Humble heroes of the North-East – brunch feature


In the North-East of our country, simple, local ingredients that are healthy and nutrition-rich are often fermented to last longer. Sure, that means they may acquire a strong smell, but that also means a bigger explosion of flavours – just like the blue cheese you spend a bomb on when you feel the need for something fancy, but fresher and much healthier.

Till very recently, most of the fermented foods of the North-East have been ignored by the rest of India. The smell is too strong; we saw in the film Axone recently.

“People have an aversion to certain food as their taste buds developed basis what they grew up eating” -Binita Chamling, Nimtho

“People have an aversion to certain food items, which isn’t their fault because their taste buds develop according to what they grew up eating,” says Binita Chamling, who owns Nimtho, a North-Eastern restaurant in Delhi. “But the fact that North-Eastern restaurants in cities are going mainstream is a sign that this perception is changing quickly.”

Meet six star ingredients of our North-East and learn to use them.

Raja mircha 

The hottest chilli in the world

Dried and smoked raja mircha is used in gravies

Dried and smoked raja mircha is used in gravies

The one ingredient that’s quintessential across the Seven Sisters is the chilli, whether in a curry or as a chutney. And in most of the Seven States, that chilli is the bhut jolokia or raja mircha – the king of sneakiness. The sharpness doesn’t hit you till about the 15th second, and by the 20th, your tongue is on fire!

Spicy staple

“Unless it’s boiled veggies, every dish has to have some heat,” says Josie Renthlei, a stylist and home chef from Nagaland who now operates from Madh Island in Mumbai. “Back home in Nagaland, we pound fresh raja mircha (chillies) with garlic, onion and a slice of raw cauliflower, to make a coarse chutney.”

Raja mircha is grown like any other vegetable in Nagaland. One batch of these chillies is preserved for the off-season, which is how the dried and smoked version was born. Its earthy flavour makes it ideal for gravies. Don’t wash them though, or they lose the smoky touch.

Smoked pork with raja mircha is a common preparation across the North-East

Smoked pork with raja mircha is a common preparation across the North-East

Basic base

“Many people in India believe that people from the North-East eat “weird things” like pig leg and fish stomach. But our food is just different. It uses ingredients like tej patta, garlic, ginger and herbs, which give delicate flavours instead of garam masala,” Josie adds. And hence, the not-subtle-at-all raja mircha shines through. 


Age-old cheese from the Himalayas

Used popularly in ema datshi, churpi (in the bowl) is India’s version of ripe cheese borrowed from Bhutan

Used popularly in ema datshi, churpi (in the bowl) is India’s version of ripe cheese borrowed from Bhutan

I was 10 when I walked into the bi-weekly vegetable haat in Kalimpong and was soon staring at three piles of white churpi or cheese on leaves – each smellier than the batch next to it. For the first few years, whenever my mother prepared this at home, my father and I would go on hour-long walks to avoid the stench when it was being cooked.

But back in the 1960s and ’70s, Kusuma Juneja of the cloud kitchen called Mood, would get her sister to get churpi for her from Thimpu. The ema datshi (cheese and chilli) and chutney are the most common preparations of this native Bhutanese delicacy.

Desi blue cheese

“Ema datshi with ripe cheese won’t work in most of India as it’s an acquired taste,” says Kusuma, whose nephews in Canada use blue cheese to make the dish. “There’s anyway only a niche group of people in India who eat cheese,” points out Nicole, Kusuma’s daughter and the other half of Mood. It’s an easy ingredient to work with though and Kusuma makes it from scratch at her Vasant Vihar residence.

“Unless it’s boiled veggies, every dish has to have some heat” -Josie Renthlei, home chef 

What about onions

Also, when you cook fresh churpi, it doesn’t reek. “Back in the day at home, the kitchen was a separate unit, so it didn’t matter what you were cooking. That’s another reason I don’t cook that version here,” explains Kusuma. “But there are many Indian food items that smell – I didn’t know eating raw onions was a thing till I smelt it in a movie hall,” laughs Kusuma, as Nicole is quick to add, “Every cuisine has its own smells and taste. But today’s generation is finally owning where they come from and putting their voice out there.”


