“You are a Naga, why don’t you make some Naga food?”
“ummok. But which dish?”
“Pork and bamboo shoot, silly! You can put some Raja mircha, but don’t make it too hot.”
It was a friendly conversation. But it hurt. I always have a difficult time explaining that you cannot pin down ‘Naga food’ to one or two signature dishes. Nagaland, with 11 districts and 17 different tribes, is a wonderful cornucopia of different cultures and so is its cuisine. If pork and bamboo shoots and Raja Mircha (as the bhut jalokia or the ghost chilly is known in Nagaland) have caught your fancy, it is because these are popular ingredients also found in other cuisines; few chefs have dared to take the cuisine of the various tribes outside the state because some of the signature dishes would be an acquired taste for people outside Nagaland.
It is only over the past few years that Nagaland and its cuisine has caught the fancy of the global traveller. A large part of the credit goes to the Hornbill Festival (held from December 1-10 every year), which has been a curtain-raiser for the vibrant cultures of the hill-tribes, and of course, the food. Even a little over a decade ago, the reaction to ‘Naga food’ was very different—the ‘unwelcoming’ kind if I may say so. Many believed that the Nagas have a very ‘questionable’ palate—they devour not only animals and birds but also bugs and crawlies, amphibians, rodents etc. Outside Nagaland, I was even asked on many occasions if it was true that some Naga tribes were still cannibals! I would only laugh at their ignorance and shrug my shoulders!
The various tribes of Nagaland have been closely dependent on nature through the ages. Living off the land has never been a problem for them. Therefore, at the local markets, you will find edible water beetles, silk worms, edible snails (locally known as hamuk) from paddy fields and rivers/streams, crabs, grasshoppers, eels, field mice etc. You will also spot broods of honey bees and ants (a bit on the costlier side).
Of course, nothing beats the kitchen camaraderie seen at Naga homes—family and friends gathered around a warm and cozy fireplace and sipping black tea; women preparing either lunch or dinner; meat being smoked. A home kitchen is where the best of traditional Naga food is prepared. But for those without access to Naga homes, there are some very good restaurants in Dimapur and Kohima.
For the uninitiated, when in Nagaland, begin your culinary journey at Dimapur. Eros Lane in Dimapur, not far from Bluehill (taxi and bus station) and the railway station, is a popular haunt of the locals as well as visitors in the know. There are several food joints run by different tribes; so each food joint has something unique to offer. But do not expect anything fancy. You will get traditional dishes at a pocket-friendly price, dishes that are staple at Naga homes. You can get a Naga thali (with a side of pork) for as cheap as Rs 120. Scattered around the city are some of the fancy restaurants. Some restaurants that stand out in Dimapur are Ethnic Table, Le Bistro, Beijing Restaurant and Bambusa. “If you eat pork, then do not forget to try Bambusa’s pork momos”, advised Renchano Humtsoe, a Dimapur resident. Also getting a thumbs-up from locals are chana-matar and anda chop.
Another local, Rongsen Temsu Tzudir, prefers Ethnic Table over others because “they don’t have a set menu; so you can have different dishes on every visit.” Chef Aketoli Zhimomi of Ethnic Table, the winner of Naga Chef, does not believe in restricting herself to a set menu. Instead she likes to cook with whatever fresh ingredients she can procure daily from the market. Depending on what she has got, she decides to prepare the day’s specials—mostly dishes prepared in the traditional way.
Kohima, 68 kilometres from Dimapur, is also well-known for its local market. If you are in Nagaland, especially for the Hornbill Festival, do not leave the state without trying zutho, the local rice beer (even though Nagaland is a dry state, worry not; you will find zutho being sold in the local markets). Big Bite—located in Jail Colony—is very popular with the locals. You can also drop in at Orami—My Kind of Place (located opposite NSF Martyrs’ Park, two kilometers away from the main town) for traditional Naga cuisine. Run by Asi Kera, Orami is arguably the finest restaurant in Kohima that serves authentic Naga cuisine. The interiors too have been kept earth-friendly and traditional—from the walls to the chairs, everything is made of bamboo; earthen pots, tribal paintings, mithun horns have been used for decoration. The menu is an interesting mix—from boar meat to edible worms to innards to the Orami special, wild berry tea. Winning the Kohima street food scene is Kevi’s Corner, located opposite the Naga Hospital. Run by Kevi Viswentso, it specialises in pork items; the pork momos are of course the bestsellers.
Travelling between Kohima and Dimapur, stop at Chapru, run by Richard Belho, a local entrepreneur. He is also an active promoter of the bamboo culture. Choose from a wide selection of dishes, ranging from crabs to snails to beef/pork/fish/chicken, all prepared in the traditional way.
Probably owing to their lifestyle, fermenting the food has been a typical practice among the tribes. Axoni or fermented soybean as well as dried and fermented fish are used as ingredients. Some tribe specials that you must try are the anishi—prepared from edible Colocasia leaf, it is a specialty from the Ao kitchen; mashed fish, stuffed and cooked inside a bamboo by the Lotha tribe; and the Konyak tribe’s star dish—yam cooked with smoked pork or beef. Those keen to further explore Nagaland’s varied cuisine can try pork cooked with snails and bamboo shoot. And then there is pork with axoni. A traditional Naga meal is incomplete without the chutney—made of raja mircha and fermented fish, and a side dish of boiled vegetables—cabbage, mustard leaves (lai patta), beans (French, pole, Lima etc.) and squashes.
Traditionally, the culture of eating out has not been prevalent in Nagaland, though a change is being noted in the cities these days. With dusk setting in early, most of the eating joints are shut by 6pm (especially in winters). Remember, the day breaks early in Nagaland. The weather is usually lovely at this time of the year. So why wait? Plan a trip to Nagaland and discover for yourself the many sides to Naga cooking. Bon appétit!