There are alterations in the same recipe as one travels through the state simply because the various tribes may have evolved it differently.
Naga food isn’t the fiery version that most of us imagine it to be. It’s subtle, nuanced and aromatic with herby and earthy notes.
It is a sad reflection of the deep-rooted ignorance that we live in our own country when most of us can think of pizzas, pastas and even sushi and ramen as comfort food, but are utterly flummoxed when it comes to the cuisines of the north-eastern states. I am equally at blame here and sincerely doubt that, barring a handful of the most prolific of food writers in our country, the rest of the fraternity can tell their Akhuni from their Anishi.
So when the team behind Nagaland’s Kitchen at Green Park Market offered to serve me lunch, I more than imposed on them by asking them to feed not just my hunger, but also my ignorance.
Manen Longkumer, the owner, has come a long way since he first started a Naga food stall at Dilli Haat, one which, save for a slight location change, is still running. In the pre-pandemic era, the swanky Green Park outpost was a place that introduced many a Delhiite to their first taste of Naga food in a fine setup, one where you could use a fork to pick up the Naga chilli chicken and not be scowled at. “Naga food is popular because of its variety,” Longkumer shared with me. “Of course, it is also the best!” he added with a shy chuckle.
There is a certain way that dishes are prepared, but it isn’t formulaic like French mother sauces. There are alterations in the same recipe as one travels through the state simply because the various tribes may have evolved it differently. “As long as you use all the right ingredients, it is okay. For example, we need to use Naga ginger, basil and various other herbs in our cooking. Using the local ginger here would simply not be authentic,” he said.
Also, Naga food isn’t about oils and masala. The richness you may find in a dish is often the fat that comes from the meat itself. And contrary to the Raja Mircha aka Naga/Cobra Chilli aka Bhut Jolokia-inspired notoriety, I found Naga food to be very subtle and nuanced, aromatic with herby and earthy notes. Bamboo shoot featured fairly often as did other local greens and seasonal vegetables. Even the leaves of the Naga black pepper plant are used in cooking. Sure, the chefs can turn the heat up on any dish you like, but it isn’t the way that all locals eat. “We do use the Naga chilli for flavour, but are careful not to overdo it,” he said. Homely Naga food isn’t the fiery version that us Northies keep imagining it to be. A good parallel would be how the English have reimagined and ruined the vindaloo!
Fermentation and pickling is common and smoking meats ‘is a way of life and done in every household’. And just like with any evolved cuisine, provenance matters here too. For example, the wood used to smoke meats imparts a particular flavour to the final curry, which can not be replicated by simply using smoked game or fish from another part of the world. And the Scoville intensity of the Naga chillies isn’t the same throughout the state, so that too affects flavours.
The food that was delivered to me was mostly pork dishes, mainly because I ordered so, but also because, as Longkumer smirkily put it, “We have vegetable dishes, but most often, they are cooked with meats in them.” That said, the Rosep Aon is a lovely vegetable broth using seasonal local veggies.
Nagaland’s Kitchen is not open for dine-in, but is delivering all through this quasi-lockdown and I will definitely order again, feeling a lot wiser and informed the second time around. The flavours, although unique and novel, were still easy to adopt, including the fermented ones. And I encourage you to do so too. Only fair that if we can ace Dalgona coffees and thin-crust pizzas, we also learn a bit about “new” cuisines from our own nation!
The writer is a sommelier