By: Ambika Vishwanath, 14 Sep, 2018
The first time I had Naga food was at a fair in Delhi, a couple of decades ago as a teenager. My grandparents, who had been to Nagaland in the 1960s and ’70s, were excited to eat some of that cuisine after a long time, and we gorged on mildly spiced pork dishes, stewed vegetables, yellow lentils with a hint of the famed Naga chilli and smoked fish. The food was delicious; flavours I had never tasted before. It was with that lingering memory that I embarked on my journey through Nagaland with Hoshner.
Coming from a meat-eating family, I had a long list of dishes I wanted to try – most of them of the non-vegetarian variety, based on suggestions from friends and the internet. It seemed that vegetarian food was going to be hard to come by.
We arrived in Kohima our base for the first week of the month-long adventure, embarking on day trips to villages around, touring the beautiful hills and trekking up to Dzouku Valley, before moving on through the state and finally reaching the Konyak district up north.
Home to several tribes, the food in Nagaland changes subtly, each tribe claiming their own signature dish and superiority over others. We were only too happy to sample everything and offer our opinion.
Amidst all the pork with bamboo shoot, sesame-based sauces, fermented yam leaves, smoked meats and fish, I also discovered tons of vegetarian food.
I was a bit surprised to be honest, but pleasantly so. Squash is a staple in the state, along with the bamboo shoot, a vegetable I hadn’t seen since my childhood growing up in Madras. Down in Tamil Nadu, squash is made in a thick gravy with lentils and coconut, but here it is simply boiled with a local variety of ginger and a couple of fiery Naga chillies allowing the essence of the vegetable to shine through. I love simply made veggies where one can actually taste the vegetable, and most here are lightly spiced and not smothered in masala.
A standard meal, we soon realised, includes some form of meat or fish, depending on the economic levels of the household, yellow lentils, rice and at least one vegetable. While squash was common, there was also bhindi, brinjal, cabbage and cauliflower. For the first time in my life I think I ate boiled bhindi, which sounds rather unappetising I’d admit, but with the local ginger, Naga chilli, and salt, it’s actually very tasty. Most of the produce is locally grown, seasonal and organic – which, in Nagaland, is just normal, and with minimal oil and spices, the true taste and flavour of everything we ate came through.
Meals, especially lunch, are a communal affair, and it was not uncommon for villagers to take their bowls, made out of local wood, piled high with rice and meat or vegetables and sit in the common courtyard with neighbours and eat together, sharing the day’s news. Though we might have slept in one person’s house, it always felt like we were staying with the whole village.
The lingering taste from that Delhi fair all those years ago has now firmly entrenched itself in my palate, and, barring a few dishes, I am a big fan of Naga food. While I admit the strong pungent smell of bamboo shoots can get a bit difficult to get used to, many locals are happy to cook without it if you prefer. More familiar food like momos and noodles also make an appearance, especially in bigger cities and towns, but home-cooked Naga food is delicious and a culinary journey worth embarking upon.
Eat like a local in Nagaland with Ambika and Hoshner this November! Details here.