North-East by North-East
A clutch of new restaurants in the North-East are proudly showcasing local cooking traditions and produce in innovative ways
The menu at Umami, the pan-Asian eatery at Vivanta, Guwahati, is a fine example of the “glocal” movement taking place across the country. Manipuri black rice spotlights the Thai-style Cha Khao fried rice, while the Naga pork sausage, together with a star anise sauce, adds a robust flavour to the Chinese clay pot rice. Their Peking duck, apart from its usual accompaniments, is served with pitha guri pancakes made with local rice flour.
Nearly 100km away in Shillong, you can opt for a unique Khasi experience at You & I Arts Café, with each table featuring dreamcatchers, handmade puzzles and indigenous games such as Khalai Kuti, and Maw Kynting. You can try your hand at each of these, while sipping on a special Jajew tea, made with rosella (a hibiscus-like plant, whose flowers and sour leaves are used in cooking), and savouring the Phan Saw platter containing boiled local red potato smattered with herbs, a fermented fish chutney, and smoked pork.
Today, fun dining experiences such as these—ranging from quaint cafés, stand-alone eateries and fine-dining restaurants at five-star hotels—are mushrooming across some of the major cities in the North-East. Ashwani Anand, general manager, Vivanta, Guwahati, believes that the potential of the food-and-beverage segment in the region, particularly in the city, is tremendous. Anand says the hotel, which started two and a half years ago, has got an amazing response to its locally inspired banquets and to both Umami and Seven, its multi-cuisine eatery. Samir Kuckreja, founder and CEO, Tasanaya Hospitality and trustee, National Restaurant Association of India feels that the trend in the urban areas of the region mirrors those seen across tier-II cities such as Chandigarh, Indore and Bhubaneswar.
The rise of local and indigenous flavours in the fine-dining space is one of the most interesting trends in the region. For instance, nearly five years ago, apart from Paradise in Guwahati, there was limited choice for local cuisines. Today, the city boasts of restaurants like Mising Kitchen, a casual dining space focused on the cuisine of this hill tribe, which abounds in edible roots, bamboo shoots, dried ground fish, bora rice and tora leaves. Michinga Ethnic Kitchen, in Uzan Bazaar, is named after the dry zanthoxylum, or michinga, seeds used in Assamese and Naga cooking. Within its warm wooden interiors, you can find dishes such as the Doh Neiiong or til pork, fish garnished with michinga leaves and pork with yam stem. Then there is the Singpho, which showcases dishes from the kitchens of the Singpho community of upper Assam, near the Myanmar border. “The cuisine is extremely fragrant, with a lot of herbs being used. One must try the tupula bhaat, or Myatong rice steamed in kou leaves, and the pork/fish/chicken marinated in local herbs and roasted in a bamboo hollow. The dishes are broth-like, with an Asian look and feel to them,” says Kashmiri Barkakati Nath, a chef and consultant based in Guwahati.
Shillong too boasts of locally inspired eateries such as Naga Mandarin. Then, there is Nimtho in Gangtok, run by biotechnologist-turned-entrepreneur Binita Chamling. With a branch in Delhi, the eatery serves organic Sikkimese and Nepali delicacies such as the shishnu or nettle soup and churpi ko achar, a pickle made with split buttermilk cheese. On some days, you might even get the tongba, a fermented millet drink typically made by the
Meanwhile, in Dimapur, one can find Aketoli Zhimomi writing the day’s menu at The Ethnic Table on the board—there are no menu cards. Today, the special includes a unique dish of smoked fresh water fish with akhuni (fermented soy bean). Hailing from the Sumi tribe and winner of Season 1 of the live cooking competition Naga Chef in 2013, the chef and her team seek to revive indigenous recipes that are not usually found in restaurants. Zhimomi cooks only what is in season, and these could include snails, crickets, grasshoppers, black-and-yellow spiders, silkworm and waterbugs. “Nearly every tribe in Nagaland eats bugs. But the preparation for each is different,” says Zhimomi. If you are not into bugs, then try the iced tea made with local citrus fruits; platters of local red rice, greens and bitter gourd; and a dal cooked with kholar (local red bean) and mejenga (michinga) leaves.
Giving her company in Dimapur is chef Joel Basumatary’s Smokey Joe’s. After having worked at the Marriott, Regent’s Park, London and Crown Plaza, Heathrow, he returned to Dimapur in 2012, only to find no good eateries, especially those dedicated to local food. He opened Smokey Joe’s in October 2012, and began to grow local produce in the restaurant’s kitchen garden. Soon, he met the team from the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS)—which brings together partners who are interested in applications of traditional ecological knowledge—and began to work directly with producers from the villages. He began to incorporate hyper-local ingredients and flavours. At Smokey Joe’s, one can sample smoked pork with locally grown broccoli, new baby potatoes, green peas, and Naga basil; or the local aromatic black pudding made with intestines, blood, fat, meat and spices; and also a millet quenelle with rosella coulis, local wild honey and fresh cream.
Adding to the mix are interesting pop-ups like Meraki, a travelling kitchen co-founded by Pooja Pangtey and Teiskhem Lynrah to highlight India’s biodiversity and culinary traditions. In October last year, they hosted “Muse by Meraki” at The Royal Tavern in Shillong, which featured cuisine from across the world, but made with local produce. And the concept was a huge hit. “We are also involved with NESFAS, which is focusing on produce grown locally by their network of farmers, and we help innovate and create exciting new dishes, which are available to everyone and priced affordably,” says Lynrah. Some of their latest innovations include a banana flower risotto garnished with banana flower (pashor khait in Khasi) crispies and a blackcurrant custard with caramelized chestnuts and a millet wafer.
With such exciting experiments taking place, it sure is a sign that dining in the North-East has come a long way from the time when regional fare could only be found in no-frills rice houses. With its bounty of unique ingredients and cooking techniques, the region is predicted by chefs and industry analysts to be at the forefront of the slow food and dining movement in the time to come.
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