Niyati Rao is the chef and co-owner of Mumbai’s celebrated ingredient-focused Ekaa restaurant. In this enthuGuide, she pulls up her notes from her trip to Nagaland to show us what to eat, and which ingredients to buy in the northeastern state. Also, until we buy our tickets, she points us to Naga flavours that are now part of Ekaa’s menu.
On her food research trip to Nagaland earlier this year, chef Niyati visited local markets in several villages across the state, and ate traditional meals at many homes, with her friend and guide, chef Salangyanger Jamir. Her Exploration of Nagaland took shape as a pop-up at Ekaa Mumbai, in June.
In this enthuGuide, Niyati tells us about the connection she shares with Naga people and their food, the ingredients and flavours that inspired her collab with Chef Salang. Most importantly, she speaks not about the tourist attractions of the state, but about its communities.
Through our extended interview with Niyati, one phrase showed up on repeat, “Jo khana wahan par hain, you are not going to get an opportunity to eat it anywhere.” She says that her eating experience in Nagaland has irrevocably changed the way she and her team perceive food; it has made them humbler.
In this guide, we will find out about an incredibly rare ingredient that can only be foraged. We’ll learn how patiently and diligently Naga people smoke their meats. We’ll touch upon the importance of micro-regional cuisines, and the sense of community that Niyati now finds essential to food eating.
Niyati says that eating at local homes and homestays helped her gain a better understanding of Naga cuisine. Naga food is not only limited to pork, bamboo shoots, and wheat, as is popularly believed. Its flavours and context go much further than this limited view of the cuisine.
From the Naga Ambrosian Fiesta in Dimpaur (a family restaurant she recommends) to eating homemade food made by Aunty Tapeno in a local homestay – here is a solid list by Niyati for enthucutlet.
Perilla seed curry
In many parts of India, poppy seeds (khus khus) are used to thicken curries. Naga cuisine follows water-based cooking. Here, they don’t add any oil or fat to the curry to bring flavour, but instead rely on the fat in the meat to enhance curries and stews. Niyati tells us about a desi duck curry prepared with perilla seeds. Perilla leaves are widely used across Asia, the seeds not so much. In Naga cuisine, they are a staple. Sometimes the seeds are roasted and churned into a paste to be used in various meat and vegetable curries to add a wonderful nutty and toasty flavour. Sometimes the seeds are used to make sweets and chutneys.
Pork intestines and pork ribs
Dried and deep-fried pork intestines are a must, says Niyati. They are rolled and coated in chilli powder, and then to add an extra smidge of flavour, a little bit of bamboo water is added to the intestine curry. Try Naga Ambrosian Fiesta in Dimapur for a good range of pork dishes.
When Naga people prepare yam, they include enough herbs and botanicals in the curry to make it into a rich mix of greens – some peppery, some minty, and so forth. Naga cuisine is low on masala but high on flavour. Their focus is on the ingredient, and bringing out its flavours without any spicing. Niyati was mighty impressed by this approach.
Akhuni, or fermented soya beans, is a popular and common Naga dish. But what most people outside the state are unaware of is that akhuni differs from tribe to tribe – in taste, smell, and technique. Mokochung district’s tribe makes a very mild and pleasant type of akhuni that can be eaten by first-timers, whereas the Angamis make an akhuni that’s almost like blue cheese and gets to your head really soon. Akhuni is used very liberally in the Naga cuisine and is adapted to every tribe’s palate.
Nagaland’s simple pork curry has won Niyati over. For her, the state’s pork meat is the best in the country. German pigs, Pune’s pork… none of these match up to the quality of Naga pork. Pork is a staple in Naga cuisine, so they really care about what they feed their pigs. This care shows up in the flavour of the pork; it is exceptionally clean. Naga’s smoked and dried pork meat is deeply special. Niyati believes that no other state has come close to making such excellent pork in the country.
Naga houses – even the smallest ones – have large chimneys with a suspended grill for smoking meat. It’s a painstaking process that requires immense patience – smoked meat can take up to a year before it’s ready. This is not meat that can be found or bought in Naga markets. The locals share this meat only with the people they love and trust. The preparation of this meat is intense and sacred to the Nagas.
During the pop-up, chef Salang made a simple pork curry for Chef Niyati and team Ekaa with meat that had been first smoked, then hung and aged for over a year.
