Be it zesty pork chops from Nagaland or a subtle voksa rep chhum(smoked pork with mustard leaves) from Mizoram combined with some fragrant wild red rice from Manipur, dishes from northeastern India are ample enough to fill your stomach and give you much food for thought.
According to Muan Tonsing, the owner of the Delhi-based Rosang Café, northeastern cuisine cannot be classified into a single category.
“Most people perceive northeastern food to be momos or noodles. My aim is to change that perception. Another misconception is that our food is very spicy. Again, that varies from dish to dish and taste to taste,” Tonsing said.
While Manipur is known for its fish dishes, Nagaland is better known for its bamboo and meat fare, while Mizorami cuisine is mainly boiled rather than fried and less spicy. Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, however, are more strongly influenced by our eastern neighbours like China and thus bring in their version of momos and noodles, but again without the influx of much spice. Tripura’s cuisine is evidently influenced by the mainland and is known for its masala fare. Assamese food can vary but again is well known for its tangy flavours brought in by extensive use of tomatoes and various citrus fruits.
Another stereotype one hears of the northeast is that it is difficult to get good vegetarian food. In reality, vegetables grown in the region are not only diverse but extremely tasty.
“We get some of our vegetables all the way from there, as they are mainly organic with no pesticides added. It adds to the cost of production but when it comes to the taste, nothing beats the authentic flavour of the northeast,” Tonsing asserted.
Special ingredients and certain spices such as the world renowned raja mirchi or bhut jolokia (Ghost Pepper), which is the hottest chilli in the world according to Guinness World records, is grown mainly in Nagaland and has to be flown in from the state.
Rosang may have been one of the first private restaurants catering to northeastern food to have opened up in the capital over 10 years ago, but since then multiple eateries have sprung up, highlighting a growing demand for this cuisine.
According to Ashish Chopra, the author of NE Belly, one of the first cookbooks on northeastern cuisine, the past few years have seen a dramatic change. “I have met people who have wrongly assumed that the food is unhealthy or smelly. Lots of effort is being made to change that mindset and bring this cuisine to the mainstream.”
The cuisine was introduced into the Delhi culinary circuit thanks to the migration of northeasterners. Little by little this picked up and suddenly from a single shop in Dilli Haat or liaison-cum-state guesthouses, there has been a spurt in the number of restaurants serving this cuisine. At one point in the recent past, one could not imagine a full-fledged Naga restaurant. Now that has changed. And not only have people in Delhi become more adventurous, but the cuisine itself is undergoing a metamorphosis or a fusion to cater to modern tastes.
The Raja Burger from the Dzukou Tribal Kitchen is one such fusion food which brings in Naga elements but is prepared in a style that would give any American burger a run for its money. According to owner and head chef Karen Yepthom, within the three years since she got into the food business, she has seen an amazing increase in the customer base, thus showing a growing demand for this cuisine.
“It is true that Naga food is known to be spicey, but our whole point is to try and maintain the authenticity while at the same time catering to different palettes. So if a customer wants it hot, so be it and if not, then that is how we will cook it. And this is why it works for everyone,” Yepthom said.
As for the stereotypes, one doing the rounds is that there is nothing that the Nagas don’t eat – dogs included.
“That is a common assumption, but it is not true. It is not like everything that moves finds its way into our cooking pots! Yes, there are particular tribes that eat dogs and other creatures like frogs but that is very rare and even that is slowly disappearing. I believe that people outside the northeast still need some awareness. Lot more needs to be done to highlight the variety of cuisine that is available,” said Lisapila (one name), PRO Tourism, Nagaland House.
Like Nagaland House, the state guest houses of each of the other northeastern states also have restaurants serving their home dishes at affordable prices. The only issues about going to one of these places could be a lack of variety in the menu and the waiting period for customers looking for a quick meal.
“We have seen people come here from all over the country and the world. They are curious to know more about our food and our culture. And if they can’t go all the way to the northeast to find out about it, this is a good alternative. I have come to understand that there is much one can learn about a culture through its food,” said Billy (one name) of Meghalaya House.
So, for those who thought of staying away from northeastern cuisine due to spice or lack of vegetarian options or any other preconceived notion, be rest assured there is ample choice for whatever taste your buds are after.
And if you are extremely lucky, one item which you might not find on the menu but which is found all over the northeast is rice beer. Although it might taste like an odd variation of lassi or butter milk, for the more adventurous ones amongst us, it can really seal the deal.