The simple yet complex flavours of Naga food

An ongoing food pop-up brilliantly showcases the diverse ingredients that make up Nagaland’s cuisine

July 27, 2019 02:42 am | Updated 02:42 am IST

Nagaland’s cuisine, is usually clubbed under ‘North Eastern Cuisine’ with the rest of the seven sister states. This is a disservice, because it’s distinct, from other North East cuisine. Karen Yepthomi of the Dzouka Tribal kitchen is helming an ongoing food festival in the city, that’s a must visit for those who love heat, simplicity and complexity in their dishes. “[Nagaland’s] local cuisine stands out in terms of taste as well as variability,” says Yepthomi. A visibly excited Chef Paul Kinny, Culinary Director at St Regis, says “A lot of research, hard work and excitement has gone into this festival.”

Naga cuisine is simple in its meal composition – indigenous red and other rice varieties are central to the diet and eaten either boiled or steamed accompanied by a meat dish of some kind (either fresh, smoked or dry), boiled vegetables (a simple soupy dish to neutralise fat from the meats and wash down the meal) and assorted condiments (largely fermented food and or chilli based) to spice things up. The complexity lies in the staggering diversity of ingredients. Rice, meat, fish, molluscs, crustaceans, arachnids, and a plethora of home grown and foraged vegetables, dried, preserved and fermented foods, indigenous herbs and spices are all available in the Naga kitchen. A typical meal includes a meat dish, and sometimes even simple dishes may have a chunk or two of meat added for flavour. There are no dainty bite-sized offerings; meat dishes unapologetically boast large, chunky pieces of meat. Big cubes of pork, with chunks of fat is de rigueur. Add to that a variety of sun dried and smoked meats preserved for use all-year round.

As side salads, the ubiquitous ‘boiled vegetables”– literally vegetables boiled with hint of salt, at most, so their real flavour prevail. These vary from cabbage, long beans, and gourds to seasonal greens cooked individually or in combinations. Yepthomi showcases vegetables admirably, her salad of Red Flint Corn Salad combined slightly fruity kernels of corn bursting with flavour with subtle heat from Raja Mirch and Naga garlic. It’s a cuisine that uses little or no oil at all, instead employing culinary techniques that bring out the natural juices and fats of vegetables and meats. A dish that underlined this, was the Smoked Chicken with Naga Ginger, which brilliantly combined smoky flavours with aromatic spicy notes of Naga ginger.

It’s Naga cuisine’s deftness with flavours which is integral to dishes and yet does not overpower the flavours of vegetables or meats. Most often, dishes literally, boil down one or two specific ingredients added for flavour such as Pumpkin curry with Napa (Wild Lemon Basil) or Yam with dried Roselle flowers. The Naga cook has access to a staggering variety of indigenous spices, herbs and flavourings. Yepthomi showed me ingredients such as momg-monm (Naga variety of Sichuan peppercorn), Naga ginger, garlic (Chinese onion) raja mirch and more that she uses. One of the standout dishes was Rosep Aon, which is assorted vegetables, beans, greens, karela cooked with likok a kind of bitter brinjal, bamboo shoot vinegar and chilli. Full of texture and flavour, the bitter notes worked like a palette cleanser between bites of other dishes.

Another vital element is fermented flavours. From axoni (pronounced Akhuni) to bastenga (fermented bamboo shoot), fish and lots more is fermented – to be used in dishes as well as to make chutneys and condiments. A classic condiment is the axoni and raja mirch chutney. In direct contrast to all the simple cooking, subtle flavourings and hero ingredients is the flamboyant Naga love for fiery heat. The state is home to the legendary raja mirch (aka bhoot jolokia / ghost pepper), and other less potent members of the capsicum genus. These add serious oomph, sometimes in small measure to dishes like a pomelo salad. Most meals will always have a condiment or two made with chillies. A mind blowing (literally and figuratively) Naga Raja Mircha and Yard Long Bean chutney was on offer when I visited. I am told that the rotating menu promises a few more through the festival. It’s yet another reason to go back for a second taste of unforgettable Naga food.

The Heritage from Nagaland cuisine festival is ongoing at The Seven Kitchens at St. Regis, until July 28.

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