Updated: March 6, 2021 11:34:34 am
He calls it the Frankenstein sauce — a fiery red chutney that “packs a goddamn wallop”, with a touch of Korean Gochujang and an abundance of fermented Naga chillies.
When last December, chef Gautam Krishnankutty, introduced his experimental new sauce on Instagram, the entire batch — 25 bottles — sold out in one hour. Earlier his very unorthodox Chinese Doubanjiang paste, with an unusual dollop of axone, or fermented soybean from Nagaland, was “gone in three hours,” he says.
A few years ago, it would have been hard for the Bengaluru-based chef to even imagine making — let alone, selling — these unusual dishes, contingent on ingredients sourced all the way from Northeast India. “But now the ingredients are just a phone call away,” he says.
Or, if one were to brave the Bengaluru traffic, a drive.
In the heart of the city, in a locality called Ejipura, is the ‘7 Sisters Northeast Shop’, Krishnankutty’s go-to place for “anything Northeast.”
In the tightly-packed space, adjacent to a butcher, bunches of yangchok/petai ‘stinky’ beans lie alongside recycled plastic rum bottles filled with fermented bamboo shoot. Churbi cheese cubes from Kalimpong jostle for space with packets of Sirarakhong chilli powder from Manipur. Korean instant noodles hang with an array of beauty products, and behind the counter lined with packets of smoked-pork is the smiling face of Chinaoshim Hongvah, the 31-year-old owner of the shop, also from Manipur.
On a Friday afternoon, Hongvah and his cousin are busy parcelling a package of smoked meat, meant to be shipped to Goa. “Ever since I got on to Instagram, it’s become terribly busy,” he says, his two-year-old toddler strapped to his back.
So busy that in the next few weeks another cousin from Manipur will join him to help around the shop. Or possibly, in the future, open his own.
Across Ejipura — a neighbourhood that is home to several youngsters from the Northeast — is a proliferation of what is described simply as a “Northeast shop”, selling produce from the region, including fresh vegetables, fish, and dry ingredients, sourced from the seven sisters states and beyond — Myanmar, Korea, Bangladesh and Nepal.
“I am so far away in a city that feels nothing like home,” says Hongvah, when he finally catches a break, “But the minute I step into my shop, I get reminded of home.”
Home and Away
“If you had visited before the lockdown, you would see a Northeasterner in every corner you turn,” says Nagaland’s Nitu Viluo, who has lived in Ejipura for five years now. “But many of our friends have gone back since — nearly 80 per cent. But at one point, I could wake up every morning, and make my way down the street, talking only in Nagamese.”
Yet tucked away in corners, sandwiched between stationery and software shops in the form of small quaint spaces, much like Hongvah’s, the Northeastern presence remains.
Take for example, Northeast Food Court, owned by Thangjam Jiwan Singh, born and raised in Bengaluru, but originally from Manipur. In 2015, when Jiwan first set up the shop in a bid to “cater to his brothers and sisters who were far away from home”, there were none like it in Ejipura. “Now there is one in every corner,” he says, “That makes me so proud.”
While conflict in the Northeast has wound down considerably over the last decade, employment opportunities in hotels, malls, call centres still lure thousands of migrants from the region to the big Indian metros like Delhi, Bengaluru, Hyderabad every year. These young boys and girls often end up staying in the same area — whether it is Humayunpur in Delhi, or Ejipura in Bengaluru, carving out their own space in neighbourhoods that are geographically, culturally, and socially different from the ones back home.
“These cities are open to their labour, but closed to their social habitat,” says Professor Duncan McDuie-Ra, who has extensively researched Northeast migrants in metros. This often leads to othering, and friction. “But it also leads to solidarity among different Northeastern communities, which they necessarily did not have back home. So they end up creating their own sense of place, identity, and hang on to as much as they can from home — be it familiar faces, or food.”
The northeastern food shops are essentially a manifestation of this. Sonia, Jiwan’s wife, remembers how sometimes, courtesy the lack of courier services, they had to wait for what felt like a year to get a parcel of food from home. “There weren’t as many flights then. So if anybody from the neighbourhood was going home, that person had to bring parcels of food for everyone,” she says.
