Plenty of rice, boiled vegetables and meat with very little spices added and almost no oil — it’s a wholesome fare in Nagaland. If you are adventurous, you can try the Raja Mirchi too…
My work took me to Nagaland, for which I will always be grateful. I know few people whose work takes them beyond Mumbai-Bengaluru, or, if they’re really going somewhere exciting, New York or London. But who goes to Nagaland? The moment I knew I was going there, the excitement started building up. For the obvious reason: that’s a region and culture quite beyond one’s ken. And because of the food. All I knew of it was Raja Mirchi and pork. And here was a chance to live and travel in the villages for a good 10 days and eat real, not restaurant cooking.
To be perfectly honest, I was in Dimapur for most of the time, with a few forays into nearby villages. And then in remote Benreu in Peren district, the home, the capital, of Raja Mirchi. Dimapur has few restaurants — most of them serving “rice”, meaning full Naga meals. Which I ate many of in the hostel I was staying in. A “rice” meal is eaten twice a day: at breakfast and dinner. Day breaks early, at about 4.30 a.m., and both city and village folk leave early for work after a serious breakfast of rice, stewed pork and steamed vegetables. The same for dinner, at about 6.30 p.m. At first I thought it was a bit odd to start at the crack of dawn with all this. But isn’t Indian Standard Time responsible? The sun hardly rises and sets “early”.
When I look back on the meals in Nagalim — the local word for the State — I see a simple pattern. Boiled rice and meat, usually pork “curry”. I think of a curry as gravy with a base of fried condiments and one main ingredient. This wasn’t like that at all. The meat is boiled and different flavourings like the mechinga leaf, ginger leaves and chillies added at different stages. The meat renders its fat so the stew has a deep layer of melted fat on top. If you’re lucky, the pork is redolent of bacon. In any case the chunks are fatty and tender. Mechinga leaves (the same as the tejphal of Himachal), or lai patta, depending on the season, have distinct flavours and are added towards the end. The chillies are quite mild, for colour and flavour only. The hot chillies are not added to cooking, only to accompanying chutneys. Scoville heat units are used to grade the hotness of chillies. Naga Jolokia (also Raja Mirchi, Bhoot Jolokia) has been tested at over 1,001,300! Almost twice as hot as the old champion, the Red Savina Habanero. I can eat chillies with the best of them but one bite of the Raja Mirchi and your ears ring for a week. Which explains why even locals dilute the Raja Mirchi before eating it.
Another compulsory accompaniment is boiled vegetables. The veggie could be anything — okra, squash, leaves — the only rule is that it is boiled. Boiled okra? Not really this Punjabi’s cup of tea. But the squash, a tender pear-shaped variety peeled and cut into thick wedges, is so sweet and juicy that it’s delicious. The leaves are a variety of mustard with a bit of sharpness and they’re just washed and steamed whole. Locals believe that boiled vegetables “cut” fat from the body. Entirely possible — I never saw one obese person in 10 days there. On the contrary, everyone looked fit and muscular.
No spices or oil
The cooking has no turmeric, coriander, cumin, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon. No mustard, fenugreek, nigella. Or none that I detected. And no oil. Apparently no oilseeds are grown. Sometimes chicken or fish are fried and served dry, with boiled rice and dal. The dal is just boiled, very watery, no haldi, no tempering and no spices. May be a bit of chopped tomato and green chillies thrown in during cooking. A flavour that’s a hot favourite is axone (pronounced ah-khonay), fermented soyabean. Even a tiny smidgen added to a stew goes a long way — too long for me. To my untutored palate, the smell makes it impossible to sit near, let alone eat. But it’s obviously a star attraction, because I saw restaurants advertising axone loud and clear. It’s rarely made at home, and sold readymade, in pretty banana leaf parcels.
One night friends invited me home for dinner. They were a bit worried about what I’d eat, but they needn’t have been. Dinner was delightful. Some of the menu was predictable — rice, pork stew and steamed squash. But the rest! Obviously Mrs. Jamir is a good cook, because her fried chicken was much, much better than what I’d been having. And something I’m unlikely to ever see elsewhere: whole karelas cooked in the juice of bamboo shoots! But the best was the fish. Small local fish which Mr. Jamir had caught that very afternoon from his own ponds, mildly spiced and fried crisp, but without any sign of oiliness. Sweetly they’d organised dessert for this visiting alien, but the Naga people don’t eat sweets. Tea is traditionally taken black (called “red tea”), often with sugar. But no dessert. There are plenty of bananas — even in the wild — and small, crisp apples. There used to be some sugarcane farming, but no more.
A longer stay would no doubt have shown me many more kinds of local cuisine. But this was enough to bring home the fact that the food of Nagalim is simple and wholesome. Pork defies explanation, but maybe there’s some truth in the belief that boiled vegetables are an antidote?
The author is a Delhi-based food writer. She is with the ASER Centre
6 months ago