Serving now: planet on a platter with home style Naga thali

Fermented, foraged, and freakishly healthy – a tad bit exaggerated but almost accurate adjectives to describe a home-style meal from the Northeastern state of Nagaland. The elusive Naga cuisine is a fine example of experiencing gastronomic thrill with simple, locally-sourced ingredients on a common platter, which when combined in the right proportions initiate complex flavours with a well-balanced nutritional bonus. If you ever get to savour a homemade traditional Naga meal, be prepared for a sensory delight with unconventional, aromatic dishes that will blow your mind.

Local love:

A popular ingredient in Naga cuisine is the bamboo shoot, which is used in a variety of dishes such as stews, curries, and pickles. The juicy pork curry cooked with bamboo shoots is a famous delicacy here, and it’s paired with a simple dish called Galho (a hearty combination of rice and vegetables or meat). Whereas, the fermented soybean paste Axone is a local delicacy known for its distinct strong, pungent aroma and is used extensively in pork and vegetable curries for a distinguished flavour. Anishi, a similar fermented and smoked or sun-dried patty made of colocasia leaves, is a culturally important ingredient and used for cooking dry meats and pork. Another standout ingredient from the region is the world-famous Naga chili sauce made from ‘Raja Mircha’ aka the Bhoot Jolokia or the King Ghost pepper, known for its hot-spicy flavour – a little bit of this chili is potent enough to well up your eyes in seconds.

Naga chili sauce made from ‘Raja Mircha’ aka the Bhoot Jolokia or the King Ghost pepper, known for its hot-spicy flavour

Other well-known Naga dishes are boiled yam and sweet potatoes, foraged stinky beans and mushrooms, rice pancakes, lentil broths, Naga chili, and white ginger chutneys with soft dumplings, fermented axone (akhuni) served with beef or pork dishes accompanied with sticky rice, red rice or boiled millets (porridge). The Nagas also love their vegetarian flavorful stews and curries made of bamboo shoots, lotus stems, colocasia, spinach, pumpkin, and gourds. Whether it’s the fiddlehead ferns cooked with perilla seeds or Bah nut salads with fresh tomatoes and a squeeze of lemon or a bowl of ripe mulberries and bayberries – every meal is accompanied by freshly-plucked fragrant herbs and tangy wild greens that are collected from the wild hills and forests. 

Natural food trail:

Famous for their exotic mountain ranges, green valleys, and ancient practices, the Naga tribes are often misunderstood for their distinctive lifestyle and food habits. While most of the warrior tribes are known to love their non-vegetarian dishes made of pork, fish, chicken, and other wild animals, a typical Naga thali is incomplete without a good mix of vegetarian dishes and fresh leafy greens. The Nagas are warm hosts and undoubtedly masters of food sustainability. From using the ancient practice of foraging fresh berries, seasonal fruits, edible leaves, and herbs to utilizing the wood fire smoke for food preservation, fermenting bamboo shoots, leaves and curing meats with natural salts and sun drying – every Naga household would has different ways to make the most of a plant or an animal for different items. The cauf fat (stomach lining) and offal meat (internal organs) of animals are also cooked with herbs and served with the main course.  

Having mastered the art of slow cooking and using simple techniques like steaming, boiling, grilling, or cooking in animal fat – everything served in a Naga thali is freshly prepared without additional spices and food enhancers. The Nagas hardly use refined oil or added sugar and dry spices in their food, which makes their indigenous cuisine healthy and super flavourful. On special occasions and festivals, the yeast-fermented rice or millets are distilled and served as homemade beer commonly known as khor or zutho – a heady local beverage and an all-time local favourite to accompany a delicious Naga meal. For teetotalers, a piping hot cuppa single-origin, hill-grown Ngarum coffee or black tea from local tea farms, are much-loved alternatives. 

Inside a Naga kitchen:

Not only do Nagas enjoy sharing their home-cooked delicacies with their community, but they also take pride in following the principles of sustainability and zero-waste practices in their kitchens. When a Naga host invites you home as a friend, they like to seat you in their kitchen where everyone cooks together and chats informally while preparing a delicious spread. Everyone eats by hand, on biodegradable plates like banana leaves, clay pots, bamboo kitchenware, and storage containers are common in every house.

Untouched by the mechanical or digital revolution, the Naga home cooks still rely on the generational knowledge that’s passed on to them by elder members of the household – the harvest songs and folklores at gatherings and festivals often covey the life values and trivia through the verbal medium. With an active lifestyle in the hills and an oil-free, sugar-free, and to an extent gluten-free diet, it’s hard to find an overweight Naga person and most of them live a long, healthy life. Overall, the Naga food philosophy is simple – without any wastage, make use of everything, and return it to nature without messing up the ecosystem.       

(The writer’s trip was courtesy Omo Cafe, to connect with her write at [email protected])