The shop was Jiwan’s remedy to the problem. “I would see so many young graduates, who once they started working here, would miss their local vegetables, food,” he says. Initially, he would only sell through WhatsApp – but in 2015, when he realised the demand was high, he opened a brick and mortar store.
This demand was not lost on Hongvah either, who recalls the first day he opened his shop. “It was a hot April day and a blunder on my part was not realising that. As a result, the vegetables got all soggy,” he says, “So, I was sure it would go to waste.”
Yet, to his amazement, no one cared. “Everyone poured in and everything was packed away in a matter of minutes,” he says.
About ten years back, Hongvah, a Tangkhul Naga from Manipur’s Ukhrul district, made his way to Bengaluru, looking for a job. “Back home, there are two options — you either get involved in agriculture, or land a government job.” Instead, Hongvah became a makeup artist at MAC, a job he says “did not really fulfil him.”
Like the others, his motivation for opening the shop, too, stemmed from wanting to “eat his own food.” Starting 7 Sisters was a gamble that paid off. “When I was at MAC, I worked hard, but I couldn’t see my hard work paying off. But now, it is different, with the shop, I can call myself an entrepreneur,” says Hongvah, whose wife runs a beauty parlour in the locality.
Professor Bengt G Karlsson, a professor of Anthropology at Stockholm University, who has also worked on the northeastern migrant community, says that many of the northeastern migrants are highly entrepreneurial and the rise of their own small businesses —whether beauty parlours or food shops or restaurants— is a crucial, recent development in the migrant journey.
Take, for instance, Viluo, an Angami Naga, who got a job in Bengaluru as a computer engineer but recently gave it up to start making pickles, ingredients for which he often sources from his favourite local shops in Ejipura. His Instagram handle, The Rumbling Spoons, has more than 12,000 followers and a reach that gets him orders from across the country, sometimes even the Northeast.
But for him, it’s more than just a money-making business. “There are many people who are not aware about Manipur, Nagaland and the other states. Do you eat dogs, they often ask me. Making pickles, opening these shops – it’s just our way of educating the rest of India, that this is our culture, this is what we eat – and maybe, you can try it out too,” he says.
Sambar Vs Axone
Across Eijipura, the owners of the shop have similar stories of how locals react. “What is this? How do you make it? Where is this from? Where is Manipur? Is this from China?” — an avalanche of questions greets them on a daily basis.
Ngathingcam Apam, who owns the Tangkhul Dukaan, says he answers them all patiently. “Sometimes, they are rude, but overall, it is encouraging to see that while our primary customers are from the Northeast, there are other communities who come to buy our food too.”
For example, many Malayalis buy pork and dry fish from them, Coorgis buy bambooshoot, or there are adventurous chefs like Krishnankutty, eager to try out practically any new flavour. “Then, of course, there are also many northeasterners, who bring their local friends over,” Apam says.
Professor McDuie-Ra, who teaches Urban Sociology at the University of Newcastle, says that northeastern food, especially Naga food, has emerged as a popular ethnic cuisine among middle-class Indians.
Yet, that racism is a part and parcel of life for these migrants is an open secret. In 2012, when bloody ethnic riots broke out in Assam, ripple effects were felt in Bengaluru, and rumours resulted in an exodus of migrants from the city. More recently, when the pandemic struck, racism reared its ugly head again, with many northeasterners not being allowed into shops, or being jeered at by locals.
But, insist Viluo and Hongvah, there is a gradual acceptance. “For example, inside Ejipura, where there are so many of us, we feel safe, there is no problem,” says Viluo.
Opening up of ethnic restaurants have certainly helped this process. “People were less accepting of our flavours then,” says Rahavei Abel, who owns a restaurant, “Maven Kitchen — A Bite Closer To Home”, in Eijipura, “I first used to make only Chinese food, but now I have branched out to Manipuri and Naga too,” he says.
When on some days, the neighbours enquire about the distinctive smell of cooking axone, Abel just shows it to them and explains what it is. “Often, they understand – because that’s the relationship I have established with them over the years,” he says, adding with a laugh, “And now, if they have to complain about our food, I can very well tell them that I don’t like the smell of sambar either.”
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