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.
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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, the lack of salt as a flavour enhancer has led to a love for fermentation as a technique, which transforms the food’s flavour, longevity and nutritional benefit,” she says.
Close to Rosang Cafe, where Roy tried the cuisine for the first time, is Nagaland Kitchen. The restaurant has its roots in the Naga food stall at Dilli Haat and is owned by Nagaland native Chubamanen Longkumer and his sisters, Washimenla and Tuluyinla. While the Naga section is just two pages of the menu (the remainder being Chinese and Thai), it’s fairly intense. Pork, chicken, seafood and even dried eels are available in myriad styles.
Northeastern food has never been hotter in Delhi. Several regional restaurants have set up shop in recent months while previously established eateries, such as Dzukou (which shut down its Hauz Khas Village premises to cross the road and open up in Hauz Khas Market) and Bamboo Shoots Kitchen, are experiencing an increase in both the size and demographic of their clientele.
Same is the case in Pune, which has a 35,000-strong Northeastern population. According to Rajib Borkataki, general secretary of Assam Cultural Association of Pune (ACAP), Pune saw a slew of Northeastern food festivals in the last few years. “We had organised a special food festival in January, and other than Assamese, there were specialities from Manipur, Mizoram and Khasi. The stalls were quite a hit,” he says.
Mumbai has a different story to tell. Tucked in a noisy bylane of suburban Kalina, is Mumbai’s only Northeastern eatery, King Chilli Chindian. It could be mistaken for a regular Indian-Chinese joint serving greasy Chinese food that has been perfected by innumerable roadside eateries in the country. The restaurant offers Manipuri dishes like Harsa Kasathei, chicken salad made with boiled chicken and garnished with raw onion, lime juice and generous portions of the raja mirchi, khaiko kasathei, a dry fish salad for which fish is shipped all the way from Manipur, and Alangsa, a stew-like preparation made of beef offal.
Henmi Ningshen started catering from home when he first moved to Mumbai in 2004, before setting up King Chilli three years ago.
“We eat really spicy food. However, if the meat preparation is extremely spicy, we balance it out with mild steamed rice, mashed potatoes and chicken salad,” says Ningshen. Most of their publicity is through word-of-mouth. “Food blogging is big in Mumbai and people are really interested in Northeastern food these days,” says Ninghshen. It’s only a matter of time before the city takes to the cuisine the way the rest of the country seems to have.