trickled down in their presence, they still live on and so does their food which is unlike anything served in other parts of India. Though most of the nation has heard of Nagaland’s infamous chillies such as Bhut Jolokia or Raja Mirchi (king chilli) and Naga Morich, after all these are some of the spiciest chillies not just in our country but in the entire world!
A staple Naga meal typically includes steamed rice, boiled vegetables and meat, all prepared with simplicity and spiced up with the aforementioned chillies and an array of unique chutneys/sauces – Kongshia Lon (Eel chilli sauce), Crab chilli sauce and Naga Gosht sauce. While the food has been overlapping tribal boundaries, it leaves an aroma that in its heat and haze spells out the state name loud and clear.
Here are some of the most popular dishes:
The name of the dish signifies perilla seeds (akino) cooked with snails (chokibo). Snails are not so popularly eaten in our country but are quite the delicacy in different parts of the world; in the West as escargots and within Southeast Asian countries they are considered edible in pretty much any state, even commonly consumed in their raw form.
Once the rice harvest season concludes, the paddy fields are scoured by farmers in a quest to find small snails. Though snails are used in multiple Naga dishes, the akini chokibo is prepared with snails as the central star in which the perilla seeds work akin to sesame seeds and occasionally the perilla leaves make an appearance to add just a touch of mint, much like the weather itself. So, who’s game to savour some snails?!
Bamboo Tube Fish
Bamboo can be found in almost every North-Eastern kitchen. In fact, this is an ingredient that you should expect in just about every food establishment from the region. The reason why this dish, in particular, stands out is because of its unusual method of preparation.
Unlike our regular styles of consuming bamboo, the groundwork of this dish involved stuffing the fish pieces inside the bamboo tubes. A pinch of spices are added to the fish following which it is let to cook inside the tubes over a slow fire. Once the fish is smoked, the then crunchy fish is actually put on your plate outside the bamboo with its woody, nutty and earthy flavours greeting your taste buds as you bite into the fish.
When in Nagaland, drink as the Nagas do! Back in the day, it was the favourite of the headhunting Angami tribe which merrily sipped on this indigenous rice beer. Today, however, you see the whitish drink being enjoyed in mugs during casual gatherings, celebrations and festivals, throughout the state. After an extensive fermentation process, this yeast infused beverage comes to you with its fruity aroma and subtly sour taste. It comes as no surprise that the fragrance draws comparison with the much-loved Japanese rice beer, sake. The contrast is in zutho’s consistency which is similar to a finely beaten porridge. The drink’s potency can vary but it certainly leaves you feeling warm, both with its taste and on good days, with the company.
Pork is to Nagaland what gunpowder is to South India; hell, it is what aloo is to samosa! Such is the intrinsic involvement of pork in Naga cuisine. Their favourite meat is cooked into an uncountable number of dishes, such as smoked pork, dried pork, fermented pork, pork stew, etc., to the point that some vegetable curries though absent in meat, still pave the path for the presence of pork fat, in which the fresh veggies are then cooked. As someone who has relished pork in Thailand and Vietnam, I would still rank the pork curry of Nagaland above all. Meet my favourite in this state’s cuisine, a bowl full of flavour with either fermented soya-bean or fermented bamboo and chunks of chillies and onions. The tender meat is so spicy yet lip-smacking that even as you feel the heat from the chillies, you won’t be able to stop yourself from biting further and further. I even suspect that the rice is a companion to this dish simply to ease the taste, something one will highly appreciate because the gravy too is quite a burst of flavours.
Dear vegetarian reader, if you were worried by the sheer glorified presence of meat in the discussed cuisine, akibiye is here to save the day! Well, first and foremost, the state really does have pretty limited options for the non-meat-eaters. However, akibiye is a chance to dig into the delectability of this basic and piquant cooking system. It involves the coming together of colocasia roots and bamboo shoots. Interestingly, Naga cooking very rarely wastes any part of an ingredient so at times you even find the stems and leaves of colocasia being utilised and made edible quite effectively. The akibiye has a thick gravy, blessed with the trademark Naga spices; a dish for which we have the red and white attire clad Sema tribe.
When you try the cuisine of this state which has been shrouded in mystery for years, what strikes you straight away is how simple their preparations are. A handful of ingredients are what they pick out, but convert it into quite an appetizing meal with their careful play between spices, locally grown herbs, vegetables and of course, their adoption of scrumptiously cooked meat. Added to the layer of deliciousness is the fact that the food is mostly quite healthy on account of the style of cooking. I for one have always been a firm believer that the food of a place is also key to understanding or familiarizing oneself with a land’s culture or identity.
This applies in the present case also because the simple and spicy food reflects in the personalities of Naga folks who lead simple lives but are quite a dash of fiery too.