People often dismiss Assamese food as a mere variation of Bengali cuisine. And while there are numerous restaurants serving Bengali food in Mumbai, as also other regional cuisines, no one serves Assamese food."

This was a standard grumble for the Assam-born, Mumbai-based Gitika Saikia, 36. Till she decided to do something about it, and began hosting pop-up lunches and dinners at her Malad home, introducing her guests to bamboo-steamed fish and pork cooked with elephant apples, pigeon-meat curry and stir-fried silkworm cocoons. Rural and tribal Assamese cuisine is her forte, but Saikia can also rustle up eromba, a staple of the Meitei community of Manipur, and the piquant akhuni, Nagaland’s prized chutney made of fermented soybeans, with equal ease.

“There is a dearth of eateries serving cuisines from the North-East in Mumbai, but there is no dearth of people eager to sample those cuisines," agrees culinary consultant and writer Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal. So, in November, she launched a series of monthly demo-and-dine sessions at her swish APB Cook Studio in the city, with dishes from the seven North-Eastern states.

Hosted by Saikia, the day’s menu featured dishes like pasa, a herby fish soup from Arunachal Pradesh, dau jwng sobai jwng, chicken cooked with black lentils, a speciality of Assam’s Bodo community, and mosdeng serma, a Tripura-style chutney made with fermented fish, tomatoes and herbs.

“It was such a success that in April we are hosting a session exclusively dedicated to Assamese cuisine," says Ghildiyal, whose “Culinary Legacy" events focus on overlooked food traditions from around the country.

Unlike Mumbai, cities like New Delhi and Bengaluru have witnessed a proliferation of restaurants that serve food from the North-East, ranging from humble eateries serving home-style fare to more sophisticated dining destinations. For instance, Bengaluru has Zingron and The Naga Chef, both of which serve Naga cuisine, while New Delhi’s Rosang Soul Food serves dishes from all the North-Eastern states, plus Sikkim. There is also Dzükou Tribal Kitchen, Nagaland’s Kitchen and Mizo Diner, besides speciality restaurants like Gharua Exaj and Manipur Mahao Sanglen, which serve Assamese and Manipuri food, respectively.

Gitika Saikia’s lunch for Culinary Legacy, with dishes from Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura, Assam and Manipur. Photo courtesy Culinary Legacy

It’s no coincidence, of course, that the restaurants are concentrated in cities with the largest North-Eastern populations outside the region. Many of them, in fact, started out with the sole purpose of feeding those who missed the food they had grown up with in Assam or Nagaland.

Take Mary Lalboi and her husband Muan Tonxing: Back in 2003, the New Delhi-based couple began to cater to students and young professionals from the region. Growing from those humble roots, Rosang Soul Food is today the go-to place for regulars and curious newbies.

Or consider software professional Pranjal Medhi and his friends Dipankar Kalita and Jumon Bogoi. “We sorely missed the food we got in Assam," says Medhi. “We were sure there were others like us, who were working or studying in Bengaluru and craved the flavours of home." Two years on, Axomi—the first Assamese speciality restaurant outside the state—is doing brisk business with masor tenga and gahori manxo xaak xoite.

For all the uptick in awareness about the North-East, there’s no understating the fact that the region’s cuisines are far removed from the popular definition of “Indian food", not only in terms of tastes and flavours, but also cooking techniques and ingredients. “Our food depends heavily on herbs, not spices, and many of our dishes are cooked with little or no oil. Hence, people often assume it is insipid. I have had to convince many of my guests that we cook not only some of the healthiest food they can have, but also some of the most delicious," says Lalboi.

To educate people about her food and bust long-standing myths, Saikia falls back on storytelling, serving up her dishes with a side of anecdotes, legends, even popular folklore. “In fact, Gitika’s stories and anecdotes are one of the highlights of her pop-ups," says Angona Paul, who travels frequently from Pune to Mumbai to dig into Saikia’s food.

The other mainstay for both Lalboi and Saikia is authenticity. To that end, both source most of their ingredients—wild herbs, smoked meats, even certain fruits and vegetables—from the biodiversity hot spot that is the North-East. For example, Saikia has smoked pork, farm-fresh vegetables and the delicate, aromatic joha rice couriered to her from her in-laws’ farm in Assam’s Tezpur district, while Lalboi sources her ingredients from a network of suppliers across the North-East.

On the other hand, Karen Yepthomi, head chef and owner of New Delhi’s Dzükou Tribal Kitchen, a Naga speciality restaurant named after a beautiful valley, is not afraid to experiment, while remaining true to Naga flavours. Her fiery Naga Pork Burger, for instance, uses a pork patty with typically Naga herbs and chillies, sandwiched in a soft bun with the usual burger frills like shreds of lettuce. “I like to innovate and present people with a fresh take on Naga cuisine," says Yepthomi, who also hosts lunch and dinner pop-ups to promote cuisines from other states of the North-East.

While food may be their most easily acceptable idiom, these entrepreneurs also attempt to acquaint their clientele with the larger culture of the region. A few weeks ago, Yepthomi hosted an evening of music, fashion and food to celebrate the success of fashion designer Atsu Sekhose and singer Roselyn Hmar. In the past, Dzükou has had acclaimed classical pianist Nise Meruno and bands like the Tetseo Sisters perform for its guests. “These are people who, like me, want to promote the rich cultural heritage of our region and we are keen on doing so together," says Yepthomi.

Ditto with Rosang, which, says Lalboi, was conceived as a showcase for the culture, crafts and hospitality of the North-East. “The North-East has always been synonymous with insurgency, poor infrastructure, drug issues, etc. There is a whole other reality that has been ignored. I see it as my mission to uphold this reality and tell people about the beauty of the North-East and its people, something that isn’t often spoken about," says Lalboi

It is indeed high time that we talk about the North-East. And, as the old saw goes, nothing breaks ice better than food.


An event to promote indigenous culinary cultures

The international food community too is taking notice of the North-East. The second edition of Indigenous Terra Madre, organized by Slow Food International (SFI) to mesh indigenous food knowledge with current approaches, will be held in Meghalaya in November. Around 40-50 indigenous communities from around the world, and an equal number of local tribe representatives, are expected to take part in the event, hosted by the North East Slow Food & Agrobiodiversity Society (Nesfas), Shillong. Besides promoting fair food, “Nesfas has identified about 100 items for SFI’s Ark of Taste, a catalogue of endangered edible items of cultural significance to indigenous people," says Bibhudutta Sahu, project director, Nesfas.