Why this fermented soy bean paste from the North-East is a battleground for cultural and identity politics
The film Axone by Nicholas Kharkongor, which released on Netflix recently to mixed reviews, revolves around two flatmates from Manipur and Nepal, living in Delhi, who wish to surprise their third flatmate, from Arunachal Pradesh, by making her favourite dish. The first two characters, played by Lin Laishram and Sayani Gupta, spend the day trying to find a spot to cook meat with axone, a fermented soy paste from Nagaland made with either fresh or dried beans. They scurry furtively to ensure its pungent aroma doesn’t reach the neighbours and invoke their wrath.
While the film seems to have disappointed many people from across the North-East, one of the central locations in it is popular with them—Asha Stores, a one-stop shop set up in 2011 in Humayunpur, south-central Delhi, and dedicated to ingredients from the eight states of the North-East. Founded by M. Asha, a 38-year-old from Imphal, Manipur, the store is frequented by students, young professionals, staff from local restaurants and home cooks. It stocks an array of ingredients, such as local ginger, pea shoot leaves, wild orange peels, unique snow cookies, sticky rice, smoked meats and michinga, a plant-based ingredient, but the pièce de résistance is the wide variety of axone—dried, wet, semi-dry, with chilli, without it, from the Sema, Ao, Angami and other tribes.
“There are subtle differences between them all. The Sema axone is stronger. People from Nagaland come to the shop and smell and know immediately which community has made the axone," says Asha, who is currently in Imphal. The ingredient can be cooked with bamboo shoots, banana leaf or meat, or dry with ginger and chillies.
The essay, Eating Akhuni In India, from the book Farm To Fingers: The Culture And Politics Of Food In Contemporary India, edited by Kiranmayi Bhushi, says that the ingredient “literally creates a stink in the relationship between the migrant tribal population from the northeastern region and dominant social groups in New Delhi". Over the years, it has become a metaphor for the hostility and suspicion between people from the region and “the mainlanders", as they describe the other residents of Delhi. In 2007, matters came to a head when the Delhi police came out with a pamphlet asking people from the North-East to limit the use of bamboo shoots and axone to avoid a “ruckus in the neighbourhood".
Within this milieu, the urban village of Humayunpur stands out as “a de facto migrant station for northeasterners coming to the city," as Ashwaq Masoodi writes in a 2018 Mint story, “Welcome To Humayunpur, Delhi’s North-East Outpost". Landlords in this locality are more welcoming, so a sizeable community from the North-East lives there. A host of restaurants themed on Naga, Manipuri and Mizo cuisines have come up and around 20-30 shops stock the ingredients needed, with Asha’s being the most trusted one.
Asha moved to Delhi more than a decade ago and worked in hotels such as The Ashok before she started her own business. Until last year, she used to supply to Nagaland’s Kitchen in Green Park and to several restaurants in the neighbourhood, including Tibetan ones, which tapped the store for bamboo shoots. Over the past few months, however, the restrictions due to covid-19 have impacted the supply of ingredients. “I try to send the ingredients once a week, mostly on Fridays," says Asha. The store continues to remain open and is being managed by her brother.
One of her regular customers is Avibu Seyie, who has been conducting pop-ups at eateries such as Whisky Samba, Turquoise Cottage and at prominent festivals under the name A Naga Girl’s Kitchen, since 2017. Incidentally, Seyie was the food consultant on the film Axone. Besides Asha Stores, she also orders from websites run by Naga youth back home, such as Ilandlo.com.
“I recommended Asha’s store to the production team as a location for the movie, as she is a woman I admire immensely and (one who) provides employment to so many people," says Seyie.
Has the response to axone changed over the years? Yes, Seyie says, people have started taking to smoked pork and axone. The ingredients, too, are now easily available. “Back in 2007, most people from Nagaland in Delhi would order ingredients from home, which would crawl to the city via the slow postal service. Today, stores like Asha’s get fresh batches of veggies and ingredients from organic farms once a week," she adds.
Asha’s store is also frequented by Sneha Saikia, another home chef known for her pop-ups of Northeast cuisine. She uses axone from Kohima and sometimes from the store to make aoshi, a pork dish, and occasionally pairs it with chicken as well. “I also do a roasted tomato and bhut jolokia chutney to which I add a little axone. People love it and it’s only when I tell them about the presence of axone do they realize it’s there," she says. “It’s really a mindset that axone is smelly, like old socks. Give the ingredient a chance."
It’s a sentiment echoed by Tiapong, a 21-year-old student at Ambedkar University who is from Dimapur. His roommate and he love cooking pork with axone. The young YouTuber, who runs the channel The Yatra Kid, prefers the axone made by his friends from the Sumi Naga tribe for its fermentation and strong smell. If he runs out of it, he visits Asha Stores. “We are located on the top floor of a building in Lajpat Nagar, hence the smell doesn’t percolate down to the neighbours," he says. “But I don’t think anyone will have a problem with it. I am just being cautious."
Saikia is not as lucky. While her neighbours in Chittaranjan Park have finally accepted the smell of bamboo shoot, they might take a while to come around to axone. So, when she cooks with it, she makes sure the lid is firmly on the pot, and doesn’t switch on the exhaust or chimney.
Tiapong believes it’s this kind of nuance and sense of discomfort that the film has failed to capture. “I expected the movie to be about how we, people from the Northeast region, get discriminated (against) by people in the metros. But when I watched it, it was more about how we North-Easterners should fit into the culture and norms of the cities in order to be treated with respect and dignity," he says. For him, the film didn’t depict a true experience.
“For instance, I have never had landlords even speak to, or smile at, us. I don’t know what the movie is talking about," he says. In the film, the landlord’s family helps the tenants in their search for a place to cook with axone. “Or, maybe I am just unlucky. Now, when I go house hunting, I make sure to ask the landlords if they are fine with the tenants cooking fermented food."