The cuisine of Nagaland is not a monolith. There are 16 Naga communities and each has its own signature dishes, distinct flavours and unique ingredients. The Lothas make exceptional fish, the Sümis are known for akhuni and the Aos celebrate noushi or anishi which is fermented yam leaves shaped into tablets and stirred into stews.
Chef Niyati Rao, co-founder of the Mumbai restaurant Ekaa, spent five days in Nagaland with her team last month. Their aim was to discover the immense sub-regional diversity of Naga cuisine which is unlike any other, and introduce it to their diners in a way that has never been experienced before. For instance, they have a dish, named Embers, that pays tribute to the technique of charcoal cooking in traditional Naga kitchens. The dish has fresh shiitake mushrooms, chicken gizzards dipped in a Naga spice glaze and cooked directly over charcoal for a rich flavour and served with unripe blueberries, Nagaland chives, fermented burnt chilly and garlic aioli. While introducing ingredients is one way to look at this interpreted menu, Rao was inspired by the cooking techniques in a traditional Naga kitchen. During her visit to Naga homes, she noticed most people used LPG as well as wood-fire to cook. The kitchens have a low area or a separate space with a fireplace and a grill or mesh is hung over it. Meat and akhuni wrapped in banana leaves is tied to this mesh and they are allowed to smoke for weeks and months.
Naga chef Salangyanger Jamir is collaborating with Rao for the pop-up and will bring a year-old smoked and cured pork. The dining experience, named Exploration of NAGALAND, will run from June 2-3. Jamir who was their food guide during the trip has a dish inspired by his mother’s cooking, named The Naga Mom. Itis the first course of two hearty soups with vegetarian and non-vegetarian options. While the former is Jamir’s mother’s chicken soup recipe served with a fried sweet pastry coated with a spicy meat powder, the latter contains purple rice with a fried sweet pastry coated in Naga king chilly powder.
“We were surprised to find the wider variety of vegetables in Nagaland. I started eating my vegetables again because of Naga cuisine,” says Rao. Her team discovered passion fruit leaves, michinga leaves which have a numbing sensation perfect for salads and stews and different types of eggplants. They found a thin variety that they fondly nicknamed finger eggplant. “You can just braise one, and eat it of the stem. It is that good,” she shares.
Jamir ensured the Ekaa team got to sample meats—from nose to tail—in all forms. Rao noticed most Nagas prefer to rear their poultry and pork at home. In Jamir’s house, where they were invited to cook, there were chicken and mallard ducks in the backyard.
She fondly recalls Apeno Aunty who runs the homestay, Pier Vantage, in Khonoma and introduced her to the akhuni of the Angami Naga community which is distinctly different from the more popular Sümi akhuni where the rajma beans are left whole and smoked. “If you have never tasted akhuni, I would recommend the Sümi version. The Angami akhuni is mashed, and it’s raw and primal. When you smell it, it has nuances of a Comté cheese rind mixed with a blue cheese rind,” she explains while highlighting sub-regional differences of an ingredient that’s integral to both sub-regional cuisines.
Apart from visiting homes of locals, they ate to their hearts fill at restaurants. She names The Naga Bowl and Naga Ambrosian, both in Dimapur, as restaurants to sample local fare. For the adventurous eater, Naga Ambrosian has an addictive crunchy pork intestine. For vegans and vegetarians, there are several options in both restaurants.
A food trip is incomplete without a foraging and they went looking for fiddlehead ferns. One of the most memorable experiences was exploring a local market, and chef Jamir took them to the Sunday market in the border of Nagaland’s Dimapur and Assam’s Karbi Anglong district. . “It was fantastic, because we got to see food from two different states,” she shares. It was the first time, her team saw the extract of the bamboo shoot that’s used for seasoning. They discovered varieties of perilla seeds and ant larvae that have been hauled back to Mumbai for the pop-up. There’s an entire course centered on perilla from Nagaland. Rao explains, perilla seeds of Nagaland serves the same purpose—of adding a creaming texture and nutty flavour—as poppy seeds which is prevalent in North Indian and Bengali cuisines. Jamir, who belongs to the Ao community, has brought the beloved noushi which will turned into mole, a Mexican iteration of a thick sauce, and will be served with a smoked pork.
Ekaa’s head mixologist, Jishnu A. J., was part of the team that travelled to Nagaland. He was awestruck by the making of the traditional rice beer, zutho. For the pop-up, he created a cocktail with the boozy drink.
Rao shares Nagaland holds a vast culinary database and they have just scratched the surface. “These are the growing up years for (the one-and-half-year-old) Ekaa, and being an Indian restaurant we need to explore. The pop-up is an attempt to understand what another community has to offer in a country of over billion people,” she says while explaining why they planned this trip. Rao firmly believes, that it is through sharing food one finds respect—and acceptance.