Fermented soybean paste

Small batches of akhuni are wrapped in banana leaves and smoked

Small batches of akhuni are wrapped in banana leaves and smoked

This is fermented soybean paste that adds a dollop of umami flavour. The two most distinct preparations are those from Nagaland (akhuni) and Meghalaya (tungrumbai), while Darjeeling also has a version called kinema.

The whole soya beans are not just fermented but also smoked. “Small batches are wrapped in banana leaves and smoked, making it a drier and chewy version, apt for gravies,” says Tanisha Phanbuh, Delhi-based chef from Shillong and also the director at Together at 12TH.

“When Akhuni is over-fermented or undercooked, it can cause food poisoning” -Tanisha Phanbuh, Chef

Khasi version & More

The Khasi preparation is not smoked and the beans are mashed. “We re-cook it, usually with ginger, pork lard pieces and black sesame. When it’s over-fermented or undercooked, it can cause food poisoning,” cautions Tanisha. Also, it acquires a strong lingering smell while it’s cooked, so good ventilation is crucial. Today, chefs around the world are experimenting with fermented soybean in the form of miso and the Japanese also have a milder version, nato.


Fermented yam leaves

It’s essential to slow-cook anishi, that lends an earthy, smoky flavour to the dish of smoked pork

It’s essential to slow-cook anishi, that lends an earthy, smoky flavour to the dish of smoked pork

The Ao tribe of Nagaland’s Mokokchung district are the earliest known consumers of anishi, or more literally, nuoshi – ‘nuo’ means a particular variant of yam leaves and ‘shi’ means fermented.

But the reason this is more popular than other ingredients is because it’s much milder than the akhuni. It’s not tangy, but adds an intriguing slightly sour-smoky punch to the dish.

Smoky treat

ChubaManen Longkumer, MD of Delhi’s Nagaland’s Kitchen, remembers the lingering taste from when he first tried the dish at the age of six: a slow-cooked smoked pork with anishi, a method of cooking that enhances the smokiness of the vegetarian paste. It is usually eaten with rice, chutney and seasonal steamed vegetables. 

Today, he sources his stash from back home in Nagaland, and warns that though the recipe is simple, it’s crucial to cook it for hours. Any shortcut? Use it in a chutney, but that gets tricky, warns ChubaManen.

Focus on health

Anishi is odourless and flavourful. Only some ingredients get stronger in flavour when they are fermented. You need to acquire a taste for it to know how flavourful it can be,” ChubaManen says. The ingredients are organic herbs, Naga ginger, king chilli, spring onion, pepper and pepper leaves, basil, chives, tomatoes, yam and its leaves, and kidney beans – all are healthier versions than the refined products, he says.

Bamboo shoot

Preserved shoots of bamboo

Bamboo shoot cooked with steamed fish

Bamboo shoot cooked with steamed fish

A delicacy, bamboo shoot is preserved and eaten round the year in Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland. Cut and fermented, it still tastes relatively fresh, though it has a sour flavour. The dried version is shredded and put in curries.

In Sikkim, it’s eaten as a vegetable during summer. “We eat it with cheese and as a veggie. Then there’s the aloo and bamboo shoot soup too,” says Binita Chamling.

No smell here

“The shoot needs to be harvested at the right time. It’s chewy if it’s too ripe,” Binita warns. During lockdown, she bought tinned bamboo shoots from Thailand, which can be used as a substitute.

“Ten years ago, people didn’t know about bamboo shoot too. But it’s going down better than other ingredients now, because it doesn’t have a smell unless it’s fermented,” she adds.  


Fermented whole radish

The gundruk is packed with superfoods. Here it’s a chutney

The gundruk is packed with superfoods. Here it’s a chutney

Gundruk, a fermented preparation of radish and its leaves, is a highly nutritional ingredient that came into being when people from Sikkim and Darjeeling (it has travelled from Nepal) wanted something that would help them get all the minerals their bodies required during harsh winters.

But it’s more like a desi version of kimchi, Binita tells us. It’s dried, pounded and kept in water in a warm place for four or five days.

“You can smell it when it’s done. My grandmother would dig a hole in the ground and leave the gundruk in that to ferment,” Binita adds. It’s then dried and added to soups, salads and chutney.

“Kimchi is a superfood due to its fermentation. The same applies to gundruk. Also, fermented food has an umami touch to it,” says Binita.

Follow @KKuenzang on Twitter

From HT Brunch, August 16, 2020

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