Now the name and subject of a much-talked about feature film, axone — or fermented soya bean — is cooked, eaten and loved in Nagaland, and many tribal communities in different parts of Northeast India and beyond. An introduction to the ingredient — its popularity, its distinctive smell, and its role in tribal identity and culture.
What is axone?
Axone — also spelled akhuni — is a fermented soya bean of Nagaland, known for its distinctive flavour and smell. As much an ingredient as it is a condiment, axone used to make pickles and chutneys, or curries of pork, fish, chicken, beef etc. “It imparts a lot of flavour to anything you cook — even vegetables,” said Aditya Kiran Kakati, a historian and anthropologist, who has done ethnographic research on the emergence and mainstreaming of ‘ethnic’ cuisines of Northeast India.
While it is called ‘axone’ in parts of Nagaland, fermented soya bean is cooked with, eaten and known by different names in different parts of Northeast India, including Meghalaya and Mizoram, Sikkim, Manipur as well in other South, Southeast and East Asian countries of Nepal, Bhutan, Japan, Korea, China, Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia.
“It [fermented soya bean] is the one food that connects the Eastern Himalayas,” said Dolly Kikon, Melbourne-based anthropologist, who is currently researching fermentation.
According to Kakati, it is possible to demystify axone because it is more “culturally cross-cutting” than one would expect it to be. “It belongs to the broader phenomena of fermentation necessary for food preservation in certain ecological contexts. In that way, flavours generated by axone are comparable to that of Japanese miso, which is quite mainstream in Japanese restaurants,” he said.
How popular is it in Nagaland?
Axone is prepared and eaten across Nagaland but is particularly popular among the Sumi (also Sema) tribe. “They use it in every meal,” said Aketoli Zhimomi, a chef who runs a restaurant called Ethnic Table in Dimapur.
Kikon attributed the love for axone to the larger eating habits of a community. “In a rice-based culture, condiments become very important. Usually it has to be something that excites the senses — salty, spicy, fermented,” said Kikon, “In that manner, axone becomes central to the meal.”
In the last two decades, the ingredient has travelled beyond the state. “Many students, professionals from Nagaland move to cities like Delhi and Mumbai and it is common for them to carry axone there,” said Zhimomi, “Moreover, there are now number of eateries serving ethnic Northeastern cuisine which have opened in these cities, and axone is a prominent part of the menu.”
Despite that Kikon feels the Indian palette is more curious and accepting of international cuisines like Korean and Japanese. “In Mumbai and Delhi, you will go looking for ‘natto soybeans’, but axone — essentially the same thing — is still alien to the mainstream consumer. One has to be considered adventurous to negotiate with a dish made of axone,” she said.
How is axone prepared?
There are two ways of making axone: either dry or like a paste. The preparatory steps for both are the same. “We soak it overnight, boil it in water till it becomes soft — but not too soft,” said Zhimomi. Thereafter, the water is drained and the soya beans are put in bamboo baskets lined with banana leaves. This is then kept over a fireplace in the kitchen for the process of fermentation to start. While all households in the village would have a fireplace in the kitchen, in cities, fermentation can be done by keeping it in direct sunlight on a terrace. “But the results are not the same,” said Zhimomi, “For example, in a traditional fireplace, even the wood we use lends flavour to the axone. When we were young, we were not allowed to even burn a piece of paper in that fire lest it interfered with the flavour of the axone,” she said.
After it is fermented, the beans are mashed, made into cakes and wrapped in banana leaves and kept near the fireplace to ferment further. This paste-like form of axone is used to make curries and stews of fish, pork, chicken etc. The drier form of axone, on the other hand, is not mashed, but further dried in the sun till it becomes dehydrated. “You can then fry it with ginger, garlic and chilli powder, make powdered chutney or pickles,” she said.
What lends axone its characteristic smell and taste?
Axone is made by fermenting soya beans. “Fermentation is what lends it its distinct smell and taste,” said Kakati, “It has the fifth element of our basic taste senses, and invokes the elusive umami flavour profile which is difficult to define and yet elevates any dish.” In fact, it is this smell which gives it its name. “In Sumi dialect ‘axo’ means smell, and ‘ne’ means strong,” said Zhimomi, “For us Nagas, this fragrance makes us feel hungry, while for others, it might be unbearable.”
Does the ingredient play a role in tribal identity and culture?
Tribal folklore has references to the ingredient. For example, as per a Sumi folktale, axone was an “accidental discovery.” “Legend says that a young girl, who worked as a domestic help, would be sent to the fields to work only with boiled soya bean and rice to eat,” said Zhimomi, “It was inedible, so the girl kept the soya bean aside, wrapped in a banana leaf. A few days later, she found the soya had fermented, with a unique smell. She decided to use it in a dish and that is how axone was discovered.”
Scholars feel that despite the increasing visibility of the ingredient on restaurant menus etc, a racial politics of sorts has emerged around axone. “Or even bamboo shoots, for that matter,” said Kakati, adding that discrimination on the basis of smell of such fermented food could often “lead to experiences of exclusion”. Anecdotal accounts from members of the Northeastern community living in big metros often allude to that.
Kikon, in her 2015 paper ‘Fermenting Modernity: Putting Akhuni on the Nation’s Table in India’, writes about the smell: “Some become lifelong connoisseurs, while others detest it and develop a long-lasting repulsion to it.” This often creates an avenue for conflict between those cooking and eating it and those unfamiliar to it — also the crux of the film Axone (2019) by Nicholas Kharkongor, where a group of Northeasterners have a run-in with their landlord in a locality in Delhi while cooking axone.
In fact, Kikon refers to how in 2007, due to increasing “akhuni conflict in New Delhi”, the Delhi Police produced a handbook that “cautioned students and workers from Northeast India that they should refrain from cooking axone and other fermented foods”. Such directives have often led to relegating the food of particular social groups to a remote, primitive position, she said.
Kikon argues that the process of making and eating fermented food is much more than a “simple matter of eating and taste”. “Instead, they are connected to a larger politics of articulating assertion and dignity,” she said.
Kakati agreed and said that directives such as the one by Delhi Police or other instances of profiling by landlords may contribute to the otherisation of the community — but conversely, may sometimes lead to strengthening of internal community sentiments too. “The feeling of being ‘different’ may strengthen sentiments towards one’s own community. In that, axone becomes a means to express your own sense of identity, comfort and familiarity — especially when you are away from home,” he said.