On a trip to Meghalaya in 2019, I found myself scouting the local markets for fermented bamboo shoots, native peppercorns and forest honey to bring back to my Mumbai home. My journey into the little-known, fascinating world of north-eastern cuisine had just begun.
For a long time, sourcing region-specific produce has been the single biggest hurdle for those keen to prepare north-eastern food at home. But, things are changing with several brands pushing themselves to provide an online marketplace pan India. If you are an experimental cook, and curious to explore the flavours of this faraway cuisine, here’s how you can start.
Pickles and sauces
Bamboo shoot and chilli peppers are probably the most familiar ingredients from this part of the country. Fresh or dried, fermented or pickled, bottled bamboo shoot can make for an interesting addition to your pantry. Guwahati-based Agraja started retailing this fresh and fermented produce last November, to showcase a wild variety of bamboo shoot found in Arunachal Pradesh. Chef Mary Narzary, who lives in Bhalukpong, a town on the Arunachal-Assam border, sources the prized shoots from the adjoining forests in the west Kameng district. Both the fresh as well as fermented chunks can be added to meats or vegetable stews and stir fries. Narzary also accepts pre-orders for pork pickles.
Buy: Agraja by KRH Food @agraja.assam on Instagram; ₹120 onwards for 240 gms
Also read | How bamboo shoot flavours the food of North-east
Roots Agro takes pride in small batch condiments such as Hot Bamboo Shoot pickle, and Naga Mircha hot sauce made with the GI-tagged King Chilli of Nagaland. “Our purpose is to focus on the fresh agricultural gems of the land, and celebrate them in their purest forms,” says founder Sentinaro Alley from Dimapur, who revamped the brand earlier this year. While the pickle adds that extra oomph to any meal, the hot sauce can be added to absolutely anything that needs heat. The flagship product, however, is a hot sauce made with the sweetest passion fruits from the picturesque Wokha district. The mild tang of the seedy fruit and fiery kick from Naga mircha make for a smack of a condiment to eat with fried fish, to make salad dressings and even spicy cocktails.
Buy: Roots Agro @rootsagro.shop on Instagram ₹199 for 60 gms (sauces); ₹235 for 165 gms (pickles)
Rice and grains
The rich biodiversity of rice from the frontier states of the north-east is finally having a moment. Heritage varieties such as joha saul from Assam, and black rice from Manipur, are now available pan India. “There's a homogeneity to rice that's easily available. We eat daily and it is just a bundle of starch,” says Chaya Bahirvani, who grew up in Shillong, and co-founded Pahari Roots with sister Bhavna Ahuja and friend Stephanie Marbaniang. The trio launched a selection of heirloom rice last September to showcase their nutritional goodness. There’s aromatic joha saul from Assam, white sticky rice from Meghalaya, red and black rice from Meghalaya and Manipur. The experimental rice-eater can cook a variety of everyday sweet and savoury dishes with them such as idli, dosa, biryani, pulao and kheer. Fans of South-east Asian cuisine can rustle up Buddha bowls, Thai mango sticky rice and rice fritters. The black rice can be used to make coconut puddings and dosas.
Buy: Pahari Roots @pahariroots.co.in on Instagram ₹250-550 (approx) for 1 kg
Also read | Growing heirloom rice, one grain at a time
In Nagaland, ilandlo has been assisting small businesses find their footing since 2014. The online aggregator is recommended by professional chefs and home cooks, who grew up in the region and settled outside for work, for its rare specialty products like smoked meats, and fermented items like axone and anishi. Dimapur-based founder Lipokjungla Ozukum says the demand for native foods, especially grains grown in the territory, have seen a surge during the pandemic. She works in the remote districts of the state to create a link with farmers cultivating rice, millets and local lentils such as kholar or kidney beans. The latter can be cooked like rajma, or made into a Naga stew with smoked pork and bamboo shoot.
Buy: ilandlo @ilandlo_official on Instagram ₹180 for 400 gms
Oils and spices
Cooking with heirloom spices has been made easy by The North East Store, an online platform that works with small entrepreneurs of the region. The Shillong-based aggregator has been on a mission to create a demand for the GI-tagged Lakadong turmeric of Meghalaya since 2019. Known for its high curcumin content (around 9-12%), this powerhouse of a spice comes from the farms of Trinity Saioo, who was awarded the Padma Shri in 2020 for leading the turmeric revolution in the west Jaintia Hills. Founder Catherine Dohling also takes pride in sourcing packaged outenga powder from community farmers in Majuli in Assam. The product is made from elephant apple (or wood apple), a tangy fruit used extensively as a souring agent in Assamese cuisine. The online store also stocks perilla seed that is considered to be a superfood, and commonly used in Korean cooking.
Buy: The North East Store @thenortheaststore on Instagram; ₹220 for 100 gms of Lakadong turmeric and outenga powder; ₹630 onwards for 500 gms of perilla seed
In September 2020, Manipur-based Hill Wild, a brand known for its artisanal chocolates, launched a range of products under ‘Taste Ukhrul’. “Since Covid had tested our limitations, we wished to use our local strengths in the Ukhrul district to shift the power to the affected farmers,” says founder Zeinorin Stephen. Apart from spices, seeds, salts and wild dried fruits, her main aim is to protect the ecosystem in these trying times. A few months ago, the team sold a small batch of seasonal toasted perilla seed oil that went on to become a huge success. “Our farmers had an abundant harvest, which meant we had to activate the seeds in other forms to prevent wastage,” informs Stephen. The earthy and nutty tones of the oil are perfect for noodles, soups and salads.
Hill Wild also boasts of packaged Sirarakhong chilli, a variety that grows in the Sirarakhong village, and received the GI tag recently for its unique appearance; the chilli can grow almost 9 inches long, and is favoured for its deep red colour. Its exclusivity inspired Stephen to develop an intensely flavourful Talui Chilli Garlic paste (seasonal), where she tied up with an entrepreneur from Talui, a town known for its vast garlic plantations. Use it as a condiment in stir fries.
Buy: Hill Wild @hillwild on Instagram; ₹400 for 250 gms of Sirarakhong chilli powder; ₹250 for 250 gms of Talui chilli garlic paste
Kombucha, tea and wine
Lanuakum Imchen, who grew up in Mokokchung in Nagaland, recalls eating scoby as a child. “Considering it has probiotic properties, my parents would often make it at home,” says the Dimapur-based founder of Cold Mountain, a brand that started retailing kombuchas in August 2020. After several experiments, and setbacks due to the pandemic, Imchen launched three flavours—hibiscus, mint (spearmint and peppermint) and tulsi. The brand is also known for its wide selection of white, red and green teas with interesting concoctions created with medicinal herbs and spices. Imchen has been working with around 3000 farmers across the state as well as from other parts of the north-east to create sustainable agricultural methods.
Buy: @coldmountaintea on Instagram; ₹200 for 330 ml of kombuchas; ₹155 onwards for 30 gms of teas
Lovi Achumi started Tsuipu, a brand that specialises in 100% natural fruit wines, from her home in the Zunheboto district of Nagaland. Made from hand-picked produce endemic to the region, Achumi boasts of wines processed from peach, plums, starfruits, gooseberry, grapes, ginger, kiwi, strawberries and pears. “The idea was to make wines beyond grapes,” says the Dimapur-based founder, who believes in experimenting with all-natural beverages, and uses honey in place of sugar. The purpose is to develop table wines that boast of nutritional value, she says.
Buy: Tsuipu Product @tsuipu_product on Instagram; ₹700-1000 (approx) for 750 ml
Feast from the East is a series that celebrates the culinary heritage of eastern and north-eastern India. Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based writer.