Finding food and acquiring courtesy in Nagaland
What we must learn from the Nagas, and why their food is among India’s best (yes, even for a vegetarian)
“Can we please have lunch soon?” That was our first question to Jagdish, the taxi driver, who picked us up from Dimapur, a dusty town that serves as the air and rail gateway to Nagaland. I was anxious about food for two reasons. One, we had woken up at 3 am and taken two flights to get here. Two, I adore Naga food, and here I was, finally, in the Naga homeland. I couldn’t wait.
“Marwari khana chalega?” he asked. I choked, and it wasn’t from the dust. Marwari? Vegetarian? Here? When even the vegetarian wife said certainly not, Jagdish—an Assamese who grew up in Nagaland—looked sheepish; it was what most “Indians” preferred. Leave it to me then, he said, and set off on the climb into the once restive, now (largely) peaceful Naga Hills.
In an hour, he stopped at a bamboo shack clinging to the edge of the mountain road. This is where he ate, the OK Lotha Hotel. The menu—as is common, we learned—was limited: smoked pork, fresh pork, pork intestine, chicken and rohu fish. What was the vegetarian to do? She soon learned Naga vegetarian food is regarded as a side dish, but it is always available, light and fresh—from a mild, brown dal to lightly tossed green brinjals to pickles and chutneys (many are fish based). She complained of the whiff of fish and pork but adjusted well.
Many ingredients in Naga cuisine are fermented, a lot of the meat is smoked and—to the surprise of mainlanders—it is often fiery, as much as the fieriest Telugu food, thanks to the Naga fondness for raja mircha, the ghost chilly. It’s used by the 18 Naga tribes and in neighbouring Manipur—bright, red and fresh or dried.
That first lunch on the road to Kohima set a high standard. It was easily surpassed over the rest of our week in Nagaland. But Nagaland isn’t only about its spectacular food. The Nagas have always had a conflicted relationship with India, but they are among the politest and friendliest people (when an insurgency isn’t raging, of course) around. Although so much was different, we quickly felt at home. At one restaurant, when we expressed disappointment at the lack of Naga food, the cashier picked up her elegant bag, adjusted her knee-length boots and trotted off to get some smoked pork and vegetables from one of the many no-name “rice hotels” that dot the land. Where did you get the food, I asked, hoping to visit. “It has no name,” she smiled. “But me and my husband eat there.” The narrow roads of Kohima, which is spread across mountainous ridges, is heavy, but there is none of India’s usual chaos. Almost no one honks, there is no aggressive overtaking and vehicles line up patiently at intersections. Everyone dresses well, and most female police constables directing traffic in Kohima and others wielding automatic weapons looked like models (sorry if that sounds sexist). Childhoods in church choirs means the population sings a lot—we were privileged to hear the Nagaland chamber choir, as good if not as well known as their counterparts in Shillong.
But Nagaland’s roads are atrocious, often little more than stone and dust. Corruption in politics is on an epic scale, and little money is invested on infrastructure. Yet community spirit and power are strong, and tribal rights ensure vast stretches of pristine forests, as we discovered on a trek through the Puliebadze Wildlife Sanctuary, which tumbles down Mount Japfu, Nagaland’s second-highest peak. Old-growth forests are preserved, not by government fiat but village tradition, even if wildlife has been decimated by voracious Nagas, who learn to hunt from childhood and will eat everything from protected animals to birds migrating from Siberia or Australia and dogs; we saw very few, and they were on many menus, including one that offered “organic duck, pork and dog”. I was willing to try dog, but somehow never did. “Even the worm is not safe in Nagaland,” said Pitoka Achumi, a local guide who took us to Puliebadze.
Our path upwards through forests maintained by the village of Jotsoma was littered only with quotations from the Bible or famous people, including as Albert Einstein (”Look deeper into nature and then you will understand better”) and Gandhi (”The good man is the friend of all living things”), right up till a giant cross on the mountaintop. “Christ for all,” it said, echoing the god-fearing nature of largely Christian Nagaland, although spirits and ancestors coexist. On the mountaintop there was a stone seat, build for Pulie, a local who, as the legend goes, took up residence here after his death.
When we climbed down, the young folk of Jotsoma were busy decorating their community hall for Christmas and a fair timed to coincide with the annual Hornbill festival, which was one reason we were in Nagaland. Just outside the rest room, we stumbled on young men preparing a big pig for the feast, gutting it and carefully keeping aside the liver and intestines. That is a big pig, I said, far bigger than the little piglets of Goa. “Oh,” said a personable young woman, “It is small by our standards.” Come back tomorrow, she said, and eat it.
I have eaten Naga food before and I love the pork—fermented, smoked or barbecued--but the revelation was the variety of fish, some local but a lot imported from the plains, from Assam to, yes, Andhra. The feasting continued at the Hornbill festival, where we enjoyed the hospitality of 18 tribes, their dances, craft and other culture. When we arrived, entry to the venue was barred because arrangements were being made for the President’s arrival, so we snuck in to a little roadside shack that precariously rested on a few poles planted into the mountainside. Inside, we found elements of the Nagaland armed police—men and women—having a quick zutho, or rice beer (Nagaland is otherwise a dry state), in bamboo mugs. They smiled warmly and made place for us and two small-time businessmen struck up a conversation, waxing eloquent about Naga eating habits before inviting us to make a trip to their villages, some mountains away.
When the festival began, we were confused for choice. Each tribe has its own makeshift shack. Pork was being smoked, fish was being gutted and vegetables were being chopped. By now the wife was an expert at teasing out the vegetarian bits from Naga meals, so she was happy with her local red—pink, actuall—rice, salad, yam gravy, a spinach of some kind and berry chutney. I, again, got a fiery fish curry.
The piscine theme stayed with me as I rode a motorcycle down from Kohima to Imphal, a journey of 110 km that stretched into six hours because of the treacherous roads. In Imphal and at Loktak lake—where people live on islands of floating vegetation that they actually grow—I ate only fish, marvelling in the diversity of its preparation. Manipur’s food is as varied as its ethnic composition, and while that is another column altogether, I was struck by the widespread use of chives, which is regarded as a foreign herb in India. I garnered today’s recipe from the chef at the resort of Sendra on the banks of the Loktak, but the best meal came at Luxmi Kitchen in the heart of Imphal. After an enthralling morning with the strong, elegant women at the Ima, or mother’s, market, we settled in for a traditional Manipuri thali, cooked on coal fires by three women we met later. Fish was the only meat, and we counted at least 12 katoris of unknown vegetables and relishes with each thali. Despite the preponderance of veggies, the comments by mainlanders on TripAdvisor for Luxmi warn vegetarians to stay away. For most Indians, the food of their country’s eastern extremities will forever remain foreign. As for us, we going back in the summer—on an empty stomach.
Manipuri fish with chives
1/2 kg rohu or Indian salmon (rawas)
2 medium tomatoes, julienned
2 tsp ginger-garlic paste
2 tbsp fresh chives
1-2 tsp Kashmiri mirch powder
1/2 tsp cumin powder
2 tsp coriander powder
1 tbsp besan (gram flour)
3 tsp mustard oil
2 cups water
salt to taste
In a non-stick wok, heat 2 tsp mustard oil and fry fish until half done. Remove and keep aside. Add another tsp of oil and heat. Add chives and saute for half a minute, then add ginger-garlic paste and continue for two minutes. Add the tomatoes and saute well for 2-3 minutes. Add the powdered spices and saute for 2 minutes, adding some water if needed. Add two cups of water and bring to a boil. Add besan, salt and thicken. Add the half-fried fish and cook until done. Serve with rice.
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