The proprietors of three Naga restaurants discuss their culinary journey
It is not uncommon to see a metropolis being referred to as a ‘melting pot’. It is a metaphor drawn from the world of food which refers to the equalising tendency of big cities — the way its various subcultures are subdued into a single homogenous broth.
But the city also abounds in examples of resistance, where difference is lived and celebrated daily. And one of the many ways it happens is through food.
At the recent Cultures of Peace festival, a discussion was organised to focus on Naga food in a session titled ‘Eating Women, Telling Tales’ (after Bulbul Sharma’s novel by the same name). Featuring three prominent restaurateurs — Washimenla and Tuluyinla Longkumer of Nagaland’s Kitchen, Adina Zhimoni of Bamboo Hut, and Karen Yepthomi of Dzukoe — the discussion, moderated by Sonal Shah of Time Out Delhi, shed light on the journey and reception of Naga food in the Capital.
Nagaland’s Kitchen started as a small joint in Dilli Haat 15 years ago. Although a popular destination with a few branches now, the early days were full of all sorts of awkwardness. For instance, the proprietors remember the customers’ inquiries about their nationality, and the accusations about them serving rotten food.
Separated by time and space, Dzukoe was started, much like Nagaland’s Kitchen, with the express aim of serving authentic Nagaland food. Located in Hauz Khas Village, Karen believed it would confer strategic benefits — namely a discerning bohemian audience with a high disposable income. But she was shocked when her neighbours, a restaurant specialising in Mediterranean cuisine, complained about the smell from their exhaust.
“The owner called me and said, ‘My customers are leaving because of the smells. Can you turn your exhaust, Karen?’ I said, ‘Can you educate your customers? We are not aliens.’”
Another question that the proprietors remember being asked initially is — ‘what is a momo?’ To explain, they had to say ‘something like a samosa.’
In creating points of reference for a wider clientele, the restaurants have had to dilute a little bit of their identity. Based in North Campus, Adina Zhimoni’s Bamboo Hut started as an ‘authentic’ Naga restaurant, but had to embrace a broader identity to woo its student clientele. “I kept it very authentic initially but I also realised the need for other options, so we decided to add momo and chowmein,” she says.
According to Tuluyinla, “Our vegetarian dishes are so boring that we had to put Chinese and Thai stuff on the menu.”
For a long time, the only way of talking about North-East food was through rumours. Although mostly outlandish, one rumour that has proven overwhelmingly true concerns the fire of naga chillies, or raja mircha.
It was the fiercest chilli known to man until recently, and has lately been a source of delight for Adina, who has seen many patrons try it despite her warnings, and grovel thereafter. Nagaland’s Kitchen has even invented a raja mircha vodka cocktail, whose novelty perhaps lies in making alcohol the less dangerous element.