Why you should care
This once-marginalized food is finding new fans in surprising places.
One evening in New Delhi’s neighborhood of Humayunpur, three people enter a dingy space, reminiscent of an opium den. One asks a gangster-looking man for “three kilos,” and three thick brown cakes are wrapped in paper and quietly handed over. Drugs? No. The brown cakes are actually axone (pronounced akhuni), which is fermented and smoked soybeans — and the base for several specialty Naga dishes. And this scene actually comes from the critically acclaimed film Axone, a comedy that, using food as a metaphor, near-perfectly portrays the kind of discrimination that Indians from the northeast experience in Delhi.
Northeastern cuisine can be challenging to the palate and the nose. For example, axone has a strong odor, due to its fermentation process. As a rule, most northeast Indian food is steamed and oil-free — whereas the rest of the country tends to rely heavily on spices and rich gravies — and is perked up with sides of extremely spicy pickles and chutneys. But what was once an aversion to northeastern food is now turning to culinary curiosity across the rest of India.
In recent years, dozens of restaurants and takeaway joints featuring northeastern cuisine have opened in cities like New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru.
In fact, it’s becoming downright popular. In recent years, dozens of restaurants and takeaway joints featuring northeastern cuisine have opened in cities like New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. Pop-ups hosted by home chefs have also become popular — like El’s Kitchen, which serves Naga food (think black sesame pork, smoked pork with garlic roots, or pork with zumvu (sumac) and fermented bamboo juice) at a frequent pop-up in Kolkata, and Mumbai’s The Sharing Bowl by Ammo Angom that serves up Manipuri food. Fish, fermented or fresh, is an integral part of the Manipur’s culinary traditions. For instance, eromba (mashed vegetables with fermented fish) is a household staple.
Home to India’s largest concentration of ethnic tribes, the northeastern states have historically remained cut off from the rest of India, and racism — against the people and, by default, the food — has been pronounced. But over the past few years, as the area has become more developed and governments have been promoting business and tourism, people are paying more attention to the northeast.
“The urban palate has also evolved, and there’s been a spike in interest toward regional cuisines,” says Hoihnu Hauzel, author of The Essential North-East Cookbook. Additionally, northeast Indian dishes are made with fresh, foraged and often organic ingredients. “The food is extremely healthy and flavorful (common cooking techniques are steaming, boiling, slow cooking and smoking), which have helped in the surge of popularity because of how health-conscious people have become,” Hauzel points out.
And the trend is hitting all the posh notes too — in India and beyond. In August, the Grand Market Pavilion restaurant at ITC Royal Bengal hotel in Kolkata added a selection of northeast Indian dishes to their buffet, such as kauri, a Sikkimese shell pasta in soup, and mylliem pepper chicken from Meghalaya. Last March, Michelin-star chef Atul Kocchar started serving northeast Indian dishes at his new London restaurant, Kanishka.
Gitika Saikia, a home chef who has featured cuisine from her native Assam — such as masor tenga, a tangy fish curry — in several pop-ups since 2014, started her business in response to food-based racism. “I’ve often heard people say we only eat non-vegetarian fare and anything that crawls,” she explains. Today, she also curates northeastern menus for events at high-end hotels and restaurants and runs a seasonal meal delivery service. Saikia recently introduced silkworms and red ant eggs to her pop-up menu to keep the experience as authentic and real as possible — a bold move considering the regular urban Indian is unlikely to venture beyond red meat.
Perhaps this is why, of all the cuisines, Naga food has shot to fame, because India is filled with pork lovers, Hauzel says, and Naga food is very pork driven. Smoked pork and beef-based dishes have earned non-native fans. Cooked with tender bamboo shoots and bhut jolokia (ghost chili), or simply added to dal or boiled vegetables, its rich smoky flavor tantalizes the taste buds.
So if you don’t feel like ordering in the usual Indian fare — butter chicken, tikkas and whatnot — just try northeastern Indian food in the comfort of your home. Settle in with a hot bowl of black lentil stew, slow cooked with delicious Naga smoked meat (hoksa) and garnished with ginger juliennes, sticky rice and a teensy helping of king chili or ghost chili pickle. Or follow the recipe below for thevo chu. Both are delicious options for a cold winter night.
Recipe: Thevo Chu (Pork with Bamboo Shoots)
(Courtesy Hoihnu Hauzel’s The Essential North-East Cookbook)
- 2 lbs pork, cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 cup tender bamboo shoots, washed and chopped
- 1 tsp ginger paste
- 1 tsp garlic paste
- 1 tsp red chili powder
- 1½ tsp salt
Place pork in a pan with no water or oil and cook over low heat for five minutes, stirring continuously. As the meat starts to release water, add the bamboo shoots, cover and cook for an hour over minimum heat. Sprinkle in additional water if the meat is drying out.
Add remaining ingredients to the pan, raise heat to high and cook for 10 minutes, stirring constantly.
Serve hot with steamed rice.