Naga Bowl Bakery
Early on in Niyati’s career, she had a roommate from Nagaland. This friend now runs the gorgeous French- and Naga-inspired Naga Bowl Bakery in Dimapur. The bakery is dedicated to using Naga ingredients in all their food. From cinnamon knots to brioche Suisse, all of their desserts and pastries focus on bringing out the flavours of Nagaland. A customer favourite is the black sticky rice bundt cake.
No itinerary to Nagaland is complete without visits to the state’s local markets. The ones in Khonoma (a heritage village), Kinama, Dimapur, and Kohima are Niyati’s favourites. These are places to taste one’s way through and understand the food and culture of Naga tribes. Niyati wanted to incorporate Naga ingredients into Ekaa’s menu, so she spent plenty of time getting to know them.
Rice and Fermented Bamboo
To Niyati, Naga’s varieties of rice were the dealbreaker for her menu. She bought and carried kilos of Naga sticky rice to incorporate it into Ekaa’s manu: “It changes everything, and is worth every bit of effort.” She also recommends fermented bamboo, for the massive dose of flavour it brings to both meat and vegetable curries. In a very hearty but very umami vegetable stew, “the fermented bamboo does this magic”, she says.
Mortar and pestle
Niyati is captivated by traditional kitchen implements. Naga people make a lot of chutneys, so the local pestles and mortars are specifically designed for them. Of course, she had to carry one back with her. Shaped like a lotus, the Naga mortar has a stem onto which a bowl is suspended. A thin metal rod serves as the pestle. The stem serves to grip the mortar firmly and hold it in place while it’s being used.
Naga Mountain Pepper
Naga mountain pepper cannot be grown. It can only be foraged in the wild. This unique ingredient is only intermittently available, and rarely found even in Naga markets. Visitors have to know someone local in the know to get their hands on it.
Fermented mustard leaf paper
This intensely flavoured condiment is stuffed into small bamboo pieces, and sold as such. Traditionally made fermented mustard leaf paste is an extremely precious and expensive ingredient because of the process it involves. Even 0.001 grams of this paste added to a big bowl of chutney can bring out a very stark, rich, and intense flavour. Here is a little about the process. Say ten kilograms of mustard leaves are boiled, and then fermented. The ferment is reduced to a juice-like consistency, and the yield from this process approximates 50 grams.
Available easily, affordably, and in abundance in the local markets, fermented, dried fish is packed with flavour and considered to be healthy among locals. On her days off work, Niyati uses this fermented fish in her cauliflower and bamboo shoot salad and eats it with steaming hot rice.
Nagaland’s ingredients and food have inspired Chef Niyati in many ways since her visit and the pop-up at Ekaa. Not only does she regularly employ Naga ingredients in her own meals at home, and brings Naga flavours to Ekaa’s menu. She shares stories about the hospitality and warmth she received while she was in Nagaland. Her visit made her even more deeply appreciative of India’s micro-regional cuisines. (She also received an earful from her investors while preparing for the Exploration of Nagaland. But, along with Chef Salang and Ekaa’s team, she pushed forward, eager to bring Nagaland’s cuisine to Bombay.)
Naga pepper kombucha
KMC, Ekaa’s sibling and neighbour, has a new flavour on their craft kombucha list, infused with Nagaland’s mountain pepper.
Naga pepper oil
Ekaa’s Tasting menu series 4.0 launched in July featured Nagaland mountain pepper with a twist in one of the courses. The pepper has been distilled into an oil, and is used in different forms of cooking. They do one course every week, so keep your eyes peeled for the one with Naga ingredients.
Exploration of Nagaland
This dinner series planned with chef Salang at Ekaa was one of the most authentic renditions of Naga cuisine in Bombay. The collab was a flavour-filled mix of small bites and comforting dishes. While chef Salang led the Naga culinary experience at Ekaa, Chef Niyati took him through local expeditions for vada pavs and Malvani food.
Ekaa’s Tasting 4.0 series
Ekaa’s newly launched and generously reviewed Tasting 4.0 series has been noted for how evolved it is. It is this series that uses a lot of Naga ingredients. From yam pastes and dried mustard leaves, to bamboo shoot water, and akhuni, Nagaland ingredients have now become a part of Ekaa’s core dishes.
- If you can, find a guide who is a part of the community, or of the local tribe. Without one, a visitor is likely to miss out on a bunch of experiences, especially considering the language barrier.
- Mail or courier the stash of ingredients you gather from Nagaland. Stock up well!
- Don’t spend more than two days in Dimapur. You must go to Kohima – the capital city.
- Zuko Valley is a must visit. And having Zutho, the rice beer – especially if it’s homemade – is a rite of passage.