Long before the film Axone happened (streaming on Netflix right now), it was at a north-eastern India food festival in a luxury hotel in Kolkata that I had my first introduction to axone (or akhuni), in chutney form, which was kept as a garnish on the buffet table. The slightly strong flavour of the fermented soybean and the sharpness of the chilly that went into the chutney left my uninitiated taste buds a little puzzled that day. The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity writes in its website that fermenting soybeans is common among the indigenous people of many north eastern states of India, who appreciate its umami flavour, ‘though those unfamiliar with the product may find it difficult to describe its taste’. But when I found myself enjoying a plate of vegetable stew spiced with axone at a restaurant during a later visit to Nagaland, I realised I liked it after all.
Made with naturally fermented soybeans, “Axone is one of the most popular ingredients for dishes in Nagaland,” said Khevito Elvis Lee, chef and owner of Delhi’s Hornbill restaurant, a mecca for Naga food in the national capital.
According to Imnasangla Imsong, who teaches in a college and also runs Naga Food Delicacy in Dibrugarh (Assam), it tastes best when prepared from the particular variety of soybean which grows in the higher altitudes of Nagaland where the weather is cold.
The seeds of the mature beans are soaked and boiled until they are soft but still whole. Then the water is drained and the soybean is mashed slightly. A handful of the mashed paste is scooped up and placed in the centre of a banana leaf, and wrapped in it. The package is stored next to the fire for a few days, maybe a week. When the colour darkens and it gives a strong flavour, the axone is ready for use. The name is derived from two words, ‘axo’ meaning ‘aroma’ and ‘ne’ meaning ‘deep’.
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Axone is fermented soya bean cakes that are used to make Akhuni pickle or added to meat dishes to enhance their flavour. It is first boiled then fermented and then packed in leaves and smoked over the kitchen fire for several days. This process develops a strong robust flavour in the beans. These beans are quite high on umami making the dishes extremely tasty when added in the right quantity. Because it is fermented it has a very pungent smell that might put off certain people but once you taste it in dishes made with it you start to appreciate it. It is quite a staple with the people of Nagaland and the Sema tribe is usually credited for making the best Akhuni. Sumi dialect has a typical accent among the Nagas... other tribes cannot pronounce some certain vocabularies and letters of sumi, so in the process while attempting to pronounce AXONE, for their convenient sake they started to use Akhuni and akhuni has no meaning at all. Every Nagas knows Axone was originated from Sumi community...it was, is and still widely used by Sumi. To know more watch my video on YouTube link is in bio. #Akhuni #Axone #nagaland #KunalKapur #TravelWithKunal #robust #northeast #umami #flavour #taste #tasty #food #foodporm #foodie #travel #breakfast #dinner #tribe #sema #sumi #community #strong #india #naga #axone
“Although originally part of the culinary repertoire of the Sumi tribe of Nagaland, it is now one of the most popular ingredients for dishes in Nagaland,” said Lee. “Similar to the masala we add to curries elsewhere, it is a popular ingredient in the state for making curries and chutneys. It's used round the year.”
Axone can be used for cooking meat, fish and vegetables. In Naga cuisine, it is usually used to cook pork curries, such as Awoshi Kipki Ngo Axone (smoked pork cooked with axone). “In the earlier days, it was used with dried pork,” said Imsong, “but now people use fresh pork too.”
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What was once known to people of Nagaland and the north eastern states travelled to other parts of the country, especially as young people from the state set out for metro cities for higher education and jobs. For them it was a reminder of home, a comfort food in a culturally different land.
“The problem with axone is that it gives off a strong smell during cooking,” said Raja Joy Phookan, a lawyer and a passionate foodie who runs the Shillong Point restaurant (essentially serving Khasi food) in Kolkata, something which can be compared to the pungent aroma that emanates during the cooking of ‘shutki maach’ (Bengali for dried fish). Many find this overpowering aroma of axone difficult to accept. (I recalled how we would clear out of the house when my grandmother used to cook shutki maach but return to devour the dish at meal time). Dishes cooked with axone do feature on his restaurant’s menu and is ordered by many customers, who are not necessarily from the north-eastern states, added Phookan with a smile. But it can be an acquired taste for many, he added.
According to Lee, Naga food has evolved a lot in the past few years. People have been travelling to Nagaland, especially during the famous Hornbill Festival, and getting acquainted with the local food. Many patrons turn up at his restaurant asking for axone and other dishes they sampled in Nagaland. “So I believe it has really become popular, and down the line, I see not only Naga dishes but traditional cuisine from all the north eastern states flourishing,” concluded Lee.
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According to the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, on the international culinary map, axone is ‘somewhat similar to products like natto in Japan, chungkok-jang in Korea and thua-nao in Thailand’.