Eat Like a Local: Nagaland

Eat Like a Local: Nagaland
Stir fried pork Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Fresh herbs and hearty meats characterise Naga cuisine

Siddharth Ganguly
May 21 , 2020
08 Min Read

Naga culture finds richness in diversity. 16 major tribes reside within Nagaland and each has its own unique, idiosyncratic way that make it special, extending to the food as well. Meaty, hearty, and fresh are three words that embody Naga cuisine, but what makes it so special?

Beware of the Naga King Chili


The Best Ingredients
Naga food relies heavily on the quality of the ingredients used. The complex spices that many cuisines across India are famed for are eschewed in favour of fresh, high-quality herbs like ginger (ginger grown in Nagaland is pinkish and particularly pungent), garlic, and the notorious ‘Bhut Jolokia’ or ‘Ghost Pepper,’ which draws people to test their pain threshold in King Chilli-eating competitions during Nagaland’s Hornbill Festival. Other important natural ingredients are the bamboo shoot, which provides a subtle fresh flavour to the dishes as well as colocasia, which can be cooked into dishes or even used to make condiments. Additionally, oil is rarely used and meats are generally smoked or cooked in their own lard, preserving the flavour as well as keeping all the food at the table as nutritious as possible.

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How it’s Made
Lilia Jimomi, who runs the food blog ‘food_is_joy’ on Instagram, says that the “unique process of fermenting, smoking, and preserving food items” is another speciality of Naga food. The flavours that result from these processes are unique, such as the Sumi speciality of “Axone” or fermented soybean. The fermentation adds a pungent flavour to the bean as well as a rich, umami taste which is often used with pork.

Fermented soybean paste ‘Axone’

‘Anishi’ is another unique ingredient made by first fermenting colocasia (arbi) leaves and stems and then wrapping the partially fermented ingredient in banana or plantain leaves and baking over a fire. The result is a sort of cake of Anishi that can be used as a condiment in other dishes.
What is important to keep in mind is that each tribe and even each household has distinct means and methods that make their food unique, so no two Naga dishes are likely to be the same.

Some Star Dishes

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Among the plethora of mouthwatering delicacies that Naga cuisine has to offer, the one that seems to unanimously take the cake is Smoked Pork with Axone. Ati, a home cook and food blogger (check out Oyasumami) claims that this dish is “something that every Naga would die...No, every Naga would kill for.” The pungent smell of the Axone may be an acquired taste for anyone trying it for the first time, but the umami flavour it imparts to the sumptuous pork is unlike any other preparation. Sumi food blogger Sulimi of ‘nl_nilibe’ recommends pairing this with Ayekibe, a preparation of boiled mixed vegetable leaves mashed with colocasia tubers, just to add some delicious greens to go with the hearty pork.
Sulimi also lists down Penchunghan, which is pork or beef cooked with black sesame, along with Machihan, another side dish made from mixed vegetables and fermented fish. This Lotha speciality is a must try.

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Ati from Oyasumami also mentions pork in bamboo shoot as ‘a dish that can be found in every household at least once a week.’ The freshness and aroma of the bamboo cuts through the fatty pork, although it's important not to use too many herbs so as to preserve its subtle flavour. All these hearty dishes can be washed down with a glass of ‘Zutho’, a fermented rice beer which is a speciality of the Angami tribe and usually consumed during times of celebration and festivities. However, Nagaland is a dry-state and, according to Ati, the tradition of Zutho is waning.

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The catalogue of delicious Naga dishes extends far beyond the scope of this article, each dish more appetising than the last. The variations and specialities deserve to be fully explored in this fascinating cuisine. Try it for yourself and use these dishes as a guide to eat like a local.

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