How does one begin to describe the taste of akhuni? The Japanese, who revel in describing the indiscernible, have a word for it, umami, a pleasant “brothy or meaty” taste which leaves a long-lasting, mouthwatering and coating sensation on the tongue.
Akhuni is, without doubt, the most popular fermented product of Nagaland. A soya-bean dish, it is made year round by people of all tribes, but most notably by the Sema tribe of southern Nagaland. At the wood-panelled, prayer-flagged confines of The Blue Poppy restaurant in central Kolkata’s Sikkim House, Naga-style pork curry served with akhuni chutney is one of the most popular items. Doma Wang, who has been running this Tibetan restuarant for almost a decade, explains why akhuni chutney is an acquired taste. “It has a pungent smell, which most people find offensive. But once you get used to it, you can truly appreciate the flavours,” says Wang.
The metropolis, which has served as the gateway to Northeastern India for centuries, has woken up to the idea of savouring delicacies from the region only in the last few years. “Now people are more exposed. They know that the minimalistic flavours of Northeastern cuisine are actually quite evolved,” says Wang.
Sushmit Roy Chowdhury, who works with KPMG in Delhi, had all the common reservations about Northeast food before he first tried Naga food at Rosang Cafe, a popular restaurant in Green Park Extension, New Delhi. “I had heard dog meat is very popular in Nagaland as are bugs. When I first tried akhuney chutney and pork curry, I didn’t know how to react. It was an explosion of unfamiliar flavours,” says the self-confessed foodie. Now he visits the restaurant at least once every month.
So what is it about Northeastern food that is catching the fancy of foodies from across the country? The answer is probably simpler than we think. It’s the quality and freshness of ingredients that sets the cuisine apart. “The region’s climatic conditions as well as geography help assure the produce is of outstanding quality. Whether it’s the pork and chicken and the myriad edible fungi, or the sticky rice and the various herbs, they are all unspoilt,” says New Delhi-based chef Sabyasachi Gorai, who has worked extensively with food from the region. Since the food is made with fresh produce using simple techniques, it suits the health-conscious, too.
“Farm-to-table is a term being bandied about a lot. In India, the Northeast best exemplifies the ‘trend’. It has definitely contributed to the popularity,” says Manish Mehrotra, executive chef at Delhi’s Indian Accent. There’s another key to the flavour: Fermentation, says Delhi-based food writer Caroline Rowe. “Apart from the need for preservation, continued…