I have often confessed my love for Naga food. It is, to my mind, among India’s best cuisines—tart, fiery and mild in turn, suffused with the flavours of the mountains and forests of the Naga tribes scattered across the North-East. My most memorable meals have been in Nagaland—especially Sümi Naga pork, with the treasured, fermented soybean called axone, with a dried-fish and bhut jolokia (among the world’s spiciest chillies, if you did not know) chutney and pink rice.
After eating my way through one part of Nagaland on a motorcycle ride a few years ago—the roads were rough and hostile, diametrically opposite to the kind and disciplined people—I crossed over into Manipur. After two meals, I reckoned the varied cuisines of this small, turbulent state were almost as good as the food of the Nagas, who also inhabit parts of Manipur. Khasi and Assamese food run them close but I would broadly pick Naga and Manipuri cuisines as my favourites. Sorry, but the spice-soaked cuisines of Gangetic and peninsular India are, in my estimation, a grade below.
Down south in Bengaluru, Naga or Manipuri food is not easy to come by. There are a few family-run restaurants but braving the city’s notorious traffic—and now covid-19—to reach them are not enthralling experiences. So I was excited a few months ago when regular weekend supplies of home-cooked food from Manipur (mostly Tangkhul Naga), Nagaland, Mizoram and Sikkim were made available through an outfit I have mentioned before, the 12/2 kitchen run by Sonali Singh. Apart from encouraging home chefs, she is also kind enough to send me food samples and ingredients now and then.
Last week, she sent me ingredients from Manipur: ginger flowers, of which I knew nothing, some tree tomatoes—sharp and tart—leaves of the lomba plant, four fiery bhut jolokias and cilantro, which had an almost smoky flavour, with long leaves. The centrepiece were the ginger flowers—buds, really—which looked like they had been painted a bright green and edged with yellow.
I scratched my head a bit and asked Manipuri friends and acquaintances for advice. I was told to add them to a pumpkin curry, a pork stew; dice, mash or stir-fry them; use them as garnish; make a chutney with dried fish and bhut jolokia; or peel the outer layers and use the buds in pork, beef or chutney.
I did what I tend to do when I get a lot of fine advice: take the best of it and do what I feel is right.
Obviously, I was not going to produce the kind of food they do in Mokokchung or Ukhrul, so why try to be authentic? I only had broiler, but it would have to do. I had run out of dried fish, but a vegetarian chutney would surely be welcomed by that part of the family.
For a moment, the stew and chutney took me back to one of the simplest but finest meals I have had, at the Ema Keithel, or mother’s market, in Imphal. My cooking isn’t anything like theirs. Kindly adjust.
CHICKEN STEW WITH GINGER FLOWER
Half kg chicken with bone, cut into small pieces
10 ginger-flower buds, sliced fine
10 ginger-flower stalks, chopped (for garnish)
One-third of a bhut jolokia (yes, that is one-third of one chilli)
10 garlic cloves, smashed in a mortar-pestle
A few leaves of Manipuri cilantro, chopped
3-4 tree tomatoes, sliced (replace with cherry tomatoes)
1 small onion, quartered and peels separated
2 tsp sesame oil
2 cups water
For the marinade
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp light soy sauce
1 tsp dark soy sauce
Salt to taste
Marinate the chicken and set aside for an hour. In a non-stick wok, gently heat the sesame oil. Add garlic, bhut jolokia and sauté for a minute. Add onion, sauté for 2 minutes, then add tomatoes. Add chicken and toss until it starts to brown. Add ginger-flower buds and cilantro, sauté for a minute. Add the water, reduce heat and cover until the chicken is cooked, about 20 minutes. Garnish with ginger-flower stalks and serve with rice, preferably black or pink.
GINGER-FLOWER, GARLIC AND BHUT JOLOKIA CHUTNEY
Makes a medium-size bowl
8 ginger-flower buds
6 garlic cloves
1 tsp sesame oil
One-third bhut jolokia
3-4 tree tomatoes, sliced and grilled (you can use cherry tomatoes)
Salt to taste
Place all the ingredients in a mortar pestle and pound into a rough paste. Serve with stew or as an accompaniment.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.